Uganda: Government fails to protect IDPs in the north, as international presence remains inadequate

from Global IDP Project
Published on 24 Feb 2005
Executive Summary
The ongoing peace talks between the government and the rebel group, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), have revived cautious hopes that the plight of the internally displaced people (IDPs) in northern Uganda may finally be eased. While the official number of IDPs has decreased slightly from 1.6 million in June 2004 to around 1.4 million in February 2005, the real number could be more than 2 million as hundreds of thousands of IDPs live with relatives or in camps not yet fully recognised by the government. IDPs living outside official camps have not been registered and do not benefit from UN food assistance.

The intensity and frequency of LRA attacks have reduced considerably in the second half of 2004 and some NGOs reach far-away camps without armed escort. Nonetheless, insecurity prevails and many humanitarian organisations prefer to access the camps protected by the Ugandan army. Living conditions in the camps are appalling, with a widespread lack of infrastructure and basic services, including schools, health care, and water and sanitation facilities. IDPs living in unrecognised camps have not received any food assistance. Abductions, killings and looting by the LRA continue to impede any large-scale return movements.

Increased military and international political pressure has led to a weakening of the LRA and seems to have removed whatever it might have had of a political agenda. This appears to have resulted in the LRA oscillating between the willingness to engage in peace talks and a violent struggle for mere survival. To fill their ranks, the LRA has resorted to the abduction of children. An estimated 20,000 children have been abducted by the rebels during the 19-year conflict, nearly half of them reportedly in the two years up to May 2004. Tens of thousands of children, so-called night commuters, come into some of the major towns every night to sleep on the streets or in public buildings for fear of being abducted or killed.

The visit to Uganda of the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland at the end of 2003 and a number of follow-up visits by the strengthened UN Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division, which made Uganda one of its priority countries in 2004, were positive steps taken by the UN increasing international focus on the critical IDP situation in northern Uganda. Although this has led to strengthened UN coordination mechanisms and operational capacity, the international presence in northern Uganda continued to be far from adequate considering the scale of the crisis.

The record of failed peace talks between the warring parties is long and there is reason to be cautious about their intentions to end the conflict peacefully and create the conditions for the effective protection and subsequent return movements. The dilemma of how to respond to the urgent needs of assistance and protection of almost two million largely inaccessible IDPs in northern Uganda may therefore still confront the humanitarian community in the near future.

Background and main causes of displacement

The conflict in Acholiland in northern Uganda has dragged on for 19 years and caused the internal displacement of as many as two million people, out of whom around 1.4 million receive food assistance from the UN (OCHA, 11 November, 2004, p.6, 17 February 2005). The majority of the displaced have fled within Kitgum, Pader and Gulu districts in the north, where more than 90 per cent of the population live in overcrowded camps or urban centres. The conflict, which was initially limited to these three districts, spread further east in 2003 causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. A relative calm in these eastern districts in the second half of 2004 has encouraged some return movements, particularly in the Teso sub-region, where IDPs move progressively closer to home. Camp populations range from 60,000 to fewer than 2,000 in the smallest sites, which include churches, public buildings and hospitals. An unspecified number of displaced are staying with relatives and in camps which are in the process of being recognised by the government and included in the official IDP figures (CSOPNU, 10 December 2004, p.63; OCHA, 15 June 2004; USAID-FEWS, 24 May 2004; USAID, 5 May 2004; OPM, 11 November 2003).

The conflict escalated in the mid-1990s when the LRA started to receive support from the Sudanese government in retaliation for the Ugandan government's support for the Sudanese rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

As a response to the increased rebel activities, the government embarked on a policy of forcing the population in some of the northern districts into camps to separate them from the rebels. This forced displacement has been an important factor in the division of the Acholi community. Most of the rebels and their victims are Acholis, who since the colonial period have had a long antagonistic relationship with the southern-based elites which dominated the country before independence in 1962. When the government started forcing people into camps in the mid-1990s, the rebels, suspecting the inhabitants of tacitly supporting the government, reacted with attacks on these camps in an apparent attempt to dismantle them and force people back to their scattered homesteads.

The LRA originated mainly from members of the previous national army, the Uganda National Liberation Army, which was defeated by Museveni's National Resistance Army in 1988. The majority of the defeated troops were Acholis from the northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader (LIU, 30 October 2003, p.33).

With the consent of the Sudanese government and in the framework of the Sudanese peace agreement, the Ugandan army has launched several large-scale military offensives against the LRA's rear bases in southern Sudan since March 2002. The deployment of a large part of the army in pursuit of the LRA in Sudan left the Acholi population in camps without adequate protection against the rebels (OCHA, 15 June 2004; USAID, 5 May 2004; IRIN, 5 April 2002). This had disastrous consequences: in response to the increased military pressure in Sudan, LRA forces returned to Uganda and initiated a spate of attacks and massacres in IDP camps (OCHA, 31 May 2004; USAID, 5 May 2004). Although the intensity and frequency of the attacks has fallen considerably in the second half of 2004, the rebels are as of February 2005 still engaged in atrocities and attacks on the IDPs, and the security situation is unpredictable in most of the affected districts (OCHA, 17 February 2005; NRC, 12 February 2005).

The NRC's Geneva-based Global IDP Project is the leading international body monitoring internal displacement worldwide. In Uganda, the NRC, as a partner of the World Food Programme, distributes food to more than one million displaced people, and is engaged in numerous other assistance and protection activities.

For more information, please contact:
Jens -Hagen Eschenbächer, Communication Coordinator,
NRC Global IDP Project, Geneva, +41-22-799 07 03, or 41-79 79 79 439

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