Displaced civilians venture back home

[Uganda] A new hut built by a returnee family in Lera Obaro village, Gulu District, where almost two million people were displaced by two decades of conflict. [Date picture taken: 11/27/2006]
La hutte d’une famille rentrée chez elle, à Gulu : les autorités ont commencé à fermer des camps de déplacés dans le nord du pays (photo d’archives) (Vincent Mayanja/IRIN)

The relative peace that has returned to northern Uganda has spurred thousands of internally displaced people to start moving from camps back to their villages. However, the returnees face enormous challenges as they try to resettle in their former homes.

"We came back to the village, but the place was all bushy," Ajorama Akot said as she helped her husband Valentino Omach fix the roof of their new hut at Palenga in Bobi subcounty, 24 km from Gulu town, Gulu District. "We had to clear the bush."

Three heads of cattle grazed nearby. Cattle were once a cherished symbol of wealth for the region's Acholi people, but they were virtually wiped out during two decades of war – effectively destroying the source of money for education and family welfare, and a source of protein for thousands of peasant families.

Buoyed by the presence of soldiers at a nearby military unit, Ajorama was excited to be home after leaving 10 years ago to seek refuge in the south, across the River Nile. Under a tree, a radio played local music – prompting some young, apparently intoxicated soldiers to start a dance with locals.

Near the village, a group of women with children strapped to their backs sweated in the midday sun to clear an 8.5 km stretch of road from Palenga to Lera Obaro. The road is one of those earmarked for reopening under a new food-for-work programme. "This is a short cut to our homes and land,” Jennifer Amito, a 24-year-old mother of one, said. “It will also be used by our children to go to school at Palenga camp and by us to access the health unit and market.”

Liker Amito, Constantine Odoch and Watmon Oyaro had joined in to clear the road. At the entrance to his makeshift hut, Odoch said they had returned to the village two weeks ago and decided to build together in one spot near the military unit, in order to access their ancestral land - located 1 km to 3 km from the new settlement. Oyaro was also planning to grow crops for cash and food.

Nine roads in Gulu and the new district of Amuru, totalling 38 km, are being re-opened to enable people to access their homes, schools and clinics. Five other roads of 19.3 km are being re-opened in the district of Lira, further southeast, while work has yet to begin in the other war-affected districts of Kitgum and Pader. The project is a brainchild of the United Nations World Food Programme and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Women comprise the bulk of the work-force, using hand hoes and sickles in a food-for-work or tools-for-work road-clearing exercise. “The community has also started to clear areas around schools and clinics as these facilities await rehabilitation,” Roberta Russo, UNHCR spokeswoman in the region, said.


Since July, when the notorious rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) started talking peace with the Ugandan government, security in northern Uganda has improved considerably. The talks, mediated by the government of southern Sudan in the capital, Juba, yielded a truce, raising hopes of an end to a vicious 21-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands and displaced nearly two million.

[Uganda] Jennifer Amito participates in a WFP/UNHCR road clearing to improve access to northern Ugandan villages from where residents fled due to civil war. People are returning with improving security. [Date picture taken: 11/27/2006]

Thousands of returnees have been displaced again by the floods
Vincent Mayanja/IRIN
[Uganda] Jennifer Amito participates in a WFP/UNHCR road clearing to improve access to northern Ugandan villages from where residents fled due to civil war. People are returning with improving security. [Date picture taken: 11/27/2006]
Friday, December 8, 2006
Returnees among thousands displaced by floods
[Uganda] Jennifer Amito participates in a WFP/UNHCR road clearing to improve access to northern Ugandan villages from where residents fled due to civil war. People are returning with improving security. [Date picture taken: 11/27/2006]
Jennifer Amito participates in a WFP/UNHCR road clearing to improve access to northern Ugandan villages

Under the truce, LRA rebels are supposed to assemble at two points in Sudan to allow the talks to be concluded. However, considerable suspicion remains – especially given that two LRA leaders face indictments for war crimes by The Hague-based International Criminal Court. Many northern Ugandans fear the rebels will never make peace unless the indictments are dropped and LRA deputy commander Vincent Otti has repeatedly said the LRA will not come out of their bush hideouts while the arrest warrants remain in force.

Ugandan officials say despite the slow pace of the talks, the security situation in the war-ravaged region has improved dramatically. As a result, ordinary people in Gulu have seized on the lull in clashes to try to rebuild their lives. Undeterred by challenges such as damaged infrastructure and unexploded ordnance, many of the civilians returning to their villages are trying to find their bearings again.

In Gulu town, the night life that was characterised by the presence of hordes of children who used to leave their homes every evening in the villages to sleep in the relative safety of town - the “night commuters” – has been replaced by revellers whiling away the evenings in bustling pubs and discos.

“After years of civil war there is hope for peace following historical talks with government,” a local resident said.

There are lingering reminders of the past. William Kidega, a young businessman dealing in agricultural produce in the town, said despite the relative peace, some soldiers on foot patrol harassed civilians and stole their money. “I have never seen this situation; we move as late as we want these days," he explained. “The only problem is that sometimes the army beats you up and steals the money you have. This is a cause for concern.”

The army denied the claims, saying soldiers on patrol sometimes questioned those walking at night because criminals have taken advantage of the security situation to waylay people and rob them. “In some incidents we have recorded some deaths. An operation recently yielded some guns and military equipment from these thugs,” army spokesman Lt Chris Magezi said.

The government, which says it is supporting the returnees, insists it is determined that the civilians get back to their villages by the end of the year. Where there are delays, it blames recent torrential rains instead of security concerns. “We have trucks full of food stranded in the east because some roads are impassable or have had their bridges swept away by the heavy rains,” the minister for disaster preparedness, Musa Ecweru, said. “The government is committed to see people return home.”

Enormous task

The returnees admit that making their villages habitable again is an enormous task. The authorities have put in place security and the army decides which areas are safe enough, while UN and other relief agencies are looking at their immediate social services needs. But there is still a fear of the unknown.

Law and order needs to be strengthened around the villages, to avoid anybody taking advantage of the vulnerable returnees. So far, the government has deployed police to take over civil policing from the army and agencies are providing support to the men in uniform. Ordnance believed to be buried across the region needs to be removed. To avoid casualties, the army is trying to educate civilians not to touch any abandoned metal objects.

"I want to move in permanently in January, but I will first move in alone, then my wife and the children will follow later," Oyaro said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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