Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Difficult Homecoming

As northern Uganda’s tenuous peace continues to hold, refugees are slowly returning to their villages.
By Bill Oketch

Slowly but steadily, the 1.7 million people who became internal refugees in the course of northern Uganda’s two decades-long civil war are beginning to return to their homes, bringing grim memories of the conflict and little in the way of material possessions.



All have to begin building their lives and homes again from scratch and nearly all are dependent for food on handouts from international organisations such as the United Nations World Food Programme.



Here in Awere, the local camp for internally displaced people - IDPs - houses more than 20,000 people in appalling conditions.



Near Kitgum, on the border with southern Sudan, Awere has been at the epicentre of the conflict between the Ugandan government military, the Uganda Peoples Defence Force, UPDF, and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA. The people in the camp became accustomed to what they christened the “Machine Gun Lullaby” - the sound of fighting between the LRA and UPDF.



Several teachers and many scores of children were abducted from Awere by the LRA and forced to fight in the guerrilla army and, in the case of the children, to serve as sex slaves to rebel commanders.



Tragically, the UPDF, whose task was to protect the refugees against guerrilla raids, occasionally became their oppressors. In one particularly dramatic case, chronicled by Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, a young girl, Susan - not her real name - was seized from the camp by six UPDF soldiers and taken to the 5th Infantry Battalion’s barracks in Awere.



One of the soldiers told her she was to become his wife. "There were other young girls at the barracks whilst I was there,” Susan told MSF. “Sometimes three or four soldiers would sexually abuse a girl together. I never had that because the soldier wanted me to be his wife. He said he would shoot my mother and I dead if I didn’t agree. The soldiers beat me terribly when they caught me trying to escape. I feel very bitter about it all. He should be jailed.”



In another case reported by Human Rights Focus, a Ugandan organisation that monitors abuses in the IDP camps, two teenage sisters who had lived in Awere camp for most of their lives were assaulted and raped in front of their mother by UPDF soldiers when they left the settlement early one morning to tend a small vegetable plot they had cleared in the bush. The eldest sister, 18 at the time, subsequently tested negative for the HIV virus. But her sister tested positive. She was 13.



Taking advantage of a ceasefire that has held for some twelve months following the launch of peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government in July 2006 in Juba, the capital of nearby South Sudan, Evelyn and Jimmy Opio have begun moving out of the camp which has been their home for more than ten years.



“We shift just one household item at a time,” Evelyn told IWPR. “My husband and I are building a hut where our home used to be. We were clearing a small plot that has become overgrown with bush where we used to grow crops and vegetables. But now the floods are now holding us up.”



A state of emergency has been declared in northern Uganda by President Yoweri Museveni following the worst flooding in decades that has left thousands homeless and countless numbers dead.



The Opios’ old home amidst the ruins of Awere village is just a few kilometres walk from the camp. “We have taken a bed there because sometimes, when night falls and you are cultivating, you need a place where to sleep,” said Evelyn. “But mostly we continue to stay in the camp because we do not know whether these talks will result in [final] peace.”



After the Opios have finished building the first hut for their bed, they plan to build two more, one as a family sitting room and the other for five of their nine children. Four are married, but the other five remain in the Awere IDP camp. “It is better at the moment that they stay in the camp because there is no school or health centre in the village,” said Evelyn. “But the old school structures [in the village] are still standing. They have not been destroyed by the war, only abandoned.”



They became dilapidated and overgrown with vegetation, like schools throughout the north, requiring a massive regeneration and renewal programme. “We need saucepans, iron sheets and other building materials if we are to be able to reconstruct nicely,” said Pepsi Okello, who told IWPR that three of his children had been killed in the course of the war. “For the hut I am building in the village I have had to make a door from flattened cooking oil tins.”



Evelyn Opio said, “When the floods go away we will plant some cassava and groundnuts and we hope to return smiling in three months to harvest. Maybe then we can return to the old ways of before the war when the young women sang as they fetched firewood while their husbands went off to hunt. The village used to be so bustling and friendly, but now as we try to start all over again everybody minds their own business.



