Uganda’s Nightmare Camps

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So, with such bleak picture I wonder how the relief minister thinks that the 1.5 million people will manage to leave the camps less than two months from now. Perhaps the problem is that ministers usually travel by luxury cars and do their beautiful strategic planning in fancy Kampala hotels.

 

By Father Carlos Rodriguez

It is a pity that one of the –perhaps unintended—results of the national and international media interest in the on-going Uganda peace talks is that the focus of attention has been transferred to Juba, Southern Sudan (venue of the negotiations) leaving the people in the North of Uganda, who have to cope with the unbearable situation in displaced persons camps, outside the world’s attention. Once again, they are becoming invisible to the public eye.

All the displaced person’s camps in the northern part of Uganda are to be empty by December 31, according to a government deadline. This information was revealed by relief minister Tarsis Kabwegyere recently in the newly created Amuru district, where all people without exception live in displacement.

The Ugandan Government is famous for giving deadlines, like the one concerning the end of the war and the passing of Joseph Kony to the history books –since 1996—or the one about completion of disarmament in Karamoja, which I first heard it in February 2001, but which I am sure was said even before.

With such a reliable “track� record, I try to imagine how the displaced persons themselves have taken this announcement. I asked the question directly to a number of IDPs last recently, when I visited one of the new decongestion settlements in my Parish of Minakulu-Bobi, and this is what they told me: everyone I talked to are fed up with life in the camps and want to go back to their original homes. At the same time, some of the recent events in the Juba peace talks have made them doubt about a positive outcome and they are not yet convinced that they will have complete peace and security very soon.

As for now, not everybody in Acholi is free to leave the camp and go back to his or her ancestral land. For instance, in Palenga –which hosts some 15,000 IDPs- only two official decongestion camps have been identified: Atyang and Lelaobaro. In both places there is a military detach. If you live in Palenga and your home parish is somewhere else, officially you are not allowed to settle back in your home. In Bobi camp (some five kilometres from Palenga), which has 20,000 dwellers, some people also come from Lelaobaro and can go there, but not the rest, so we are talking only of a minority, those who come from Atyang or Lelaobaro. Those “lucky� ones are trying to put up one of two huts, but at what price?

Let me try to tell you things with as much detail as possible: Lelaobaro is located nine kilometres from Palenga and twelve from Bobi, so those who want to resettle there have to walk that distance (and back) every day. In the site, there are only two boreholes, which stop yielding water after filling two or three jerry cans.

Nobody has provided any resettlement packages like hoes, jerry cans, machetes, axes, cooking pans or blankets (except for something very little distributed by the Church), so most people walk with some old tool and spend few hours opening up the ground, cutting down poles and making bricks, task this one which proves extraordinarily difficult when you have very little water at your disposal. For the rest, forget about any essential services like sanitation, health unit or school. In addition, what is worse is that in some of these new camps where people are resettling the parents live there while the children remain behind to be able to attend school. The consequence is a most unhealthy split in the family, which is becoming the rule, rather than the exception.

This is the reality on the ground these days in the North. Therefore, with such bleak picture I wonder how the relief minister thinks that the 1.5 million people will manage to leave the camps less than two months from now. Perhaps the problem is that ministers usually travel by luxury cars and do their beautiful strategic planning in fancy Kampala hotels. If they had to walk 18 kilometres a day under the sun, spend long hours making brings without water or cutting poles with worn-out axes and go to sleep in a crammed hut after having eaten one single meal in a day they may think it twice before making empty promises and putting doubtful deadlines.

The writer is a Catholic priest working in Uganda.

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