Uganda

Displaced in Uganda face psychological barrier to return home

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ADONGKENA SETTLEMENT, Uganda, May 21 (UNHCR) - Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have raised hopes among people in the country's northern Pader district that their long ordeal may be soon over.

Most of the district's population - estimated at more than 320,000 in a 2002 census - has been displaced by the insurgency. But the security situation has eased since the launch last July of peace negotiations aimed at ending 21 years of civil war - it is safe to travel without armed escort and internally displaced people (IDP) are slowly leaving camps and returning to their places of origin.

"The security situation has clearly improved beyond all recognition, but it is not completely safe," UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said during a visit to the north last week. "People here are starting to go home and that is very good news. We have the opportunity to make this a success story," he added, while noting that a lot of infrastructure was needed.

But many, like Palma Lanyom, are torn between a desire to return to their homes and fear that things could unwind and their lives be plunged once more into turmoil. The violence of the past remains vivid for its victims.

Lanyom talked to UNHCR visitors recently at the Adongkena IDP settlement in Pader's Puranga sub-district, which was at the heart of the LRA's operational area. Her home is only a few kilometres away, but there are psychological and practical barriers to returning right now.

"Life is somewhat better now; we have a little food, the children do not suffer so much sickness, but we want to go home," Lanyom said, balancing a baby on her hip while other rag-clad children lined up beside her and stared wide-eyed at the visitors. "Here we have a school not far away, but if we go [back home] the children have to go far to school," she noted, adding up the pros and cons.

She could have added that there was no infrastructure or basic services at her home village and that there was a danger from anti-personnel mines in the fields after years of conflict. "People are very, very cautious about the security situation. Even now you still have mines and ammunition scattered around without proper marking," said Jimmy Ogwang, a UNHCR field clerk.

He said it would take time to build confidence. "Their home is not far from here, but nothing is there as long as they remain here. You cannot build schools and health clinics without having people there," Ogwang said. "But they have learned that security means staying together in secure places."

Also at the back of Lanyom's mind as she decides whether or not to go home, will be the trauma that she and her husband suffered after they were abducted by the LRA in 2001. Neighbours have similar stories and concerns.

"We moved all day. They made me carry heavy loads and they kicked me with their boots and beat me. When we stopped at night, I was crying and fearing that I would have a miscarriage," Lanyom haltingly recalled as she stood among Adongkena's simple thatched huts.

"That night I thought I would die, but in the morning they released me," added the prematurely aged wonman, whose husband spent two years of torment and torture in the bush. He is sick in hospital with a chest problem and cannot work.

UNHCR's Ogwang said Pader was heavily affected by LRA abductions. "In 2005, it was still really bad here and the abducted kids started operating in the area. That was bad, difficult to tell who is who and who is doing what or are related to whom."

International human rights groups estimate that the LRA has kidnapped 30,000 children since 1987 for use as child soldiers and sex slaves. Ogwang said the Ugandan armed forces had felt insecure in Pader and unable to trust the locals.

A lot of hope is being placed in the peace talks. "We are waiting for the results, so much," Ogwang said, as a group of elders and Lanyom nodded their heads and murmured agreement.

Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to help protect northern Uganda's IDPs and assist the planned, orderly, voluntary and sustainable return of the displaced people to their areas of origin.

By Peter-Bastian Halberg in Adongkena Settlement, Uganda