UGANDA: Cautious welcome for scaling down protected villages

A Ugandan government plan to scale down "protected villages" in the rebel-hit north, while basically welcomed, has also attracted criticism that it is no solution to the army's protracted war against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

"It is not a question of scaling down," Gulu area MP Norbert Mao told IRIN on Monday. "The villages should be dismantled and the government come up with a firm policy to step up security."

As a strategy to curb insurgency, the protected villages had failed, Mao said. "We have never supported these camps. Our people will not miss them."

"The camps were not for the protection of civilians, but to control their movement," Mao added, saying they were "major arenas for human rights abuses".

"People become totally dependent on the military and are highly vulnerable to acts of rape and illegal arrests," he noted. He argued there was no provision for humanitarian assistance such as health facilities, and that people were simply rounded up and forced into the villages.

The protected village policy was mooted by the government of Uganda and supported by some villagers who thought it would ensure protection from the LRA, as well as denying the rebels logistical support, food and new recruits. However, the policy later became unpopular with allegations of gross human rights violations in the camps.

Press reports recently quoted Gulu army commander Brigadier Wamala Katumba as saying the armed forces intended to establish more detachments "so we can decongest protected villages".

The deputy editor of the independent daily 'The Monitor', David Ouma Balikowa, said the concept of protected villages had failed and local communities blamed them for the destruction of family units.

"Girl children are victims of early pregnancies, abductions [by the rebels] still go on and there are many other acts of human rights violations," he told IRIN.

The human rights group Amnesty International cautiously welcomed the government's plans.

"In principle it could be a good idea if well applied to guarantee respect for human rights," African regional office director Patrice Vahard told IRIN. "It could allow people to go back and till their lands, but they must be assured of protection against attacks. They must feel secure."