Relief for the displaced of rural Uganda
The ICRC is continuing to deliver seeds and essential assistance items to hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by conflict in northern Uganda. Ugandan journalist Denis Ocwich reports on a delivery of supplies to a remote camp for displaced persons.
It took two hours of driving on wet, muddy and bumpy roads to travel from the Northern Uganda town of Gulu to Acokara camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), deep in rural Otwal sub-county, Oyam district.
Our red cross flag-waving convoy of two Land Cruisers and two relief-laden trucks was greeted by a jubilant crowd eagerly awaiting seeds, blankets and soap to be distributed by the ICRC. Through such distributions, the ICRC aims both to improve their living conditions and help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient.
It was the second time this year that the ICRC had made a trip to carry out a distribution of aid to this camp, home to some 10,000 people who have fled their villages because of the conflict between Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Ugandan government forces.
By 11.00 o'clock in the morning, the lush compound of Acokara Primary School had been turned into a bevy of activity as thousands of people lined up to receive their share of the assistance supplies: two blankets, three bars of soap, one 1.5kg sachet of simsim (sesame) seeds and one 3kg sachet of green grains per household.
Chatting and giggling with each other were women with babies on their backs, elderly people supported by walking sticks, and children who had skipped school to help their parents carry the aid.
After spending four years in tiny mud-and-wattle huts in this crammed camp, the displaced are preparing themselves to return home, thanks to a truce signed between the LRA and the Uganda government last year. But many people are still hesitant to quit the camps either for fear that the fighting may resume or because of a lack of shelter or food.
Clutching a pair of blankets he had just received, 77-year-old Nikolas Acika from Apurukec village said, “I am still residing in the camp, but I hope to be settled in my home by the end of the year.”
Accompanied by his six-year-old grand-daughter Everline Acen, bare-footed Acika recalled previous support received from the ICRC. “They started helping us in 2004 when we came to the camp. I have since received farm tools like hoes and sickles, crop seeds, soap and blankets.”
Non-food relief distribution is one of the core operations of the ICRC in Northern Uganda, a region yet to recover from 21 years of civil strife.
The insurgency is estimated to have displaced close to two million people at its peak in 2004, though some have since returned to their homes. Over 20 districts in the north and northeastern parts of the country have been affected by the violence.
Once economically vibrant, northern Uganda now has about half of its population living on the goodwill of humanitarian agencies.
According to Christine Cipolla, the Head of the ICRC's Gulu Sub Delegation, the organization is operating in 26 out of 53 camps in Gulu, Amuru and Oyam districts. Up to 44,000 households (220,000 individuals) have benefited from aid this year. Overall in northern Uganda, 770,000 people have received aid from the ICRC in 2007.
"Our concept", says Cipolla, "is to enable people to become self-sustaining, especially at this time when the government is encouraging IDPs to return to their villages. Of course there will always be some unmet needs, but we have tried to reach out to as many people as we can,” she adds.
Early this year, ICRC distributed farm tools and crop seeds including maize, beans, cabbages, onions and tomatoes to help the displaced start planting their own crops.
“Although beans and some other seeds did not give us good yields – as a result of heavy rains - we are glad that some people are harvesting crops from the ICRC seeds which they planted,” said Patrick Opige, the Acokara camp leader.
As the relief distribution went on at Acokara, we strolled into a nearby market where fresh vegetables such as cabbages, maize, and tomatoes were on sale.
“From the seeds the Red Cross gave me, I was able to plant four plots of cabbages in Baluk swamp; and this is the product,” Moses Oyuku, a 35-year-old father of five, happily pointed out as he showed us a heap of cabbages he was selling. “I sell each cabbage at between sh100 and sh500. In a day I raise at least sh5'000 (US$3).” Not a bad return for a person in this serene village with a noticeably low cost of living.
To help revive food production, the ICRC employs field monitors and agronomists who advise on best farming practices. Some farmers have been trained to train their colleagues on good agricultural practices.
Despite the ongoing peace talks, the displaced are still reluctant to resettle in their rural homes. Many lack food and shelter; their homes have either collapsed or been burnt down. Consequently, as people begin the trek from the camps back to their rural homes, their humanitarian needs will remain on the agenda. Therefore, rejuvenating agricultural productivity is one strong way of giving the war-affected community a solid economic security.