Uganda: starting again from scratch

21-05-2008 Feature

Security has improved in Northern Uganda, and many among the internally displaced are returning to their homes. After years of absence, the challenges are many. Iolanda Jaquemet reports on the returnees' experience, and on the ICRC programmes that aim at helping the more vulnerable start a new life.

Filda Monango, her husband and two children have been back in Paludar since mid-March. This was almost exactly ten years after being forced to abandon their village on the edge of Northern Uganda, leaving behind all their possessions, just to save their lives.

'Here, I finally feel free.' 


" Over the past months, I've seen so many people leave the camp to go back, and I've understood it is safe now. Here, I am able to access my own land, I am reunited with my clan. Here, I finally feel free, " states Filda. While talking, she keeps an eye on her husband and her brother, who are busily mixing water with soil, which they then apply on the walls of the round hut that will soon be their home.

The people of Northern Uganda are on the move again, ten or sometimes twenty years after fleeing the fighting between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda. At the height of the conflict, as many as 1.7 million of them had lost their homes, and regrouped in camps for the internally displaced.

 Movement out of the camps is speeding up  

After the belligerents signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in mid-2006 however, security greatly improved on the ground. The slow but steady movement out of the overpopulated camps has picked up pace. Along the north's ochre mud tracks, groups o f farmers are now busily clearing land that had lain fallow for many years.

It is not an easy process. As Filda Monango says, " at 39, I should have much cattle and a well established household. Instead, my possessions are as few as those of a newly married woman. " Christine Cipolla, ICRC head of sub-delegation in Gulu, sums up the challenges met by the returnees: " a dense bush has covered the fields, springs have dried up, access roads have become a narrow path " . Moreover, villages lack the health clinics and secondary schools that had sprung up around the large camps.

  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
  Fields around Apyeta village, Kitgum district. These farmers are opening their lands, which have long lain fallow, under an ICRC agricultural cash-for-work programme.    

 Returnees set the tone for the support they need  

In Paludar and elsewhere, the ICRC is adjusting to the new developments. " After having, for years, assisted the displaced in the camps, we are in a transition phase, " says Michel Meyer, head of the ICRC delegation in Kampala. " We follow the communities who have taken the initiative to return, we listen to their needs and see how best to support them. "

At the beginning of the year, the ICRC distributed seeds and farming tools to four out of ten internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the four Acholi districts – a whopping 400,000 beneficiaries. Among those, 40,000 returnees – selected from the most disadvantaged – will also benefit from a cash-for-work programme.

Janet Angelei, ICRC economic security coordinator, explains: " We pay the participants in cash, at local rates, for opening their long-abandoned fields. Additionally, they will sell part of their crops. They will thus reach food self-sufficiency, while the extra cash will help them meet recurrent expenses such as schooling and medical needs. "


 Cash-for-work programme relies on solidarity  

One original feature of the programme is group solid arity. Each cluster of 15 to 25 farmers includes a few vulnerable families – mainly elderly, but also widows, child-headed households or the chronically ill, like people with AIDS. The able-bodied carry out the hard work, while the weaker members are assigned lighter tasks, like collecting wood or sowing the seeds.

Later in the year, says Janet Angelei, the cash-for-work programme will target village infrastructure. " Communities will identify their priorities, like improving access roads, protecting springs or building storage facilities for crops, and we will support them. "

  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
  Apyeta village, Kitgum district. Joseph Alana with his wife sitting under the mango tree he had himself planted many years ago.    

Joseph Alana is one of the vulnerable beneficiaries. At 67, he is finally back in his village of Apyeta, not far from Paludar, where 101 households have been enrolled in the ICRC cash-for-work programme. He still mourns the wife and three sons lost to war and a long exile but at least, he says, showing the majestic mango tree above his head, " I am back under the tree I had planted with my own hands a long time ago. Here, there is no congestion like in the camp. I am tilling my own fields instead of being a casual labourer. I am so happy that they are not leaving people like me out of the ICRC project. "

For the younger generation though, who knows little about farming and had found new opportunities in town-like camps, return is more ambiguous. In Apyeta, 22-year old Francis Obedi is grateful to be part of the cash-for-work programme because, he says, " My father is mentally unbalanced, and I am responsible for my mother and younger siblings. What I really want though, is to sit my middle-school exams, and then go out for some job in town. Here, we have an elementary school, but that is all. "

He now looks forward to putting money aside and, " after two or three harvests, being able to go back to study. " Next to him, his mother nods in approval. She understands that for Francis,'freedom'has a different meaning than for one who has been a farmer her whole life.