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Special Report
Last Updated: 01/20/2009
Freedom of Movement in Northern Uganda: Case study of Kitgum District
Apio Lillian

Key words: UNHCR, Uganda, Lords Resistance Army, humanitarian organizations, IDP camps,

After a 21 year old experience of the Lords Resistance Army civil war conflict in Northern Uganda that saw the abduction of over 40,000 Ugandan children and displacement of over 1.8 million, there is ray of light in the lives of many people in Northern Uganda.  Life is slowly but surely improving in Northern Uganda and Kitgum District in particular.

The local government structure in Kitgum, through the office of the Resident District Commissioner, officially declared Kitgum 100% safe for movement. This declaration was made after a joint assessment involving all the UN agencies, International and National NGOs, District officials, CBOs.

Having worked with UNHCR in Kitgum District, under the camp management and camp coordination project. I have participated in programs which focus on ensuring the promotion and protection of IDPs in Kitgum District during and after displacement.

Given the relative peace that is currently prevailing in Kitgum District -- no more physical war, killings by rebels, abduction of persons and other forms of violence related to a civil war -- UNHCR Kitgum, which currently works in partnership with NRC, AVSI, and IRC & DED, is advocating for and supporting freedom of movement for internally displaced persons to satellite camps/transit camps or to their villages of origin as a durable solution to the return process and an end to displacement.

Freedom of movement of IDPs gives them the courage to pick up their lives, after having been locked up in congested camp life, and they now have the freedom to move and settle in any place of their choice. The majority of the IDPs have moved to transit sites as they keep monitoring the peace talks currently ongoing in Juba, while others IDPs have had the courage to return to their original homes, where they lived before displacement to camps.

This movement has enabled many IDPs to have access to their ancestral land and have begun farming and produce food to sustain themselves and their families. This has greatly reduced the dependency syndrome to food given by WFP, which is not enough to sustain a family on a monthly basis. The food ratio was too small compared to family member beneficiaries.

The return to villages has brought back many of the traditional cultural values of the Acholi people. These values were lost during confinement in camps, as many were frustrated and had to apply the “survival for fittest” theory of Charles Darwin. Family welfare was left largely to women, who stood by their children to ensure their survival. Many men, frustrated by a lack of jobs and money to provide for their families, took to alcoholism with whichever little money they got from casual labour around camp life.

Displaced schools that were forced to share limited classroom space or study under trees in the camps, have now re-opened in the villages of origin. Children have finally reported back to their original schools after many, especially girls, had dropped out to help their mothers look after their younger siblings.

This has also reduced cases of abuse of children’s rights in camps, e.g. where children had to sell food items by the roads with their mothers to earn a living instead of attending school thus denying them the right to education. Many girls were forced into early marriages due to high rates of sexual violence in camps, where they got raped, impregnated, and forced to marry the perpetrators or engaged in early sexual relations.

Men have gained back their cultural social status and are more responsible fathers, they have began farming food for sale to provide for other family needs like clothing, shelter, scholastic materials like books and pens for their children.

However, much as we advocate for freedom of movement and return to homes of origin, there many challenges met by the IDPs in the return areas as sighted below.

IDPs currently face many challenges as they return to transit sites or their final destinations (Homes of origin). Many return areas lack basic social services like water, road access, market places, schools, teacher housing, classroom blocks, health services, and food security.

Many people are also not very certain about the results of the Peace Talks in Juba, and therefore very hesitant to move out of the camps.

The IDPs have to start life again from scratch in the villages, they have to rebuild their home structures, open up access roads, and move miles to access safe water sources.

Given the above challenges some efforts have been made by UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations to support IDPs in the return process.

UNHCR is advocating for many humanitarian organizations to focus their attention on areas of return, so as to provide basic services for people who have left camps and moved to transit sites or villages of origin. Many of the basic services were concentrated around the 25 IDP camps in Kitgum during displacement to IDP camps.

UNHCR has tried to support IDPs to return home in various ways, they have provided them with tools in all parishes to encourage and boost community initiated projects. As a result, the communities have now opened community-access roads, built temporary school structures, and used the tools to clear bushes and compounds and build shelter structures.

UNHCR provided plastic sheeting to IDPs as a temporary roofing material during the wet season when they is no grass for thatching the residential huts.

Having assessed and proved that the elderly people are being left behind in the camps because they are old and too weak to build their own huts in villages or return sites, UNHCR and its partners have begun constructing some huts for extremely vulnerable persons using community participation methods.

Many humanitarian agencies are trying to drill boreholes in the villages like OXFAM and AVSI; they are providing drugs in health centers like MSF, AVSI, IRC, and OXFAM among others.These are indicators that freedom and peace is surely gaining momentum in Northern Uganda. However there is still a need to provide basic social services to the people as they return to their homes of origin.

There is need for development projects to empower the people of Northern Uganda to lead sustainable lives and reduce the Humanitarian dependency syndrome which has been part of their lives for the last 21 years of civil war conflict.

Apio Lillian is a former UNHCR Kitgum staff member and is currently an MA candidate at the UN mandated University for Peace.