I often hear about development plans for the war-affected areas of northern Uganda, many of them wrapped in optimism about the imminent end of the war, but what puzzles me is the conspicuous absence of resettlement plans for the 1.6 million IDPs.
Little wonder many people suspect there may be some hidden agenda to grab their land and give it to some powerful groups for commercial purposes!
I keep hearing from camp dwellers, afraid and usually talking only in whispers, that the government will keep all displaced people in camps at least until election time in March 2006.
You see, it is easier to control and manipulate people when you have them all in camps. When they are free in their villages, they normally reason.
Displaced people’s camps were started in Gulu district abruptly and without any consultation – during the second half of 1996. In January 1997, an LRA massacre in Lamwo County (Kitgum district) during five consecutive days without any response from the army prompted another massive wave of displacement as thousands fled the terror.
Some having come voluntarily, and most compelled, numbers reached 400,000 by the beginning of 2002.
After ‘Operation Iron Fist’ started and a 48-hour ultimatum followed on radio in October that year, the numbers of IDPs doubled. By mid-2003, as terror spread to Lango and Teso, the figures swelled, reaching about two million. With an improvement in security, and figures slightly decreasing, we still have 1.6 million IDPs in northern Uganda.
International standards require that should displacements have become inevitable, all possible measures must be taken to ensure the civilian population receives satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.
It is also stressed that displacement should last no longer than absolutely required. None of these two conditions have been met in northern Uganda, where people still remember that whenever they were forcibly moved, they were told it was just for a matter of months.
Concerning security, some substantial improvements have taken place in the last two years. More than half of the LRA top commanders have surrendered, been captured or died in armed confrontations. Many of their rank and file have come out of the bush and taken advantage of the Amnesty. Sudan no longer gives them weapons or any other logistical support. Attacks on camps, ambushes on roads and abductions have become rare in the last few months. We are told that there aren’t more than 300 rebels left. How hardly 300 armed men (supposing that they are all armed) can hold more than one and a half million people hostage, preventing the normalisation of their shattered lives, has become the one-million dollar question in northern Uganda. One wonders what else is needed before people may leave the camps and go back to their homes.
In Gulu district, some IDPs have been resettled in new smaller camps, at parish level, to make it possible for them to have access to their land, but they represent just a tiny fraction.
There are a few people in northern Uganda who die because of the gun these days, but there is a whole generation who perish slowly because of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, or who die of desperation. Family and cultural values have also been killed by life in the camps.
It is high time the government came out with a clear plan for resettlement to put things right because the plight of the 1.6 million IDPs is the number one problem. The international community should press on this. Political parties intending to contest elections next year must make it a priority if to be taken seriously.
It may be better, though, if the problem is dealt with well before the elections. Or could it be that the IDPs are right in saying that when people live in camps, they are easier to control when it comes to election time?
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