Displaced youth: the challenges of displacement, the challenges of return

“You can talk about a lost generation in the north of the country. Peace will remedy many problems, but perhaps not what the young people have suffered,” said an old man in one of the many IDP camps across Pader District, in North Uganda.

Almost 50 per cent of the camp’s population is under the age of 18. These young people have spent all their lives hanging around in the suffocating and overcrowded paths of the camps, sitting in front of the huts their parents hurriedly built during the war. Nearly ten years later, the majority of youth sit and play cards all day, barely raising their heads to look at strangers when they pass.

Northern Uganda has been affected by armed conflict since 1986, when Alice Lakwena started the Holy Spirit Movement that Joseph Kony later took over and renamed the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a quasi-messianic armed movement with an unclear political agenda, that has set itself against the Museveni government and anyone who supports it.

The LRA has become a by-word for brutality and atrocity over the years, practising widespread violence against the very civilians it claims to be fighting for. The looting of villages, random killings, bizarre rituals, and the abduction of youth and children, have become the norm. More than anything, the LRA has become notorious for its child abductions which recent estimates suggest could account for 66,000 children.

Population displacement started around the mid-1990s, as a government attempt to protect the civilian population from the LRA’s activities. It is estimated that nearly 1.6 million people have been displaced in the northern Acholi districts (Kitgum, Gulu, Pader) in the past ten years, and the majority of these still live in the 105 overcrowded, poorly serviced IDP camps that have been created. At one point in 2005 there were over 200 camps, but recently the government has forced the closure of various camps in an effort to emphasise their confidence in the current peace negotiations and ceasefire agreement.

Perhaps more than other segments of societies, young people between 15- and 25-years-old are bearing the highest costs of the 20-year war between the LRA and the national army (UPDF) forces.

In September 2006, with funding from UNICEF Uganda, the MacArthur Foundation and others, a group of American researchers began a project to survey War Affected Youth in Northern Uganda (SWAY).

The researchers reached the conclusion that, in particular for young people in the camps, “ the emergency situation, stretched over years or even decades, and inattention to schooling and economic activity, risks losing a whole generation to poverty; while inattention to food and sanitation risks losing their lives”.

There is also growing concern about the loss in social and human capital due to the war, and the fact that it will mostly impact the younger generation. Moreover, camp life has seriously damaged the Acholi peoples’ social structure and norms, so that not only have young people been displaced physically, they have also lost their role in society and social responsibilities.

Interviews conducted by IRIN in the camps in December 2006 found widespread discomfort and lack of hope among youth living in IDP camps. A group of youths in Arum camp, in Pader district said, “Life for young people is really hard in the camps. We have nothing to do here; we spend the day playing cards. We don’t go to school, and we cannot progress in any sense.”

Nigaa, or the “American life”. Youth activities in IDP camps.

With restricted movement due to the military curfew, to protect them from the LRA, young people have grown apart from their parents’ rural livelihood, and have been unable to find alternative ways of survival.

Not only is access to land crucial in terms of economic subsistence, Acholi traditional culture views land as a form of pride and self-esteem.

According to custom, elders administer and allocate land, while young people make a living from it, for themselves and their families.

“Displacement and lack of land has taken away the social roles for the young. This is perhaps what they suffer most,” says Jeannie Annan, a psychologist for SWAY who has interviewed more than 750 adolescent boys.

As well as the lack of land access, the absence of any real kind of income-generating activity is also perceived as one of the major problems youths face. SWAY findings have shown that young people in IDP camps work an average of 7 days per month, and earn on average US 55¢ a day.

Having to rely on an average monthly income of about US $ 3.50, young people have shown a certain degree of entrepreneurship, and many have started small informal businesses, like kiosks, tailoring, and brick-making activities.

However, the poverty of the local economy is not able to sustain an infinite number of these small, casual and low-capital businesses. In a market with an infinite supply of unskilled workers and a very restricted demand for services, the profitability of informal activities is very low - so low that they cannot ensure subsistence.

Many youths are now resigned to their situation. They can be spotted walking around the camps, playing cards beneath trees, or listening to the radio.

“Many accuse us of becoming lazy. And sometimes this indeed happens. Those who live the “American life”, we call them Nigaa. They do nothing all the day, they play cards, they go to discos and they find the money by stealing,” commented a group of youths in Arum camp.
David, 17, added: “I wake up in the morning and I wait for the relief food. I have nothing else to do from morning to dusk. I couldn’t find anything else to do even if I wanted to.”

Educational losses

In terms of education, youth – more than children - are the ones who bear the highest costs. Primary schooling has to some extent been able to provide basic literacy skills to an increasing number of children. However, a high number of 18- to 24-year-olds who missed out in schooling are technically illiterate and not able to catch up. There is a notable absence of specific programmes for adult education in the camps.

According to SWAY’s data, complete illiteracy is more common among young adults (18-25 years old), than children and young adolescents. One sixth of male youths between 24- and 30-years cannot read or write at all, and one third is unable to read a book or a newspaper.

Moreover, transition from primary to secondary school is problematic, and only a few manage to progress after primary. The secondary schooling enrolment ratio in IDP camps has been defined as “abysmal” in many recent reports, even when compared with the national average.

While there is no recent data on young girls’ literacy and schooling, it is worth noting that on average girls tend to start school later and to drop out early, due to their household-supporting activities, like fetching water and taking care of younger children.

