Uganda: Increased international attention has yet to produce concrete results for the displaced

from Global IDP Project
Published on 06 Jul 2004
Increased international attention has yet to produce signs of an end to one of the world's most brutal humanitarian crises, which has displaced 1.6 million people in northern Uganda. The rebellion by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which kidnaps children, brutalises them, and sends them out to slaughter their friends and relatives, has been going on for 18 years. Some 28,000 children have been abducted, nearly half of them in the two years up to May 2004.
The rebels' political objectives are unclear, but they seem bent on dismantling the camps where most of the internally displaced people (IDPs) live, seeing their inhabitants as tacit supporters of President Yoweri Museveni's government. The number of LRA attacks on IDP camps has increased since 2002 following the loss of the rebels' support bases in neighbouring Sudan. In what was the most vicious atrocity in nine years, the LRA massacred some 300 IDPs in Barlonya camp in February 2004. Numerous other attacks, typically accompanied by massacres, rape, abductions and looting, have since followed across northern Uganda. Some 45,000 children, so-called night commuters, come into the towns every night to sleep on the streets or in public buildings for fear of attacks on their villages and camps.

Neither increased international attention to the crisis nor the government's military strategy have prevented the further deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in northern Uganda. The response by humanitarian actors should therefore be accompanied by international political pressure on the government to reinforce its efforts to end the conflict peacefully and create the necessary conditions for the return of Uganda's displaced population.

Background and main causes of displacement in Acholiland

The conflict in Acholiland in northern Uganda has dragged on for 18 years and caused the displacement of around 1.6 million people. The majority of the displaced has fled within Kitgum, Pader and Gulu districts in the north, where more than 90 per cent of the population live in overcrowded camps. The conflict which was initially limited to these three districts has spread further east, and as of June 2004 there are internally displaced people in nine northern and eastern districts. 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 (UN OCHA, 15 June 2004; USAID-FEWS, 24 May 2004; USAID, 5 May 2004; OPM, 11 November 2003).

It is widely recognised that the violence perpetrated by the rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), is the main trigger for displacements in northern Uganda. The LRA is headed by members of the previous national army, Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), which was defeated by the Museveni-led National Resistance Army in 1988. The majority of these troops were Acholi people from the northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader. There is a long history of antagonism, dating back to colonial rule, between the Acholis and the southern-based elites who dominated the country before independence in 1962, and again since President Yoweri Museveni's accession to power in 1986 (LIU, 30 October 2003, p. 33).

Although the LRA's wider political agenda is unclear, its immediate objectives seem to be the overthrow of the current government and the dismantling of the IDP camps. There are also indications that the rebels have increased the frequency and intensity of attacks on the IDP camps because of diminishing support from elements in the Sudanese army and government in the light of the Sudanese peace process. As a result, the LRA rebels have lost sanctuaries in southern Sudan and become more dependent on looting and raiding of camps in search of food in northern Uganda. The LRA appears to view the people in these camps as tacitly supporting the current government.

Eighty per cent of the LRA reportedly consists of abducted children, many of whom have been converted in the most brutal ways into extremely violent fighters. The rebels force abducted children to kill and watch beatings, rape and the slaughtering of friends and relatives. Disobedience is likely to result in the children falling victim to the same fate. Since the beginning of the conflict in 1986, a total of more than 28,000 children have been abducted, 12,000 of them taken between June 2002 and May 2004. Some 4,500 were reportedly fighting for the LRA as of July 2003 (Tearfund, 17 June 2004; HRW, 15 July 2003, p. 21).

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's People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The rebels forced about three-quarters of the population to flee their homes in the Gulu and Kitgum/Pader districts of the north. A relative calm in the area during 1999 and part of 2000 allowed for some return movements.

In March 2002, with the consent of the Sudanese government, the Ugandan army launched a large-scale military offensive called "Operation Iron Fist" against the LRA's rear bases in southern Sudan. This operation, which was re-launched in March 2004 under the code name "Operation Iron Fist II", has aggravated an already complex conflict (UN OCHA, 15 June 2004; USAID, 5 May 2004; IRIN, 5 April 2002). The deployment of a large part of the army in pursuit of the LRA in Sudan in March 2002 left the Acholi population in camps without adequate protection against the rebels. In response to increased military pressure in Sudan, the LRA forces have returned to Uganda heavily armed and initiated a spate of attacks and massacres in IDP camps. (UN OCHA, 31 May 2004; USAID, 5 May 2004).

