Worsening displacement crisis in northern Uganda following violent LRA attacks

from Global IDP Project
Published on 15 Oct 2002
The Global IDP Database of the Norwegian Refugee Council has now updated its country profile on internal displacement in Uganda. A summary is presented below. The Database and the country profile can be accessed at www.idpproject.orgor the complete profile can be sent to you by e-mail on request (idpsurvey@nrc.ch).
Internal displacement in Uganda has been caused by separate armed conflicts in northern and western areas as well as violent looting and cattle raids in the East since the mid-1990s. Conflict has affected about one quarter of the country's 45 districts, and unrelenting attacks since June 2002 by LRA troops in Kitgum, Pader and Gulu have displaced at least 50,000 additional people in northern Uganda only, according to official estimates. This rose the total number of displaced in the country to close to 700,000 IDPs, by contrast to an estimated 550,000 in February 2002. In the north alone, the number of persons displaced rose from 398,527 end of January 2002 to a total of 493,417 as of July 2002. In addition, problems in the demilitarization process among the Karamajong have weakened the fragile stability in the east and further slowed down the pace of return. Improvements have mainly been recorded in Southwestern Uganda, where relative peace and stability have allowed for progressive return movements.

Historical background

Violent attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), starting in the mid-1990s forced about three-quarters of the ethnic Acholi population to flee their homes in the Gulu and Kitgum/Pader districts of the North. The LRA soon gained a reputation for abducting children in order to forcibly conscript them, to force them to carry looted supplies, and to sexually exploit them. A relative calm in the area during 1999 allowed for return of displaced people, but escalated LRA attacks since the beginning of 2000 forced an increasing number of people to seek refuge in the so-called 'protected villages' or, alternatively, in the towns of Gulu and Kitgum. After a period of some stability, the LRA intensified its raids during the first months of 2002. In March 2002, and with the consent of the Sudanese government, the Ugandan army (UPDF) launched an offensive operation against the LRA in southern Sudan.

The UPDF operation called Operation Iron Fist, has yielded limited success and is complicating and already complex conflict situation. LRA are now attacking the districts of Kitodo and Moyo, previously unaffected by LRA violence, as well as Lira and Apac. The diversion of UPDF troops in pursuit of LRA left the Acholi civilian population without adequate protection, moreover, following the relative calm in the north until early 2002, the army had started to retreat. In addition, new Sudanese refugees crossing the border came to add an extra burden onto the worsening IDP situation. Despite the fact that the government of Uganda has chosen to solve the problem in the north by military means, it nevertheless opened dialogue with LRA for a negotiated peace in mid-August 2002. However, both parties have offered unacceptable terms of conditions for a cease-fire, as a result, no tangible agreements have been reached.

The other main area of displacement in Uganda is the Rwenzori mountains on Uganda's western border with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This region has been an area suffering violent attacks by the rebel group Allied Democratic Front (ADF) since November 1996. The ADF violence intensified between 1998 and 2000 and included the abduction of school children as well as the attack of IDP camps. Since early 2001, the situation improved as a result of a weakening of the ADF by Ugandan security forces. A year of security improvements led to considerable movements home for most IDPs. In May 2002 an international team of defense attaches declared the western area safe and free from rebel infiltrators.

In eastern Uganda, internal displacement has been caused by the violent raiding of villages by Karamojong pastoralists in search of local goods and cattle. The situation in the districts of Katakwi, Soroti, Kumi, Kitgum and Lira, was particularly bad during the first months of 2000. Although to some extent, the situation normalized by end 2000, about one third of the population in the Katakwi district remained displaced two years later and housed in poorly equipped IDP camps. In December 2001, the government finally initiated a disarming exercise of the Karamajong. However, as voluntary disarmament was met with only limited success, the Ugandan army began forcibly disarming the Karamajong in February 2002. This increased the scale of tensions in the area and abuses by UPDF soldiers against the Karamajong including civilian targets were reported. Local newspapers reported incidence of bombardments against Jie homesteads in Panyangara.

Displacement patterns and protection concerns

Over the last several years, civilians in conflict areas have been fleeing their homes and returning according to the changing intensity of the conflict. Urban centers have often been used as refuge. During periods when the security situation has been relatively tolerable, the displaced have often continued to farm their lands during the day and return to safe areas during the night. However, security sharply deteriorated since June, when LRA fighters crossed the border with Sudan, violently attacked IDP camps and massacred countless civilians in Acholiland. LRA troops present in northern Uganda which were believed to amount to about 400 men in late June, rose to between 2000 and 3000 by early September.

Government response to chronic insecurity in the North has been to gather large numbers of the population in 'protected villages'. This has been a controversial policy, and some have argued that these villages have been established primarily as a military tactic. In October 2002, a BBC interview with a Ugandan army spokesman revealed that civilians in Gulu, Pader and Kitgum had been given 48 hours to move into camps or towns under army control. The rationale was that otherwise protection could not be guaranteed, as LRA hide in villagers' huts when chased by the army.

The 'protected villages' have not provided adequate physical protection to the internally displaced and have, in fact, been regular targets for LRA attacks. Out of the 40 scattered 'protected villages' in the three war-affected northern districts, over 16 have been attacked between April and September 2002. For example1106 IDP huts in Alero camp were burnt by LRA and World Vision reported that Purongo, Pabbo, Pagak, and Olwal camps were also burnt leaving about 23,660 people homeless. This deteriorating situation happened despite warnings and concerns voiced by the humanitarian community as well as the displaced themselves, that the IDP camps lacked protection, that more UPDF soldiers needed to be deployed and that in order to effectively protect the displaced civilians, they should be positioned around the camps rather than inside at the center. Despite government's commitment to military operations against LRA in southern Sudan, there seems to be lack of political will to provide IDPs with adequate protection.

