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

IDPs Head Home

As a fragile peace returns to northern Uganda, hundreds of thousands of refugees begin the trek to their abandoned homes.
With peace in sight on the distant horizon, tens of thousands of people in war-torn northern Uganda have begun the trek from internal refugee camps towards homes that some of them left two decades ago.

Some 1.7 million people were displaced during the 21-year civil war between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, and the Ugandan armed forces.

But Roberta Russo, spokeswoman in Uganda for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, told IWPR she estimated that nearly 30 per cent of the people who had been living in camps for so-called internally displaced persons had returned to their homes since the LRA and the government signed a ceasefire in September last year.

The ceasefire came two months after peace negotiations began in Juba, the capital of autonomous South Sudan, in July 2006.

Russo said, however, that at least half of the internal refugees were still living in filthy and desolate camps that have become their sanctuaries. Their home villages had been vulnerable to raids by the LRA whose guerrilla forces abducted some 38,000 of their children to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves.

More than 400,000 people have already returned to their homes, about 370,000 are in transit while some 900,000 remain in camps, according to UNHCR estimates.

Most of those still in camps are in the Acholi sub-region, the area worst affected by the war and where people are still worried about the security situation pending a final peace deal. In neighbouring Lango sub-region, which suffered from a spillover from the conflict, Russo said 92 per cent of the camp population, about 35,000 people, remain in camps.

Politicians said that as well as fear about a possible resumption of hostilities, people were deterred from leaving the camps because of the absence of basic services in their former homes. Many who left the camps had settled alongside major roads, where some services were available, rather than return to their villages.

"We cannot be blind to the humanitarian plight of our people," said Norbert Mao, a former member of parliament, MP, and the current chairman of Gulu District Council, the biggest municipality in northern Uganda. "Even their barest needs are not being met. Living areas are congested and people face persistent shortages of water, food, shelter, schools, medical services and access roads. They also face danger from landmines."

Franka Okello, MP for the Acholi sub-region's Pader District, where more than 75 per cent of the population was displaced by the war, said, "It's outrageous for anybody to imagine that IDPs (internally displaced persons) who have been displaced for more than twenty years can afford to return even when there is relative peace without facilities in place.

"There is a lack of confidence among our people that their lives will get better. Besides, people walk home yet the journeys are long and with nothing to help them rebuild their homes."

Though hundreds of thousands of people remain in camps, the experience has been a living nightmare for most of them.

Russo told the story of meeting Mary Taly, who lived for years with 20,000 other refugees in Amugo Camp in Lira District. Diseases, which spread easily in the squalid camp, had claimed the lives of three of her children.

"Living in the camp was unbearable," said Taly, who recently returned to her home village, Apud, just a few kilometres away. "People get a lot of diseases when they live so close to each other in a small space."

Taly is one of 350 especially poor people who have been given work on a road-building project, sponsored by the UNHCR and the World Food Programme, to link her village with the nearest trading centre 3.4 km away. Taly and her fellow roadworkers are being paid with food and tools. "Without this road, I would not be able to access the health centre that can save the lives of my children," she said.

Taly and other women said the road would also enable them to avoid walking through tall grass where they ran the risk of rape, which reached epidemic proportions during the conflict.

The landscape through which Taly is helping to hack the road bears the scars of war. Its starting point is the charred remains of Apud Primary School, burned to the ground in an LRA attack three years ago. The road will make it easier to bring in building materials to reconstruct the school. As Apud's farmers begin again to sow their crops of cassava, sorghum, beans, sunflowers and cotton, they will also be able to transport their produce to market by road.

Maurice Tendamugore is one of the men who have returned to Apud who is eager to join the road-building project. For years, he said, he and other men had nothing to do in the refugee camps. "We had so many problems and we tried to avoid thinking about them by drinking," he said. "Now we don't need that because we have a lot of hope."

In Lira District, some 90 per cent of the people who were in camps have returned to their homes. But they have left a new problem behind them - ghost camps with putrid open pit latrines, abandoned huts, rubbish dumps and lands degraded by high population pressure.

UN-HABITAT - the United Nations' agency for human settlements, with the goal of providing adequate shelter for the world's poor - has established an operation in Lira to clean up the camps and plant trees to restore the land. Former camp residents are being paid with hoes, boots, gloves spades and other tools for the clean-up task. UN-HABITAT plans to expand the rehabilitation exercise throughout the north in collaboration with the Ugandan government, the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Food Programme and Kampala's Makerere University.

Patrick Okino is an IWPR reporter in Uganda.