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

Refugees Watching and Waiting

Millions across war-ravaged northern Uganda hope renewed peace talks will lead to February agreement.
By Peter Eichstaedt

The eyes of some two million displaced refugees in northern Uganda will be focused during the coming months on peace talks due to resume next week in Juba, South Sudan, between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, and Uganda.

The renewed talks, which were suspended about six weeks ago so that the LRA’s negotiation team could meet with war victims, brings high hopes that Uganda’s vicious 20-year war might end with the signing of a peace agreement that some say could come as soon as February, next year.

But until that happens, say most refugees, they’re staying put.

“We are praying for the successful conclusion of the talks,” said David Ocaya, a representative of the Latanya internal refugee camp, one of more than 200 scattered across northern Uganda.

But only when a peace deal is signed, he said, will the people in his camp begin to return to their villages. Until then, “people fear the return of the rebels”.

Those in Latanya camp have good reasons to be fearful. The camp is about 20 kilometres northeast of Pader and is in the centre of territory once solidly controlled by the LRA.

Ocaya said the camp was attacked four times between 2004 and 2006, with at least 30 people having been killed and about 100 abducted.

But even more disturbing is that some rebels are still around, said Alfred Anyar, another camp resident. Just four months earlier in August, a Ugandan army unit clashed with a group of six rebels roaming the area, he said.

Although the vast majority of rebels have gathered with LRA leader Joseph Kony in the Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, this rebel remnant has survived with the help of some local sympathisers, he said, who were arrested and jailed.

Despite these problems, most in the camp have enjoyed the relative calm.

“[Peace] is allowing them to renew their lives and do things to make money for school fees,” Ocaya said of camp residents. “Now, because of the [peace] talks, the roads are open (which has allowed freedom of movement that has been largely impossible for the past six years).”

But the movement back to the villages has been slow at best.

Cisto Odongo began the move early this month, however, and recently he and some 20 friends and family were building new, traditional thatched-roof homes about a kilometre from the camp.

Since December, January and February are the dry season, it is when most people collect the tall dried grass used to make the thatch, Odongo explained as he leaned on hand cut logs that he had just finished planting upright to support the roof.

This is also the time of year when most of the dried grass is burned by wild fires, he said, so he and the others hoped to finish the building in the next couple of weeks. It was time-consuming work, he said, since he had to walk 20 km to find the bamboo poles for the roof frames.

In all, there will be about ten new homes away from the camp, he said, which would allow them to start cultivating their fields of cotton, cassava, maize and other grains like millet and sorghum.

Talk of a possible trial for LRA Kony, who with three others has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, was a distant concern.

“As long as I can live peacefully and till my land…that is the best,” said Odongo.

His friend, Bosco Olaa, said, “I’m loving the peace and I hope it continues as it is. I do things the way I want. I am not worrying.” Not only does he look forward to an education for his children, but he also wants to return to school which was interrupted by the 20-year rebel war.

He too is looking forward to the next planting season when he will till fields for cotton and millet.

Although the Acholi tradition is to build houses in relative isolation, Olaa said he and his neighbours were building a small cluster of homes, since they’re still worried about the LRA rebels. “They used to move around here in large numbers,” he said of the rebels, but no more.

A return to a traditional lifestyle is very much on everyone’s mind, said Odongo. He and his friends long for the days they would build a community fire in the evenings, free of worry. At such times, traditional values and lore were passed to younger generations by elders, he said.

“That way is how they learned,” he said. “That is what we are looking for (because camp life has disrupted both their traditional life and values).”

A permanent return to the villages gives him hope for the future. “I believe it will be easy to get back to traditional life,” he said, since in the smaller communities “families are fewer”, and young people’s behaviour and welfare can be tracked more closely.

But for some people, like Ellen Abwo and her friend Hellen Lalam, a permanent peace will mean little change. Their original cluster of homes is what eventually became the Latanya camp.

She said “other people moved in”, when the LRA rebels began to attack villages in the area, forcing them to create this camp for their own protection. Because of this, she says she plans to seek compensation for the loss of her property.

While she waits for the peace talks to resume, however, she is getting by as one of the local distillers of a potent drink known as “kava”, which comes from a process of distilling batches of fermented corn or sorghum.

Lalam said she does a lively business in the camp and it provides money for a variety of needs, not the least of which are school fees for her 13-year-old daughter and her son, 16, who was abducted by the LRA rebels, but has returned.

Like all the others in this remote camp in northern Uganda, Ocaya said he longed for a successful conclusion to the peace talks in Juba, and it’s failure was not something he liked to discuss.

The recently reported death of the LRA’s second-in- command, Vincent Oti, at the hands of Kony, did not give him much hope, however.

If it meant that Kony would now not sign a peace agreement, and return to war, Ocaya said he hoped Kony would be arrested and tried. Otherwise, Kony should be allowed to return to northern Uganda so that peace can become permanent.

Peter Eichstaedt is IWPR’s Africa Editor.

Also see Story Behind the Story, published in ACR Issue 153, 31-Jan-08.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.