Uganda: IDPs begin slow journey home amid concerns over peace process

LABWOROMOR, 18 May 2007 (IRIN) - Basil Odingcom first experienced displacement more than 20 years ago when soldiers stormed Namokora village, home of the then Ugandan president, Tito Okello.

"It was death all around us as the defeated soldiers [loyal to Okello] staged a fight," he explained. "Many people were killed and many fled to the nearby trading centres. That is what led to the sprouting of the camp there."

Odingcom was among hundreds of fellow villagers who recently returned from camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to nearby Labworomor village - a few kilometres away from Namokora, Kitgum district, in northern Uganda. The village is within the vicinity of his family's former homes and gardens.

"A new government [of current president Yoweri Museveni] had taken over in the capital Kampala," explained the 42-year-old Odingcom, a father of seven and a teacher. Those opposed to the new government organised started a rebellion.

Two decades later, the rebellion was being led by the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which stands accused by humanitarian groups of killing hundreds of thousands and displacing almost two million civilians across northern Uganda and Southern Sudan.

Odingcom has known an IDP life for many years. "In the camps, we did not have enough to eat and suffered all sorts of diseases," he explained. "People were dying of bullet wounds, but more especially children because of malaria. Death was all we thought about every day."

Like Odingcom, many IDPs lived in squalid conditions, facing challenges ranging from inadequate food and water access to poor medical facilities, in a situation where disease was rampant and sanitation poor.

Time to go home?

In the past few months, however, thousands of the IDPs have started venturing out to areas near their homes due to the improved security. Many have established settlements that have decongested the major camps, but complain that access to social services in these areas is still dire.

"We have about 500 households here, but only one borehole," Helen Adee of Labworomor said. "We stay here, but we have left our children at the main camps because that is where there is education and medical facilities."

Local officials, however, pointed out that the government had just roofed a two-classroom school block at the camp. It was here that the visiting United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, took refuge from a heavy downpour.

But security remains their chief concern. "The community still lives in fear and will only return to their homes if the talks aimed at ending the conflict are successful," several IDPs insisted.

The talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA began in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba in July. So far, they have achieved a cessation of hostilities agreement and other concessions, but a complete peace agreement has yet to be reached. There is also a raft of charges drafted by the International Criminal Court against the rebel leaders.

In meetings with Holmes, who spent a night at Namokora camp on his first visit to the war-affected region, the IDPs said they were still living in fear, despite the fact that the security situation in the region had improved since the peace talks began.

"The security situation is improving and we follow whatever takes place in Juba," Adee said. "We moved here [Labworomor] because we can access more land than at Namokora. There, we used to hire land and it was very difficult because we did not have the money to pay landlords.

But she added: "We can only leave here when the Juba [talks] are concluded positively. The aftermath of the war is still with us. We fear that we may be attacked by the LRA, but we also fear attacks by the Karamojongs."

According to the IDPs, the Karamojong attacked a nearby village two weeks ago and killed four people, including two soldiers. The Karamojong, a pastoralist community well known for cattle rustling, live in nearby Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda.

"Those in Juba should continue with the peace process; it our hope that this will bring lasting peace," said Odingcom, on behalf of his fellow IDPs.

"It is also our hope that President Yoweri Museveni pardons Joseph Kony so that he could come back and end the war; if the president has northern Uganda at heart, then he should forgive Kony so that he can come back," Rose Ocaya told Holmes later during a cultural gathering around the fire locally known as the 'Wang Oo'.

Many IDPs said they last saw the LRA in December when the rebel fighters were moving from northern Uganda to Southern Sudan in accordance with the Juba agreement.

Huge challenges ahead

Explaining that the conflict, which claimed many lives and forced civilians out of their homes, was on the mend as evidenced by IDPs starting to think about returning homes, the UN official noted that the task ahead was enormous.

"The good news is that the people are thinking about going home and we have an opportunity to try to make this a success," he said. But even with UN help, he added, it would take a while for the area to recover from the effects of the war.

Around Namokora, the activities of people trying to trace their roots and planning to return to their villages were obvious as groups were seen clearing bushes while others were planting. Still others were building a settlement by the roadside towards Namokora.

"If the rains persist, we will be able to feed our families with the food we have planted. We used to have ox ploughs that helped in clearing bigger potions of land, but now we rely on manual labour and this has its limitations," Jacob Okeny explained to IRIN as he worked on his garden with four family members.

"A lot more has to be done to have people return home," Holmes said. "We will do our best to help in the resettlement and the return of the people."