UGANDA: IDPs unlikely to meet deadline to vacate camps
IDPs at a decongestion camp in Gulu District, northern Uganda
PADER, 26 December 2006 (IRIN) - An end of year deadline set by the Ugandan government for all internally displaced persons (IDPs) in war-ravaged northern Uganda to return home looks unlikely to be met, both IDPs and aid workers have said.
Continued uncertainty over security in the region is causing IDPs to delay their return to their original villages.
Earlier this year, the government set a deadline of 31 December for all IDPs to vacate the camps that have been set up during the 20-year period of unrest caused by hostilities by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
Speaking in October, Uganda's relief and disaster preparedness minister, Tarsis Kabwegyere, said, "The camps must be empty. The soonest it can be, the happiest I will be. Anybody who will delay the process will be answerable to the people and God."
The IDPs remain unmoved. "People here are still not moving, not leaving the camps. They are thinking about it, planning to do it eventually," a camp leader at Acholibur, Pader District, said. "Everyone is tired of staying in the camps, but people aren't sure of these peace talks. This is not the first time the rebels talk about peace and nothing changes."
He was referring to faltering peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba.
Observers believe the talks, mediated by southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar, provide the best opportunity for a peaceful settlement to the 21-year-old conflict in northern Uganda. However, despite the fact that the talks have led to a ceasefire, there is little confidence among some 1.6 million IDPs that the end of the conflict is in sight.
Both the government and rebels have been sending out mixed signals, slowing the process.
|Vincent Otti (left) deputy leader of the LRA talks to Jan Egeland (right), UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, at Ri-Kwangba near the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo on 12 November|
For example, on 29 November the LRA pulled out of the talks, claiming that the Ugandan army had killed three of their fighters, thereby violating a ceasefire agreement. The army denied the claims, saying the rebels were diverting attention from their failure to remain at Owiny Ki-Bul and Ri-Kwangba, in southern Sudan, as required by the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement.Slow returns
Aid workers in northern Uganda have warned that the announcement of a deadline for IDPs to be moved must be carefully planned. "We have to handle carefully these sort of proclamations. Sometimes they are nothing more than random announcements made for political opportunism," said one aid worker in Acholibur.
"On the ground, resettlement and decongestion is managed by district committees and by the UPDF [Uganda Peoples Defence Force]. This means a high level of unevenness on the return process in the various districts," he added.
The enormity and complexity of the task to send IDPs home means that the process can only move at a snail's pace.
At the launch on 13 December of an appeal by aid agencies for US $296 million to support humanitarian activities in northern Uganda in 2007, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities (OCHA) warned that up to a million people could remain in camps in 2007, waiting for confirmation that it was safe to return home.
Speaking at the launch, Kabwegyere said, "In the Acholi sub-region, the security situation has greatly improved and preparations for emptying the camps are on course."
Statistics compiled by aid workers show that at least 350,000 people have moved out of camps in Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Lira, Oyam, Pader and Apac districts. According to aid workers, the fragile security situation in these districts has not allowed a massive scale of returns.
The situation is better in the northeastern districts of Teso and Lira where returnees already constitute 80 percent of the population. Still, about 130,000 people remain in camps in Teso due to continued Karamoja-induced instability, where the pastoralist Karamojong communities have been carrying out cattle raids on their neighbours.
According to Martin Mogwanja, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Uganda, "only peace and its dividends will guarantee the voluntary return of the displaced population to their homes."Scepticism
A walk across Acholibur IDP camp, in the northern part of Pader district, clearly illustrates the situation: out of the 27,000 inhabitants of this large settlement, only a few thousand have moved back to their villages.
The majority of the IDPs continue to live in the crowded huts they built five to 10 years ago when the fear of attacks by LRA rebels forced them to abandon their original homesteads. In the camp they rely heavily on aid agencies for food.
|IDPs in northern Uganda live in government-controlled camps such as this one|
According to the IDPs, the return procedures are taking place slowly, and it is unlikely that the end of December deadline will be met. For example, by the end of the year, Pader district local authorities and the army will have established 18 new sites where people are encouraged to relocate temporarily before making the final journey home.
These sites, known as 'decongestion sites' or 'transit sites', are far less crowded than the camps, but still have to be protected by the army to ensure the security of the residents.
"The majority of those moving out of the camps still want some kind of protection from the army, and would not move without it," Malan Amara, head of the OCHA office in Pader, said. "However, there are a few spontaneous sites that have developed in the last months, where people are relocating without external assistance."
Humanitarian aid workers in northern Uganda say aid dependency has also played a part in the attitude of IDPs towards resettlement. The majority of the long-term displaced have lived in the camps for almost 10 years, and have grown complacent about returning to the villages. This is especially true of the younger generation who have spent most of their lives in an IDP camp.
"If you ask them why they are still there instead of going home, many would answer that they are waiting for their 'resettlement package' and they won't move until they get it," said one humanitarian worker in Pader.
"In many cases they just commute from the new sites, where they can farm and have access to land, but usually leave the rest of the family to benefit from schools, health facilities and food distributions that are not available in the decongestion sites," he added.
The war in northern Uganda has lasted more than 20 years. For the 1.6 million IDPs returning back to their original homes would mean starting a new way of life.Lingering questions
|LRA leader Joseph Kony|
There are questions that need to be answered before large-scale returns can take place. Observers say that until a clear message emerges from Juba that Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, has decided to abandon rebellion, the situation will remain uncertain.
Kony and four of his commanders are wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including the abduction of children and rape. Humanitarian agencies believe that up to 25,000 children were abducted by the rebels in the course of the war.
Last week, Kony, in a message to President Yoweri Museveni, called for an accountability process in Uganda, which would give them a better chance of reporting their side of the story compared with a similar process at the ICC.
"The ICC should leave Uganda to handle the issue of accountability since Uganda has a functional justice system with jails in Luzira, Lugore etc.," Kony said referring to two prison facilities.
"The Juba peace process appears to be a bait to get us arrested, the charges should be dropped," Kony's deputy, Vincent Otti, said in the same message. "Lubanga was arrested after a negotiated settlement but is now being tried in The Hague," he added in reference to Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese militia leader who was indicted by the ICC last year.
"I do not think Kony would accept peace as long as there is the ICC warrant on him. Why should he walk out when he knows he would go in jail?" an aid worker asked.
Aid workers also say one of the issues some IDPs are concerned about is their land. Unlike in central and western Uganda, where most land is titled and registered, there is no widespread formal ownership structure in the Acholi districts.
Proof of ownership comes from family and clan lineage and by virtue of living and farming a given piece of land, sometimes for decades. There are fears that people would no longer be able to prove ownership of the land where they used to live and to recognise its boundaries. Land disputes would then fuel new conflicts in the area.
For many IDPs, 2007 could bring better fortunes, but it is still too early to tell. "Peace would make people go back to their lands," said Akelo from Acholibur camp. "But people cannot really see the peace. They still don't know what it would look like and what they will do once it comes."