ORAPWOYO, Uganda, June 5 (Reuters) - Nine years ago, Santonino Otok fled his home in the green fields of northern Uganda for a refugee camp, fearing attack by marauding rebels.
Now he is back under his old mango tree.
"My parents are buried here and my parents' parents, so it's a blessing to return," said a beaming Otok, 66, surveying the birthplace he thought he might never see again.
Two decades of rebellion by the cult-like Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in northern Uganda have killed tens of thousands of people and forced 1.7 million into camps.
But as peace talks which started last July in south Sudan make slow but steady progress, many are returning home.
Last month, Uganda's government and rebels signed the second phase of a multi-stage deal in the first major breakthrough since an August truce.
This month, they meet to tackle the next phase.
"Gradually, we have been moving closer. Now, there is easy communication," Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, the head of the government's negotiating team, told journalists.
With a truce largely holding and rebels hiding in Sudan or the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees says half a million Ugandans have left the camps.
Many are building new huts near the villages they fled, which have long since crumbled.
"When we saw the signs of peace we had to take our opportunity to get out," said Frederick Obote, 40.
"A NEW START"
In Orapyoyo, a new village is taking shape. Clearing the thick tropical bush, villagers dig foundations for their huts in the searing sun. Women build walls with clay bricks.
Residents say the camps tore apart their traditional way of life. Now they want it back.
"In the traditional homesteads, we would gather around the fire and pass on our values. In the camps we didn't have that," said Otok.
But more than anything, it is the indignity of relying on U.N. food aid that northern Ugandans are most keen to put behind them. The risk of attacks made it dangerous to move from the camps and till their well-watered fields.
"In the camp we couldn't dig. ... Here, I'm using our own land. In one year I will be able to feed my family," said 20-year-old Joseph Opio.
Local officials say there is still much to do. The new settlements that Uganda's war victims are building for themselves lack water and basic services.
Orapwoyo's old classrooms are sprouting weeds. With no housing for teachers, it will be months before a school re-opens here. Many residents leave their children in the refugee camps, where at least there is basic education.
Bereft of boreholes, families scoop drinking water from puddles.
"I walk for a mile to get this water and my children still get dysentery," said Josephine Onlangya, 46, swilling around a blue cup of cloudy brown water.
Yet despite the challenges, northern Uganda's war-weary Acholi tribe say they are are confident: "A new start," Otok said. "The Acholi have started smiling again."
(Additional Reporting by Tim Cocks in Kampala)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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