Uganda: Interview with the minister for disaster preparedness and refugees

News and Press Release
Originally published
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

KAMPALA, 9 June (IRIN) - The Ugandan government estimates that more than 1.4 million people in the northern and eastern regions live in more than 180 IDP camps, forced out of their homes over the last 19 years by LRA war. IRIN talked to the Ugandan deputy Prime Minister, who is also the Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Lt Gen Moses Ali, about their plight.
Below are excerpts from the interview:

QUESTION. Could you give a brief explanation of how these camps came into existence?

ANSWER. The camps were not formed by the government, they were a result of residents in the north and east spontaneously moving close to the UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Forces] bases in those areas in search of better security than they had in their homes, where they were [subjected] to rebel attacks regularly.

The government has only ever asked one or two sub-counties in Pader district [400 km north of the capital, Kampala] to move to camps to access services better and receive better security. This was during the height of LRA violence. Otherwise, the camps were entirely spontaneously created.

There was no time frame that we had for how long these camps would be in existence, so government was unprepared to deal with them. We had not budgeted for them. We did not know if the IDPs would be in the camps for two months or two years.

They began to put pressure on the UPDF - which now had to protect them in addition to fighting [LRA leader Joseph] Kony - and on the UPDF supplies, as they were sharing their food and medical supplies as well. This affected the ability of the army to fight the war, and we know that unless the security situation in the north improves, we cannot do away with the IDP problem.

Q. Since their formation, some as far back as 18 years ago, what has the government done for the IDP camps in terms of provision of health, education, food and other services?

A. The government was unprepared for the situation, and had no ready funds to cater for the needs of the IDPs. We have free primary education all over the country, which also exists in the affected areas. We provide some healthcare and some sanitation facilities.

Most of the assistance comes from NGOs. WFP [the UN World Food Programme] provides most of the food for the IDPs, and others provide water and health services.

The government's biggest contribution to the IDPs and to the NGOs is security. We protect the IDPs from rebel attacks, and we protect the NGOs as they deliver relief. If there were no government and no structures, the NGOs would have no way of helping the IDPs.

Q. Recently, there have been a number of attacks on IDPs by rebels.

Government soldiers have also attacked, and even killed some IDPs recently. What measures does the government have in place to protect the IDPs from these attacks?

A. IDPs have a limited area within which they are guaranteed UPDF protection, about two km from the camp. They must also notify the soldiers and request an escort when they want to go to fetch water or firewood. Occasionally, they do not ask for the escort or inform the army that they are leaving the camps. The result is rebel attacks - or the army mistaking them for rebels, as happened in the recent unfortunate incident Kitgum [when four IDPs fetching water outside the camp were shot and killed by the UPDF].

Q. The levels of HIV/AIDS in the camps, according to camp health officials, are very high. Does the government have a plan to deal with this situation?

A. The AIDS situation is actually very serious. People lost their livelihoods when they moved to the camps, and most of them are idle all day, so they end up behaving in dangerous ways, which increases the disease.

The government's IDP policy, launched recently, comprehensively lays out a strategy to deal with this situation, but it will be much easier once the war is over and people are living in a more normal environment.

Our health centres try to provide information and some services but it is difficult with the camp situation.

Q. The IDPs currently live in temporary shelters, which are often destroyed by fire or strong winds. Does the government plan to build more permanent shelters, or provide services like piped water to ease the living conditions of the IDPs?

A. We have actually been considering this for some time now, but it is a very difficult proposal. It involves purchasing land that owners may not be willing to sell. When we broached the subject to people in the north, the government was accused of trying to grab the people's land. Local politicians told the residents that we were trying to steal their land.

The government and NGOs need to put [their] heads together and come up with a solution, because we realise that these IDPs are living in very poor conditions that must be improved.

Waiting for elusive peace in the war-ravaged north:


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