The suffering inflicted by the rebels is further exacerbated by it being committed by the victims' own ethnic group and, in many cases, their own relatives.

In spite of various half-hearted attempts - mostly under international pressure - to open dialogue with the LRA for a negotiated peace, the Ugandan government has chosen to confront the problem in the north by military means. Any attempt at a peace process is further complicated by an apparent lack of will on the part of the rebels to engage in serious talks, as well as mutual mistrust. Moreover, the start of operation Iron Fist II has only worsened the humanitarian crisis, despite the reported military successes. This has led representatives from the local civil society to call for international mediation and a political solution to the conflict (CSO, 16 June 2004, ICG, 14 April 2004, p. 25; HURIPEC, 30 October 2003, p. 121, pp. 144-145; IRIN, 22 April 2003).

Spreading of violence to the east

An incursion of LRA rebels in the districts of Soroti, Katakwi, Apac and Lira further south and east, caused the displacement of around 400,000 people between August 2003 and May 2004. The government and local authorities have created and armed local militias, called Arrow and Rhino groups to counter the incursions (UN OCHA, 2 June 2004, 31 August 2003). However, the militarisa-tion of young civilians risks to further increase simmering ethnic tensions between the Acholis who are often equated with the LRA, the Iteso (the overwhelming majority of the residents in Soroti, Kaberamaido and Katakwi) and the Langi (residents of Lira and Apac) (ISS, 31 March 2004; ACT, 30 October 2003).

There are also fears that the new local militias will increase violent confrontations with the cattle-rustling Karamojong who were the main perpetrators of violence and the main cause of displacements in the eastern districts before the LRA attacks in June-August 2003.

The Karamojong have suffered a history of colonial and post-colonial repressive policies in addition to famine and deteriorating environmental conditions (UN OCHA, 28 February 2004; MRGI, 12 March 2001; EPCPT, December 2000). Moreover, the proliferation of small automatic arms has contributed to the disintegration of traditional clan structures in which elders were able to exercise control over the younger generation. The introduction of automatic weapons has created a pattern of violence, which evidently goes beyond the search for water and pasture during the dry season. Automatic weapons have given younger men the means and incentive to establish a reputation as brave warriors and build their own herds through mounting raids on other pastoral groups and neighbour-ing populations (UN OCHA, 30 November 2003).

Dramatic worsening of protection situation

The intensified violence and recent spate of massacres by the LRA following Operation Iron Fist I and II have been followed by massive displacements to largely unprotected camps, which are in fact regular targets for the rebels. In February 2004, in the most vicious attack in nine years, more than 300 people were massacred in Barlonya camp in Lira district, prompting the displacement of around 200,000 people. A steady stream of smaller attacks and massacres has followed, mainly in Pader, Kitgum and Gulu districts. (CSO, 16 June 2004, UN OCHA, 1 March 2004; BBC, 22 February 2004).

In spite of some improved security in the eastern districts of Soroti and Katakwi, the combination of poor physical protection and the rebels' tactic of deliberately attacking the camps continue to inflict tremendous suffering on the IDP population. Four camps were attacked in May 2004 alone and 125 people killed, many women and children clubbed to death. Others were burned alive in their huts, had their food stocks destroyed and their children abducted (IRIN, 11 June 2004; UN OCHA, 31 May 2004). Other rampant protection concerns in the camps are sexual exploitation, rape, early marriage, child prostitution and recruitment of child soldiers to the ranks of the national army. Despite public statements by the government and the army that they are firmly committed to protect the IDPs and fight the LRA, the recent spate of massacres and attacks on the camps is another tragic reminder of a manifest and long-lasting failure to do so.

The increasing number of so-called night commuters, mostly children who regularly move from insecure areas into safer town centres to spend the night on verandas and the streets or in public buildings, is also a clear indication of a steadily deteriorating protection situation. The number has reached a total of 45,000 per night in the towns of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Pader and exacerbates the problem of sexual- and gender-based violence against girls and women (UN OCHA, 15 June 2004, p. 6). An additional source of concern is the increasing numbers of un-recognised camps emerging throughout northern Uganda. In Gulu district alone, there are over ten camps which have not been recognised by the authorities, although IDPs were reportedly forced into these camps by the Ugandan army. The very large majority of the unofficial camps do not have access to humanitarian assistance, and in case of attacks, the army and the district authorities have waived their responsibility to protect them.