Some IDPs have reportedly been unable to stay in the camps at night due to fear of renewed attacks, abductions and looting of food, and have instead slept out in the bush, or in public buildings. For example Lacor Hospital housed up to 40,000 IDPs at night during July 2002. Displaced adolescent girls have been particularly vulnerable to abduction and sexual violence. Out of fear, displaced people from smaller camps are forced to abandon their makeshift shelters for larger displacement camps, urban towns or trading centers. Population movements are now also spilling into neighboring districts like Kitodo.

Subsistence needs

Food security has been seriously undermined by ongoing conflicts. In northern Uganda, LRA attacks have disrupted cultivation as well as delivery of food assistance. Overall, nutrition surveys indicate that malnutrition is more prevalent among displaced children than the population at large, but there have been signs of improved nutrition levels since the late 1990s. Poor health among the displaced population has also been linked to congested camps with inadequate water and sanitation facilities as well as a breakdown of social structures. On the whole, conflict and displacement in Uganda have undermined community support systems, and there has been an increase in crime, alcohol and drug abuse since the 1990s.

The increasingly violent cattle raids in the Karamjoa area have depleted a major source of income and food. As of 2002, the living conditions and health situation in Katakwi IDP camps were among the worst in the country. In addition, the Karamoja area is currently suffering the worst drought in 20 years. Although the security situation has relatively improved, 77,000 IDPs are still in camps, and their needs are largely ignored by donors and Ugandan authorities alike. A recent assessment identified the main needs relevant in a return scenario, as being infrastructural planning, building materials, latrines and HIV/AIDS awareness.

The sharp deterioration of security in the northern districts of Pader, Kitgum and Gulu, is a cause for serious concern. Firstly an estimated 522,000 displaced people are not able to access their gardens and will lose as a result their current harvest as well as the next one. As a consequence, the displaced people have also lost their income base and opportunities of small market purchase. WFP reported that crops ready to be harvested were rotting in the fields and more than half a million Acholi were left with next to no resources and in risk of famine. Secondly, food stocks are regularly looted and gardens destroyed. Thirdly, humanitarian assistance and food deliveries have been seriously curtailed, with most agencies withdrawing or scaling activities down due to insecurity. In July 2002, a Labworomor camp leader reported to be without food aid delivery since three months. Undeniably, the prevalent insecurity disrupting agricultural activity have left most of the populations in Acholi heavily dependent on the humanitarian community for food delivery. Indeed, WFP targeted population as planned in December 2001, has risen from 500,000, up to 585,400 beneficiaries in August only, thus 85,400 more people than planned. The most compelling IDP needs are first and foremost security, effective protection from UPDF soldiers, secondly food and thirdly shelter.

Although there have been positive developments with regard to access to primary education - especially in the North - high drop out rates among girls have remained, and there has been limited capacity to offer traumatized children special.

Return opportunities

A somewhat hopeful start in 2002 due to the weakening of most insurgent groups, facilitated some return in many areas of the country. Often, the displaced have preferred a gradual return by which they first take advantage of improved security to recommence agricultural activities in their home areas and subsequently move back to their homes.

As a result of relative calm in the Northern districts of Gulu, Pader and Kitgum until February 2002, -- and spontaneous return movements of an estimated several thousand IDPs -, return plans were being designed in March 2002. However, these early hopes were shattered when LRA re-attacked IDP camps and villages.

Moreover, physical security has not been the only factor determining the pace of return. Many displaced have been discouraged to return because of the lack of public services and education facilities in home areas. Others have faced problems of destroyed properties and loss of land rights.

In the Southwest, stability has been conducive to return and re-integration. In Bundibugyo the IDP population is estimated to have gone down from 120,000 end January 2001 to between 50,000-65,000 in August 2002. Among those who returned, over 70 percent have access to land and 80 percent are said to be depend on their agricultural activity for food intake and income. However, in both areas of Katakwi and Rwenzori, infrastructural re-building, and development assistance have been identified as the main needs to address, if return and self-sufficiency must be further facilitated.

Humanitarian access and response

On a positive note, the government of Uganda, in consultation with the OCHA IDP Unit is developing a national policy on internal displacement based on the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. This broad initiative, was first prompted as an answer to the lack of an official strategy to plan IDP return in the North. Despite the fact that these latter plans are obselete in the face of the current mayhem, facilitating the implementation of a national policy on internal displacement would nevertheless be pertinent, in order to better answer the needs of newly displaced people in the North as well as returning IDPs in the West and Katakwi. Indeed, in the Rwenzori region international agencies as well as district officials have pointed to the lack of a clear government commitment to allocate resources for recovery and development in areas of return. It was reported that IDPs were left totally dependent on humanitarian agencies at a stage when development-orientated assistance should be the responsibility of the state. In the North in early October, the 'protected villages' strategy prevailed, as the army gave the civilians of Gulu, Pader and Kitgum 48 hours to move to protected camps or urban centers.

The access situation has in general been better than in other African countries experiencing armed conflict, and substantial humanitarian assistance has reached displaced populations. However, the delivery of emergency assistance has been constrained by lack of security during the whole of the conflict in Uganda. There have been several instances of attack on aid vehicles and the killing of Ugandan humanitarian staff. In many cases, it has been necessary to use military escorts when transporting and distributing food aid. Access to IDPs in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader was extremely limited, following LRA's attacks, and humanitarian deliveries have frequently been ambushed and interrupted since June 2002.

(Updated October 2002)

List of Sources Used:

BBC News, Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Oxfam, United Nations, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)/World Food Programme (WFP), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Willet Weeks, Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children (Women's Commission), World Food Programme (WFP), World Vision/Cranfield University.

The country profile includes complete reference to the sources and documents used