Ugandans abandon refugee camps
By KATY POWNALL, Associated Press Writer Sat Sep 22, 3:54 AM ET
LIRA, Uganda - Wild cheers rise from the crowd as the mud huts
crumble to the ground, sending plumes of red dust into the blue sky.
For thousands of Ugandans who called the cramped quarters home during
one of Africa's longest and most brutal wars, the demolitions offer
hope in a country devastated by war. The government is closing
several camps for those uprooted by fighting as a semblance of
security returns and people finally are going home. "There is freedom
now and you can really feel it in the atmosphere," says Catherine
Amal, a local government official in northern Uganda, the epicenter
of a 20-year rebellion by the Lord's Resistance Army. "People can
trade, people can socialize. There is a lot of excitement about being
The LRA led a brutal insurgency against President Yoweri Museveni
since the mid-1980s, leaving thousands dead and forcing 1.7 million
people to flee their homes, according to relief organizations. The
rebels are notorious for cutting off the tongues and lips of
civilians and kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers and
The two sides signed a cease-fire in August 2006, but alleged
violations have led to ugly recriminations and temporary walkouts.
Still, rebel leaders are now based far away in northeast Congo, and
their representatives have been in peace talks with the government
for more than a year.
For many displaced Ugandans, that's reason enough to leave crowded
camps that once housed up to 1.7 million people in squalid
conditions. In Lira alone, more than 350,000 people were living in
camps at the end of 2005. But they have been leaving in steady droves
as the peace talks went on and rebel attacks dwindled.
Now, only about 12,700 remain in this district's camps — prompting
the much-welcome demolitions that started this month. Trees are being
planted to replace the thatched huts.
The closures are transforming Lira. For the first time in years,
curfews have been lifted, markets are bustling and people are working
in the fields without fear of abduction by the rebels.
The town's muddy streets, once deserted after sunset, are now
thronged with bikes. The market is a bustling hub filled with stacks
of fruit and vegetables, piles of polished shoes and towers of bright
Drivers complain of traffic jams in the town center — an
inconvenience unimaginable a year ago.
Joel Peter Angiro said the region's new vibrancy has allowed him to
make money from his two-acre farm.
"For the first time in five years I'm able to use my land to grow
crops," he said. "As well as food, I'm growing cotton as a cash crop.
It's a new beginning for us."
Improved security also has brought investors who want to take
advantage of the vast swaths of land that have been all but
inaccessible for the past 20 years.
"The north of Uganda is very fertile and now there is peace a lot of
businesses are keen to get a slice of the action," said Valentine
Ogwang of the Uganda Investment Authority. He said food giant Mukwano
Industries was planning to open a cooking oil processing factory in
Lira with 150,000 farmers producing sunflowers for them next year.
Humanitarian agencies warn that the road to recovery is a long one.
Those returning to their villages find themselves without the basic
services they had in the camps. Houses, schools and health centers
have crumbled due to years of neglect, agricultural land has grown
wild and natural springs have clogged and dried up.
The lives — and livelihoods — of the displaced have been destroyed by
the war, the result of a northern rebellion that began in 1986 when
Museveni, a southerner, seized power. Museveni's counterinsurgency
campaign bred resentment in the north, where his fighters were
accused of human rights violations.
"Most people have to start their lives over," said Stefano Severe,
the United Nations refugee agency's representative in
Uganda. "Insecurity is still a big factor in the north. Rumors of LRA
activity continue to pass through the communities spreading fear that
the threat has not yet been contained."
Still, Angiro, the farmer, said he's confident enough in the region's
long-term stability that he's planning to take one important step he
has put off for years.
"I've waited long to marry," he said, smiling.