Appalling humanitarian conditions

Displacements and the volatile security situation have severely impeded access to farmland for the majority of the IDPs and therefore significantly reduced the food security in the affected areas. High risk of attacks outside the camps has prevented people from cultivating and taking advantage of the relatively well-distributed rain in some parts of the region between late March and early May 2004. Insecurity curtailed the first planting season in March 2004, and will leave most of the farming IDPs without enough food for the rest of the year. By April 2004, IDP households in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts faced a deficit of between 10 to 19 percent of the minimum Recommended Daily Allowance (2,100 kilocalories/person/day). In some camps in Lira malnutrition has affected between 9 and 15 per cent of the children (FEWS, 17 June 2004; UN OCHA, 15 June 2004; WFP, June 2004).

The health system in most of the rural camps has collapsed, health workers have moved to safer areas, and expectant mothers are not attended adequately. Diseases like malaria, diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections proliferate (UN OCHA, 31 March 2004; AAH, 30 October 2003, p. 6). Lack of water and sanitation facilities in the camps is another major cause of concern. In IDP camps in Gulu, there is an average of 2,700 persons per water point, and 85 per cent of the displaced have no access to public latrines (CRS, 31 January 2004). The congestion in the camps combined with an acute shortage of latrines increases the risk of faecal contamination of ground water and ensuing cholera outbreaks (UN OCHA, 31 March 2004; UHRC, 31 March 2004).

Difficulties in introducing free primary education in Uganda under the Universal Primary Education policy (UPE) have been compounded by the problems of displacement. Firstly few, if any, of the school infrastructures were designed to cope with the influx of displaced pupils. Secondly, because of the displacements of teachers and students, funds allocated under the UPE scheme do not reach approved destinations. The result is that an estimated 143,700 children or 23 per cent of school-age children are not at school. Moreover there is widespread lack of teaching materials and an acute shortage of teachers. This is why the pupil-to-classroom ratio rose to as much as 234:1 in some schools (UN OCHA, 15 June 2004, 19 November 2003; OPM, 11 November).

An almost complete break-down of social structures and social support systems accompany the collapse of basic public services, access to food and livelihood opportunities. Despair, apathy, feelings of dependency and uselessness, lack of privacy and humiliations have ensued displacement, and crime and abuse of alcohol and drugs are on the rise (RLP, 28 February 2004, pp. 26-27; AAH, 1 November 2003).

Humanitarian access

Intensified rebel activity has hampered the provision of humanitarian assistance to most of the camps in northern and eastern Uganda. The exception is in Lira, Katakwi and Soroti districts where access has improved after the authorities created local militias in 2003 and the LRA pulled out. In most of the other affected districts, armed escorts are required. WFP offers places in their heavily armed convoys to non-governmental organisations. However, this offer is not always accepted. Some organisations refuse to go with armed escorts as a matter of principle; others argue that they would not be able to carry out their activities in the midst of hectic food distributions (UN OCHA, 31 May 2004, 31 August 2003).

Return opportunities

The few reported return movements have taken place mostly in the eastern districts following improved security and rainfall. In most of the other affected districts frequent attacks, lootings, killings, rapes and abductions make any return movements highly unlikely in the near future (UN OCHA, 24 March 2004, 30 November 2003).

Increased international attention

International attention to the crisis in northern Uganda has increased following a visit to the region by the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, in November 2003 and his description of the situation as the "world's biggest neglected humanitarian crisis". In April 2004, the UN Security Council discussed the situation in northern Uganda, and the UN Secretary-General's Representative on IDPs, Francis Deng, presented a report on his mission to the country in August 2003 to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. A number of high level donor and UN missions have since brought more attention to the on-going crisis (UN OCHA, 31 May 2004; UNCHR, 23 April 2004; UNSC, 14 April 2004). The United States, one of Uganda's main donors, has recently started an initiative to advise the Ugan-dan government regarding peace and reconciliation efforts.

