BBC: Uncertainty over Ugandan Peace Talks

Leorina Lakot pounds maize at a camp in northern Uganda

Leorina Lakot, a mother of 9, is fairly typical of hundreds of thousands of northern Ugandans who have moved out of camps for the internally displaced in the last year. Having lived in Mucwini Camp, 25km north of Kitgum, for 4 years, in March she came to live at a new, smaller resettlement site. “Here we have our own land, which we didn’t have in the main camp. I’ve planted groundnuts, and I hope soon that I can grow enough food to support myself,” she says.

 

At the height of the conflict in northern Uganda, around 1.7 million people were living in camps to avoid attack, mainly by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels. But during a year of peace talks between the Ugandan government and LRA, hundreds of thousands of them have started to move back home. Mucwini Camp used to be home to just over 25,000. Camp Commander Livingstone Kolo says barely more than a thousand of them still remain.

 

Many of those who have stayed behind, have done so because there are few facilities outside the camps. Leorina Lakot’s eldest daughter has stayed in Mucwini to go to school. It would be too far to walk everyday if she moved to her mother’s new place. 72-year-old Quirino Otto has also stayed behind. “My children have gone back to the village but I’m too old to cut the grasses to make my house. Later I’ll follow them but at the moment no-one can cut the grasses for me.”

 

But a handful of people are waiting to leave the camps for a different reason. “I do not agree with the peace talks process. They make various statements. Today you hear one thing, tomorrow you hear something else. That makes me worried to go back home,” says Bonix Odoch. He was abducted four times by the LRA, but each time managed to escape after a few days. “I stay here because I have a fear to go back to my village. Because I was abducted four times, I still have that fear in my mind.”

 

Indeed, aid agencies like Oxfam have noticed a pattern in the movement of people across the region. “It’s estimated more than 700,000 have left the camps,” says the organisation’s Io Schmidt. ”Only in the southern areas do you have a return to original villages. In the north people tend to go to new sites, which resemble camps, but which have the advantage of being closer to their villages and also more spacious, so they can grow crops.”

Ploughing land near Kitgum, northern Uganda

 

The movement of people across northern Uganda depends very much on their perceived  proximity to the LRA. The rebels are said to have gathered in southernSudan, and those people  living closest to the border are least likely to have left the camps. They know that if the peace  talks were to fail, they would be closest to danger again.

 

Nevertheless, these peace talks have brought about an unprecedented level of security across the north. Most noticeably, that’s affected the rural population who were displaced by the conflict. But the almost complete end to road ambushes and night time attacks is also being felt in northernUganda’s towns. “Since the peace talks started, at least four buses have been leaving to go from here toKampaladaily and minibuses have also increased in number,” says Charles Ocan, the Chairman of Kitgum Town’s Taxi Operators and Drivers Association. “Before the peace talks we had just open trucks and small, small taxis.”

 

Vehicles used to be prohibited from leavingKitgumTownbefore10amand after4pm, but greater security on the roads has led to fewer restrictions. And that’s had a knock-on effect on transport-reliant businesses. In Kitgum market, fresh fruit and vegetables like aubergines, tomatoes and oranges are in abundance. Its even possible to get fresh fish from Lake Kyoga from time to time.

 

Anthony Olanya has also experienced an upturn in business since the talks began a year ago. The proprietor of the Step Zero Centre bar and pool hall says on average, he used to sell 3 crates of beer a night. Now he sells 8, plus 3 crates of sodas. “At the weekend, people come here at 10 in the morning and some don’t leave until4am,” he tells me. “Things have really changed.”