"Could favouring a policy of new clustered settlements be perhaps an attempt to control better people perceived as political opponents? If you know that a certain group doesn’t support you, you may prefer to keep them in structures that put them under watch rather than allow them to live in hidden places, scattered in the bush." --Fr. Carlos Rodriguez
Last week I told you about internally displaced persons in parts of Gulu district leaving the camps and going straight to resettle in their original homes.
Notwithstanding all the difficulties they endure, it sounds like a beautiful story.
There is, though, a second part not so encouraging. In Kitgum and Pader districts the trend is shifting displaced persons from big camps to smaller ones, which bear the tag of “decongestion” or “satellite”.
From there, some persons –not all- are able to commute daily to use their original land. Politicians who favour this policy seem to prefer the word “settlement” to “camp”. Some have even gone as far as calling them “model villages”.
It is exactly one year since the government announced its plan of resettlement of IDPs in northern Uganda. An official document presented in public at that time laid out provisions for the displaced in Lango and Teso to go straight to their homes, and for the ones in Acholi to go to smaller decongestion camps, the reason being that in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader there were still “pockets” of rebels that may cause insecurity.
Ever since, some significant changes have occurred on the ground, the most important one being the progress at the Juba peace talks, which have made killings, ambushes and abductions practically disappear from the North.
Never mind occasional rumours, the truce signed at the end of August last year has marked the disappearance of LRA rebels in the North, which is giving people there a good breathing space. All these months the government has insisted that with or without talks, the LRA shall never come back to commit atrocities in Uganda.
Should this statement be taken seriously, it means that the justification for creating smaller camps is no more, and that therefore all plans should be geared towards helping people go straight to their homes.
Notwithstanding the risks of comparisons, if for instance the government can assure the Asian community of their security, one would assume that it is also capable of doing the same to their own citizens who have suffered so much for the last two decades. In fact, such assurance has strongly been given.
I know that there are some other elements that account partly for the trend of moving to satellite camps, like people’s fears and mistrust about the success of the peace talks.
But what is worrying is the lingering lack of clarity about whether these smaller camps should be taken as a previous step for a final resettlement in people’s original homes or as a final solution.
Statements by some government officials counting people in these camps as having reached the final stage of their resettlement reinforce this dangerous (or is it well calculated?) ambiguity. We live in a world where too often appearance and good looks become more important than reality.
Uganda should not be merely striving to give a good image of normality - before, during or after CHOGM - but making sure that all its citizens enjoy a normal life.
It is a fact that most people in Acholiland -known to be Uganda’s fastest growing population- have always voted against the Movement, and in last year’s elections percentages were even higher.
Could favouring a policy of new clustered settlements be perhaps an attempt to control better people perceived as political opponents? If you know that a certain group doesn’t support you, you may prefer to keep them in structures that put them under watch rather than allow them to live in hidden places, scattered in the bush.
I have always advised people coming to see the situation of Acholi not to stop in Gulu, but reach Kitgum and Pader. Being more accessible from Kampala, Gulu has become like a stage where the public is watching, and when you know that many people come to see by themselves, you try to keep the stage clean and in order, giving an image of normality.
Kitgum and Pader are more hidden to the public eye, yet they have more suffering and poverty to reveal. A visitor who comes to Gulu and sees people resettling in their original homes runs the risk of thinking that this is the case everywhere. But go to East Acholi and you will see a different story.
Perhaps some months from now the situation may have changed and everyone in Acholi will be completely free to resettle in their God-given ancestral land without any restrictions. If that happens I shall be happy to say that the fears I am expressing today were unfounded. In the meantime I have, sadly, reasons to believe that there may be cause for concern.
The author is a Catholic missionary working in northern Uganda.
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