The UN - with the exception of the World Food Programme - has been widely criticised for not addressing the crisis adequately. However, UN coordination mechanisms and operational capacity have recently been strengthened with the setting up of four UN OCHA field offices in the north and east of Uganda, two UNICEF field offices in Gulu and Kitgum, one FAO field office and one WHO office in Gulu. UNICEF also announced that it is considering taking the lead in strengthening the UN's protection capacity in the north. The response of the Ugandan government has also attracted strong criticism, particularly for its policy to focus almost solely on military means to end the conflict and its failure to protect IDP camps. More than two years after the process of developing a national IDP policy was initiated, the draft has still not been be endorsed by the government. The delay puts into question the government's political will to address the crisis.

Increased international attention to the crisis has not yet led to a tangible improvement of the security and humanitarian situation in northern Uganda. Nor has the government's military strategy succeeded in ensuring the safety of the civilian population.

Efforts must therefore continue to find ways to overcome the disinterest in negotiations by the government and, in particular, the LRA, and engage both sides in a peace process that would create the necessary conditions for the effective protection and subsequent return of Uganda's displaced population.

Note: This is a summary of the Global IDP Project's country profile of the situation of internal displacement in Uganda. The full country profile is available online here.

(In alphabetical order)

Action by Churches Together (ACT), 30 January 2003, ACT Appeal Uganda: Emergency Relief - AFUG-31

BBC News, 22 February 2004, Rebels massacre Uganda civilians

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), 31 January 2004, Water & Sanitation Survey in IDP Camps

Civil Society for Peace in Northern Uganda, 16 June 2004, Briefing by Civil Society Organisa-tions for OCHA donor support group II

European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation (EPCPT), December 2000, Uganda:Explosive Mix of Problems could re-ignite Civil War

Government of Uganda, 11 November 2003, IDP Numbers November 2003-For Soroti Cabinet meeting

Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC), Faculty of Law, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, 30 October 2003, The hidden war: the forgotten people

Human Rights Watch (HRW), 15 July 2003, Abducted and abused-renewed conflict in Uganda

Institute for Security Studies, 31 March 2004, The spread of the war

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 11 June 2004, Attacks on IDP camps kill more than 125 in the past month

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 22 April 2003, Peace process crumbling in north

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 5 April 2002, UGANDA-SUDAN: Focus on missing child abductees


Liu Institute for global issues, 30 October 2003, The Hidden War: The Forgotten People - October 2003

Minority Rights International, 12 March 2001, "Uganda: The Marginalization of Minorities"


Tearfund, 17 June 2004, Flood of 'night commuter' children rises in Northern Uganda

United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR), 23 April 2004, Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, Francis M. Deng-Item 14 (c) E/CN.4/2004/77/Add.1 to the Commission on Human Rights


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)/World Food Programme (WFP), 28 February 2004, Humanitarian Update february 2004

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)/World Food Programme (WFP), 31 August 2003, Humanitarian Update August 2003

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 15 June 2004, Mid-Year Review of the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP): Humanitarian Appeal 2004 for Uganda

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 30 November 2003, Humanitarian Update - Uganda, Volume V, Issue 10 and 11

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 24 March 2004, Uganda mission report March 2004

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 31 May 2004, Humanitarian update Volume VI, issue V

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 30 November 2003, Workshops on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement Gulu and Kitgum, Northern Uganda November 2003 Final Report

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 2 June 2004, Minutes of the Contact Group meeting 2 June 2004

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 31 May 2004, Humanitarian update Volume VI, issue V

US Agency for International Development (USAID), 5 May 2004, Uganda Complex Emergency Situation Report #3 (FY 2004)

USAID Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), 24 May 2004, A Monthly Newsletter on Food Security and Vulnerability in Uganda

World Food Programme (WFP), June 2004, WFP Uganda humanitarian update Jan-March 2004

Note: All documents used in this profile summary are directly accessible on the Uganda List of Sources page of our website.

About the Global IDP Project

The Global IDP Project, established by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 1996, is the leading international body monitoring internal displacement worldwide.

Through its work, the Geneva-based Project contributes to protecting and assisting the 25 million people around the globe, who have been displaced within their own country as a result of conflicts or human rights violations.

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