“If you are a girl, your parents think that your education isn’t worth the money,” says Douka, an 18-year-old mother who dropped out of school after just three years.

According to a 2005 study carried out by the UNDP and the Ugandan Government on the status of IDPs in North Uganda, illiteracy among women peaked at 84%; while only 9% of men and 1% of women have completed secondary school. Only one in every 150 youths has access to tertiary education.

Due to income insecurity, intermittent schooling is a common phenomenon: young people drop out to find casual work to pay for classes. This affects the quality of learning, and decreases the chances of completing a course of study.

“I went to school but I had to drop out because of a problem with my eyes. There is no work I can do except farming someone else’s garden to get some money. When I earn enough money to pay for the school, I really would like to go back,” says one 17-year-old schoolboy in Acholibur camp, in the northern part of Pader district.

Dropping out of school at the end or even before completion of primary school is a widespread phenomenon in the camps. The most common reason is the fact that families are unable to pay secondary school fees for older children and adolescents. But poverty is not the only problem young people face in accessing post-primary education.

Samuel Obonyo, a teacher in Acholibur secondary school says: “Many of the guys we had here were ex-abductees who were trying to go back to school. But they found it too hard, and also not interesting. Some of them had mental problems we were not able to address. We tried to offer some form of psychosocial support, but we had to stop for lack of funding.”

The UN estimates that the number of abductees could be as many as 25,000, but recently collected data suggest a much higher figure of around 66,000.

The challenges of return.

People are on the move again in North Uganda. With the improved security situation and the LRA engaged in peace talks with the government, people are now thinking about restarting their old lives.

People began leaving the IDP camps in April 2006 in response to various security situations. The most common form has been the creation of so-called “decongestion sites” - small settlements protected by UPDF forces where people are encouraged to relocate before moving back to their original lands and homesteads.

These new settlements tend to be less crowded than the camps, and have the advantage of allowing people to access their land for farming. Large-scale return is happening only in Lira and Teso districts, while in the Acholi region, people are still very sceptical about the lasting security and whether the LRA is really intent on giving up their armed struggle.

As always, home is the direction everybody is looking towards. However, transition from life in the camps to life in a traditional Acholi village might not be as easy and smooth as many hope it will be. A return home for IDPs could be a further reason for stress for communities and young people.

The youth will need to learn how to adapt from the “urban” or “semi-urban” environment of the camps. Emmanuel, from the Acholi Youth Strengthened Strategy, a local NGO working for the empowerment of young people in Gulu district, pointed out:

“For the past 10 years young people in IDP camps have woken up in the morning and gone out riding bicycles (boda bodas) and doing small jobs. At the end of the day they came back home with money in their pockets, and they are now used to this way of living. While in the traditional Acholi village the only time someone gets money is once a year, when he sells the produce of his fields. They wouldn’t like this way of life. They wouldn’t use the land as the elders think they should.”

The same kind of concerns have been voiced to IRIN by many other relief workers and observers of camp life: “What young people have been doing so far was sitting around all day, and they have hated it. However, few of them know any other kind of life and possess any usable skills for normal life.”
Particularly worrying is the lack of agricultural skills young people possess. Being away from their land for almost all their adult life, it is unclear how much they will be able to set up productive farming activities or to cope with the hardships of subsistence farming.

“Life in IDP camps is all these young people know and I wonder what will happen to them. Children who only learned to wait for and run after the WFP trucks, what kind of citizens they will be?” said Fred Luzze, protection officer at Save the Children, based in Kampala.

The international organisations will have to help young people to adapt to a return to their traditional lifestyles.

For the moment, the majority of programmes based in Pader district rely on emergency funds. These include water and sanitation interventions, and infrastructure rehabilitation. However, funding for projects which do not address the immediate emergency, like those for supporting secondary schooling, are less easily available, and they receive smaller grants.

Fillippo Ciantia, from Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale (AVSI), an NGO whose presence in Kitgum, Gulu and Pader districts dates back to the 1980s says: “There is a great need for international NGOs to work with and involve young people. We have to understand what they are willing to do and how we can best help them.”

“I think that there is an urgent need to support broad-based secondary and tertiary schooling. Programming ought to be more inclusive of young adults, treating them as a central category of concern.”

The next generation: one step back?

“One of the results of the war is that the new generations will go back to doing the same kind of subsistence activities their fathers and grandfathers were doing before the war,” said an aid worker in Gulu.

It is difficult to quantify the losses in education. Even more complex is to judge what has been wasted in terms of human capital and development perspectives. The number of illiterate people is the most visible sign of the costs of war. But some observers point out that it could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of missed opportunities for young people.

“We don’t know what we would like to be when we get older. We haven’t thought about it, because we haven’t been to school. If education were available, we would have had aspirations, but like this we will go back home and be just farmers like our parents and grandparents.”

For young girls, the picture could be even worst than it was for their mothers. Poverty and lack of alternative livelihoods caused a sharp increase in early marriages, as widespread poverty motivated parents to give away their daughters in exchange for a dowry. The majority of girls ranging 14- to 18-years-old are already married and have family responsibilities.

Rape is still pervasive, even in the new settlements; the social stigma on the perpetrators is far less effective than before, and it is by no means a deterrent. Not only do UPDF soldiers abuse young girls, but local boys are also involved in rapes.

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[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]