Juba talks paying off as IDPs return home

The year-long talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) may not have reached a conclusion, but the relative peace across northern Uganda during this period has encouraged hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return home, officials said.

Walter Ochora, district commissioner in Acholi, said the local population, which had borne the brunt of the conflict, was still anxious about security but many had indeed returned home. The Acholi sub-region has been the epicentre of the conflict.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about 55,000 IDPs have returned to their villages in Acholi, in addition to 431,000 who have gone back home to the Lango sub-region. Of those still in camps in Acholi, 359,000 people had by June moved to new sites, leaving 698,000 in former camps, compared with only 35,000 in camps in Lango by June, said Robertta Russo, UNHCR spokesperson in Uganda.

Lango is adjacent to Acholi and suffered a spillover from the 21-year-old conflict, but according to Russo, 92 percent of its displaced population had returned home.

Significant achievements

Uganda’s internal affairs minister, who is also the leader of the government delegation to the talks, Ruhakana Rugunda, said progress in the talks had seen life gradually normalise for people in northern Uganda. "The year has been well spent," he said. "We would have liked to have moved more quickly, but a few factors came up that one could not ignore. We remain determined to [ensure] a more speedy process."

The LRA spokesman, Godfrey Ayoo, said the fact that the guns had fallen silent was a major achievement. "For the first time in the history of the rebellion, both ourselves and the government have accepted that there is a political problem which needs a political solution and the entire country is speaking with one voice," he said. "The fact that the guns have fallen silent is one thing to celebrate."

''The fact that the guns have fallen silent is one thing to celebrate''

Rugunda and Ayoo said the talks had achieved three sub-agreements, including those on the cessation of hostilities and rebel fighters withdrawing from northern Uganda. "The period of withdrawal was phenomenal because the LRA reported to the UPDF [Uganda People’s Defence Forces], to the civilians, and this was done in a friendly manner which started a sense of security in the region," Rugunda said.

The latest agreement on accountability and reconciliation for some of the worst atrocities committed, which was reached last month, was perhaps the most significant. Ayoo said its implementation protocol would be worked on through consultation, but added that there could be delays because the rebel delegation was still stranded in Juba without logistics to start the consultation, a week after the break.

"If this is not resolved and those who promised to fund these talks do not fulfil their promises, then we might have a problem," he explained. "Unfulfilled promises do not build relationships, they break them."

End in sight?

The talks started in July 2006 in Juba, under the mediation of the Southern Sudanese Vice-President, Riek Machar, to end one of Africa’s most brutal wars, which has displaced more than two million people. But they started off slowly, mainly due to mistrust between the parties, indictments issued against the LRA leadership by the International Criminal Court and inadequate logistics.

Over the year, the negotiations have picked up speed and raised hopes that the war could be nearing an end. According to aid agencies such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the talks now hold the promise of an increasingly secure environment in which return, rehabilitation and recovery of the civilian population could be facilitated.
However, noted Chulho Hyun, UNICEF spokesman in Uganda, the official release of children and women associated with the LRA - estimated to number as high as 1,500 - has not happened.

"The right of access to essential services in health, nutrition, safe water, education, protection and shelter by the most vulnerable populations in the most disadvantaged parts of the districts also remains largely unfulfilled," he added.