Kampala Accused of Failing Vulnerable IDPs

A breakdown in family structure exposes lack of assistance for displaced.

Kampala Accused of Failing Vulnerable IDPs

A breakdown in family structure exposes lack of assistance for displaced.

Friday, 16 October, 2009

The weakening of traditional family ties in northern Uganda has highlighted some significant failings in the support given to vulnerable people who have been displaced by years of fighting in the region.

Two decades of conflict have had a devastating effect on previously close family links, meaning that the young and healthy are no longer able or willing to offer adequate support to their more vulnerable relatives.

As a consequence, while internally displaced people, IDPs, have been returning to their villages to rebuild their lives, many of the elderly and infirm have been left behind in the camps.

Santorino Etim, an 87 year-old woman living in Te-Dakatal camp in Lira district, recalls with some bitterness the day that soldiers from the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, raided her remote village, Aloi Ongom, and abducted all of her eight children.

In the past, her extended family would probably have been able to take care of her

Now, though, the crumbling of the traditional family structures means that she has been left behind in the camp, abandoned by her relatives who have returned to their villages.

“I have nowhere to go,” she said. “All my relatives have abandoned me. All these problems I’m facing in the squalid refugee camp are as a result of the LRA war. Before the war, the elderly were treated as important people in society. Now, the young treat us as enemies.”

Younger and more able-bodied members of society who might have helped in the past say they have problems of their own.

“You should not expect a young person like me, who is heading the family after losing his parents to the LRA, to look after the elderly,” said war survivor Geoffrey Ocen, 26. “How can one vulnerable person look after another? I have got a lot to do, such as educating my sisters and brothers orphaned in the conflict and providing them with basic necessities.”

Kawinya Apadi Alwala of the Lango Cultural Foundation says efforts are being made at the local level to educate people about the importance of not neglecting the elderly.

It is not just the elderly, however, who are abandoned by their families. Increasingly, the sick and those who have lost relatives in the fighting also find that they have no one to turn to.

Florence Akullu, 44, was rejected by her family after she tested positive for HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, because of the stigma that still surrounds it.

Traditionally, children would take care of sick or elderly parents, but Akullu says that all of hers were kidnapped by the LRA and she never saw them again.

Grace Ato, whose parents and husband were killed during the fighting, says she is struggling to educate her children without any outside assistance.

She complains that there is no one around to give her any help, with NGO and government-sponsored projects relying too much on traditional family support, which for many simply isn't there anymore.

“When I ran to a charity organisation for help, they gave me only one mattress,” she said. “But can you cook the mattress and give it to your children?”

Like many of those who remain in the camps, Ato says that she does not want to return to her village because a lack of proper infrastructure and sanitation would make life hard for her.

With traditional family ties having weakened over the years, there is a pressing need for more formal support structures, but campaigners for IDP causes in the region say such help is not forthcoming.

“The real problem is that the Ugandan authorities are assuming that the community will continue to take care of their own kind, just like things were in the past,” said Katinka Ridderbos, a Ugandan analyst for the Norwegian Refugee Council, NRC. “But the demands of returning people are so high that it is too much to ask them to look after vulnerable people.”

Ridderbos says when a cohesive policy on IDP returns was drawn up there was widespread understanding that, while many of those displaced would be able to return home, a few would remain in the camps.

Some of these have decided to stay in the camps because they have opportunities there that they would not have if they returned home, while others remain because they do not have any other choice.

“Initially, there was some notion that we should let everyone go home first, then we would have an idea of the size of the problem,” Ridderbos said. “The challenge now is to work out how these remaining people can be resettled.”

Dan Okello, spokesman for the opposition Uganda Peoples’ Congress, UPC, is critical of the government's failure to resettle all IDPs.

“The government has decided and deliberately ignored the plight of these people who are still in the camp,” Okello said. “And they are acting as if they don’t know that there are still IDPs in the camp.”

The government, though, points to the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, NUSAF, a community project funded by the World Bank that is supposed to give some support to vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the region.

Godfrey Aluma, the deputy resident district commissioner for Lira, says that NUSAF is still identifying vulnerable members in the community who could benefit from government resettlement programmes in northern Uganda.

“Those who missed out in the first phase of the programme will be included in the forthcoming wave of new programmes,” Aluma said. “Nobody was deliberately ignored by the government. The redevelopment programmes are for all.”

Moses Belmos Ogwal, a programme officer for the Marginalised Children and People’s Association, MECPA, a local non-governmental organisation that supports vulnerable people in the Lira district, says that he and his colleagues are trying to empower the young so that they can look after the elderly.

“International charity organisations should continue funding us so that together we can rebuild lives in the north,” he said.

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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