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Refugees in Northern Uganda Fear Going Home

Continuing violence and looming land squabbles prompt refugees to reject call to go back to their villages.
On a quiet Sunday in May, a member of the Rhino militia assigned to protect refugees in northeastern Uganda went on a rampage.

Despite being confined to quarters, he secured a weapon after reportedly drinking beer most of the day, and killed 11 men, women and children and wounded 14 at the Ogwete refugee camp

Camp residents later said the man was in a jealous rage. He had reportedly fallen in love with the daughter of a camp official, but when the father forbade him to see her, the militiaman went berserk.

Four days later, he was hunted down and killed in what the military says was crossfire. Some suspect it was an execution.

The body was returned to the Ogwete camp where it was burned, and residents attempted to come to grips with the loss of life. It was the largest single killing in recent memory not connected with the region’s 20-year conflict with rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

The massacre underscores the relentless tensions surrounding the 1.5 million refugees living in more than 200 camps for displaced people across northern Uganda.

Anxiety in the camps has reached fever pitch recently because the Ugandan government claims that the LRA rebels are finished as an effective fighting force and the refugees can therefore begin vacating the camps and returning home.

But few refugees in the north are heeding the government’s call. Most venture out only during the daylight hours to tend their gardens, and by evening they return to the relative safety of the camps.

Rebel activity has seen a dramatic decline in recent weeks, since most of the LRA forces have retreated to the Garamba Park in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, LRA leader Joseph Kony has been involved in tentative peace talks taking place in southern Sudan.

But last week, many refugees’ worst fears were realised when a small unit of LRA rebels attacked the Alito refugee camp in the Apach district about 32 kilometres southeast of Lira.

The attack came shortly after dark when a handful of armed rebels struck the camp, reportedly in search of food. After several hours of terrorising camp residents, they killed a man and abducted 17 others, including a priest.

It took the local military detachment more than four hours to respond, but when they did, they rescued ten of the abducted people, said the military.

The attack heightened fears among camp resident and reinforced their resistance to returning to their farms.

“How can we go back?” cried Albino Awule, a former resident of the Alito camp. “We are afraid of Kony. They [rebels] are still around.”

Awule described an attack in January, when the LRA torched many of the thatched-roof mud brick huts in which the refugees live, “The rebels killed many people here. Some were burned in their houses, some were cut by axes, others were killed by a gun. They raped women.”

Cipriano Okello, leader of the Walela camp where Awule now lives, said rebels have been uprooting cassava plants in the nearby fields at night. The insurgent are identifiable by the footprints left by the rubber boots they favour, he continued.

Awule, a 47-year-old farmer and father of eight, said he would like nothing more than return to his village some five miles away, and resume his former way of life.

“We are in a very bad condition here,” he said of the nearly 15,000 refugees crammed into the camp. Sanitation is poor and refugees must share a limited number of pit latrines. Fresh water comes from a few hand-pumped wells and is collected in plastic containers.

“Some are dying of hunger and disease,” he said.

Even if the region was free of the rebels, he said, there would be little reason to go back to the villages. “There is no property [left]. It was all burned by the rebels. There is the land, but we are afraid to go back.”

Awule said none of the promised government support, which includes resettlement packages of seeds and farming tools, has materialised.

Because the land has been abandoned for so many years, boundaries have been lost, destroyed or forgotten. Even when the farmers return, he said, they face land disputes.

Awule recently returned to his land, and said, “I found somebody [else] cultivating it.” He complained to local officials and eventually the district land tribunal before the problem was resolved.

“If the government wants the people to go back and resettle, we want to hear clearly [that] there there are not rebels around,” said camp leader Okello. “We also want to enough [building] material to start living in the village.”

Lira’s recently elected district chairman, Franco Ojur, doubted that the return of refugees would happen quickly or easily.

“People are fed up with living in the camps,” he said, but “not much is being done by the government” to encourage them to go back to the land.

Ojur said refugees are “slowly leaving the camps, but they don’t leave completely. Resettlement is not something that can be done in a short period of time”.

The government’s proposed resettlement packages may not be enough, he said, because people will need cash to buy essential supplies.

Ojur said he also feared a government proposal to issue individual land titles could create yet more social unrest and undermine any future peace. Land is traditionally held by clans, he explained, and customarily inherited by each succeeding generation. Issuing individual land titles could subvert the traditional social structure. The impoverished camp residents will be very temped to sell their land to wealthy outsiders.

If that happens, the villages and traditional clans will be destroyed and many families could be left landless and homeless.

“The customary system we have is quite sufficient,” he said. “Land is a very sensitive matter.”

Ojur blamed the government for not bringing the conflict with the LRA to an end after 20 years. He was also sceptical that peace talks with the rebels in southern Sudan would be fruitful.

“We can never relax,” he said.

Peter Eichstaedt is senior editor with IWPR-Africa. Uganda Radio Network correspondent Joe Wacha and freelance contributor Patrick Ebong contributed to this report.

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