Returning Home and Starting Over in Kitgum
In some districts, like Pader and Lira, almost everyone who had been living in camps has gone home. But in the far northern district of Kitgum, which borders Sudan, where remnants of the LRA are encamped, people have been more cautious. If the peace were to collapse, the people of Kitgum would once again bear the brunt of the first wave of the LRA’s brutality.
Given the fragile nature of the present calm, most people in Kitgum are not yet ready to sacrifice the relative safety of the camps. By night, most of them return to the same cramped mud huts in the same desperately poor camps where they have now lived for years.
But during the day, the people of Kitgum are laying the groundwork for a return home. They journey on foot from the camps to their ancestral homesteads, seeing what’s left after the LRA either burned or stole anything of value.
The Acholi cannot simply resume the lives they left. Cattle are the basic unit of economic and cultural life in Northern Uganda, and so when the LRA chased people off their land and stole their livestock, they robbed the Acholis of their way of life. A population once characterized by its pastoralism must now adopt agriculture as its sole means of support.
“When we had our animals, we would do two things, cultivate in the gardens and keep cattle,” said Okello Marcello, a 58-year old farmer from Palabek Kal, a village 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the Sudanese border. “If the harvest was bad, we could sell one or two cattle and nobody would be hungry. But now we have no cattle, not even any goats, and we are going to rely only on the harvest. And what if it is not good?”
On top of this, 20 years of displacement and lawlessness in the region has bred a rapidly growing number of disputes over land use and ownership. Traditionally in northern Uganda, much land was passed from generation to generation without official documentation. A lasting peace makes northern Uganda more attractive for investment, and opportunistic businesspeople are now taking advantage of the displacement and lack of formal system of land tenure to grab large, productive plots where ownership had never officially been recognized.
Even despite these challenges, people have not lost hope and they are rebuilding their homes and villages. The International Rescue Committee, which continues to provide comprehensive medical, education, human rights monitoring and gender-based violence programs for the displaced population of Kitgum’s camps, is committed to supporting that same population as they re-establish their homes and livelihoods. In collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council, the IRC is training traditional land chiefs and local government officials in dealing with land issues at the village level, rather than resorting to costly and lengthy legal proceedings.
“The process is designed to sort out competing claims and give individuals and communities an opportunity to advocate for their interests,” said IRC’s economic development officer Delu Dalil.
After helping returnees re-establish themselves on their land, the IRC is supporting the formation and work of collective farming groups designed to increase the marketing power of individual farmers.
“We are helping the people to make the best of a situation in which they are without their animals, to establish as strong an agricultural base as possible,” said Dalil.
Support to farmers focuses on improving individual agricultural practices and harnessing the selling power of large groups of farmers. The IRC is providing farmers with seeds for market-oriented produce, fertilizer and tools. With help from the IRC, returning communities around Kitgum are constructing permanent crop collection points which will allow farmers to avoid the fire or spoilage risks inherent to home crop storage. The IRC is establishing linkages between farmers and large-scale buyers by facilitating the transport of harvested crops to broadly-attended “farmer field days” at which farmers display their products.
Atim Mary, a mother of four children, said the challenges of rebuilding weighed heavily on her.
“But the IRC is organizing the community to have a plan to move forward,” she said. “We will follow it, and then we can all return and start living again.”
Thomas Bohnett is an IRC communications officer in Uganda