“We need peace because our children have grown up thinking life is all about violence. My children are very disturbed.”



The Opios’ village was subjected to two heavy LRA attacks, in 1989 and 2002, in which people saw their relatives being killed and children abducted. The husband of Karen Adokorach, 32, was killed in one of the attacks, and she told IWPR how at breakfast one morning recently her nine-year-old son said to her, “I went searching for my Dad. I climbed right to the top of a very tall tree, but I could not get to Heaven to get my Dad.”



Karen has already built by herself a small hut in the village, not far from that of the Opios, and also hopes to begin cultivating some crops when the floodwaters recede. She said she felt perplexed about what to tell her son as they prepare to return to a home he has never lived in. He was born in the camp and Karen’s two other children fell sick and died there.



“My child does not understand why his father died, or why he decided to go to Heaven and leave us alone,” said Karen. “I cry every time I go to the village to work on the hut because I find women who have worse problems than mine but who are working to rebuild homes.”



MSF, in a report on camp conditions in northern Uganda, said single women such as Karen and others like her are deeply burdened. “They are deliberate targets of the war, and gender-based violence is a defining characteristic of their environment,” said the organisation, which has doctors and other medical workers in most of Uganda’s IDP camps. “The lack of reproductive health services contributes to their exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.”



The report went on, “For men, confinement to camp life results in idleness and a sense of a loss of position and power within the family and society, which in turn leads to high levels of alcohol abuse. There has been an increase in suicide, an objectionable practice according to local customs.”



Amnesty International, in its 2007 annual report on Uganda, said women and girls in displaced people’s camps were at high risk of domestic violence and of sexual attacks when performing daily tasks such as collecting wood. “The police stated that at least 989 young girls had been raped in displaced people’s camps in the five northern districts between January and July 2006,” said the report.



While Karen Adokorach’s son wrestles with the mystery of his lost father, 15-year-old Simon Ojok had a different experience as a child in the Awere camp. He was abducted by the LRA and became a child soldier who clubbed people to death in the course of rebel raids.



Now living in a World Food Programme rehabilitation centre, Simon, interviewed by a WFP representative, said some 30 or more LRA rebels penetrated the Awere camp in 2002 in the middle of one night and came to the hut where he was sleeping with two cousins. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were taken away. Simon was taken to a rebel base in northern Uganda, but to this day he does not know what happened to his cousins.



“On my first day in the bush, the LRA rebels smeared shea butter on me,” said Simon. “They applied it in the form of crosses on my hands, back and other body parts. The shea butter is very powerful: it prevents you from escaping. Every time you try, you find yourself moving in circles and going nowhere. If not that, your legs simply fail to move.”



In 2004, Simon’s guerrilla unit met Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, who had crossed with his bodyguards into northern Uganda from his base, which at that time was in Sudan. “He barely spoke,” said Simon. “On one occasion Kony was enraged because an old man in Lango [a district in north central Uganda] speared an LRA fighter to death and took his gun. He said the Langi [the ethnic group in Lango] were stubborn and unsupportive of his campaign. He ordered us to go and discipline them by killing them at random with clubs. I killed about nine people on that raid.”



Simon fled with an LRA commander who suggested they surrender before they got killed by the UPDF. “At the time I was abducted, I was attending the Awere primary school. I hope to be able to return to school one day soon. I eat well here [the WFP centre] but fear that will change when I leave. We are waiting for my parents to take me home. I want to see my parents."



Joseph Kony and his top three LRA commanders have been indicted on 33 separate changes of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But the ICC has so been unable to enforce international warrants for the arrest of Kony and his men.



Simon may well be able to return to school in Awere. For the past sixteen years, Awere’s Senior Secondary School has been closed because of the war. Three international charities have been restoring the crumbling buildings, adding brand new sanitation facilities and water drawn from freshly drilled boreholes, which will also irrigate Awere’s re-emerging vegetable gardens.



As people go back gradually to the village, some 720 pupils are expected to return to a rehabilitated Awere secondary school when its new doors reopen after Christmas - if the peace continues to hold.



Bill Oketch is an IWPR journalist in Uganda.