Close your eyes and gauge the darkness. Then imagine living in that state for 35 years. Your husband and two children are dead. The only living teenage son is an alcoholic. What would life mean to you in that dark world?
Fifty-year-old Jessica Aleti has suffered and endured all this for 35 years. Aleti is one of the 66,000 people who left Pabbo camp in Amuru District in northern Uganda in 2006 after the government’s voluntary programme for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their homes after the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency and atrocities subsided.
On August 26, 2006, government and the LRA leadership signed a ceasefire agreement as part of the Juba peace process. Although the Juba talks did not yield a formal pact, the hostilities ceased and relative peace allowed resettlement of the IDPs.
In 2006, government rolled out a programme for voluntary return of IDPs to their homes. People have returned home but say the psycho-social wounds of the war have not healed due to lack of compensation for lost lives and property. Many have no starting point to reconstruct their shattered lives.
Back to the camp
Aleti, blind and vulnerable, has returned to Pabbo IDP camp due to land wrangles in her family home. Government has allocated a 100 metre by 100 metre piece of land in former IDP camp site in Pabbo Sub-county to host the vulnerable.
Aleti is among those who have nowhere to go. Her relatives too shunned her, saying she was a burden.
When Daily Monitor visited her at Pabbo satellite camp, she was smearing a layer of wet earth on the wall of her six by six feet incomplete hut, which the neighbours have helped her to erect. She had not had food for two days.
“I do not have anything. When the war ended, I went back home to my uncles, but I did not stay there for even a year. They sold the land they had allocated to me. Only one of my children is alive. Their father was killed during the insurgency when I was in the camp here.
“My parents were killed by the LRA and my other siblings were also killed. Our last born was abducted by the rebels and has never returned.
“One was killed by the National Resistance Army (NRA) before we ran away from Pogo. I was left alone suffering,” Aleti says in a moving narrative.
Her relatives too shunned her, saying she was a burden.
Aleti is a mother of three, but only one of her children is alive. He dropped out of school after Primary Seven because she could not raise fees for secondary education.
She cannot explain what led to her blindness. She believes one of her two co-wives bewitched her after she had a fight with her before the insurgency about 35 years ago.
There are many who are like Aleti, who are not certain about what the future holds for them. A few huts built for the IDPs in the former Pabbo camp during the insurgency are now occupied by the vulnerable, who could not find peace at home.
Graves are scattered in the former IDP camp and the only visible sign of food security is a small cassava garden. About six bundles of grass, probably for roofing a hut, lie a few metres away and children in tattered clothes play joyfully.
Situation in the camp
Joseph Ojok came to Pabbo IDP camp in 1996, at the peak of the insurgency. He is the caretaker of what is now known as a satellite camp in one of the largest former IDP camps in Pabbo Sub-county. He says the government gazetted the area for memorial purposes, but there is no timeline given for it to be developed into a tourist site. Ojok calls for government intervention to help those still in the former camps.
“Government can build houses for them here or buy land for them where they can go and live. There are 50 people here in 10 households. More are coming and I will have 14 households,” Ojok said during the interview as he waved off a swarm of flies scavenging his wound-riddled feet.
Micheal Lakony, the Amuru District chairman, said people have returned home with both physical and psychological pain. Lakony said the voluntary return of people to their homes was not backed by adequate government intervention to help them resettle.
“Government had a policy of voluntary return, but the policy did not provide for the people to go back with incentives for resettlement. We have people who could not go back to their homes due to land wrangles,” he said.
He added: “Some mothers had children from different fathers. We have got land wrangles, children born in captivity. The fathers are not known. Some of them sneaked back to the camps. So we have got problems of people who returned to smaller satellite camps after leaving bigger camps like Pabbo here.”
For Grace Aryemo, a resident of Alero Sub-county in Nwoya District, was abducted by rebels in 1994, in Acut Omer Village in Gulu District. She returned home in 2000, with children born in captivity and has faced difficulty in providing for them.
The rebels turned her into a wife at a tender age and trained her to use a gun. She used to carry guns for senior rebels. One day, about 400 LRA rebels encountered government soldiers and she was shot during the fire exchange.
“I was carrying a gun and when they shot me. They took the gun too. I stayed in the bush. When other soldiers came and found me, they wanted to kill me because I had stayed in the bush for long. I pleaded and told them that I had also been abducted. They spared me,” she recounted.
She returned home but the bullet is still stuck in her thigh and has inflicted chronic pain to her.
“It is so painful I cannot even dig. I was taken to Lacor hospital when I returned but life is still hard. I still carry the bullet in my leg. I have six children and they have dropped out of school. I am not at peace,” she said.
She has no land where to live with her children.
“I returned to my parents in Acut Omer. They welcomed me but later, they started saying I should look for the home of the father of these children. During the war, he did not show me their home. I do not know it. His children I came back with are not in school,” she said.
Such are the emerging issues after more than 15 years of the two-decade LRA insurgency in northern Uganda.
Fred Okot, the chairman of Atiak Sub-county in Amuru, says for northern Uganda to heal, there should be deliberate reparation and government efforts to resettle returnees.
“During war, it is government to protect its citizens and reconcile the people after so that there is stability and they forgive and forget what happened,” Okot says.
The State Minister for Northern Uganda, Ms Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny (pictured), expressed surprise to learn that people are still living in former IDP camps. She asked the local governments to use the available government programmes to resettle people in their communities.
“There are affirmative actions that government has undertaken such as the Northern Uganda Social Action plan. It is a special programme to handle the effects of war. There is Youth Livelihood Fund and the Women Entrepreneurship programmme,” she said.
Minister Kwiyucwiny advised those who need medical attention to visit government hospitals for treatment.
“We should help people to heal. In all government facilities, there must be a counsellor. I encourage our people of northern Uganda not to die with psychological torture. Reach out to the health facilities and see a counsellor. The community development officers should assist in identifying people suffering from trauma and link them to health facilities for counselling,” she said.
In July 2019, Parliament passed the National Transitional Justice Policy to address reparation for the war victims but lack of accurate data and clear guidelines on compensation is hindering the process.
“Reparation is a process. We should teach the people acceptance so that they can heal because there is no measure of pay for human life. I have received files and I ask who the real victims are. No one is giving me all the information in I need. I have started going to the places to see the real victims of the LRA war. I have seen them, I have cried with them. Somebody told me she remarried after returning from the bush, but her husband started sleeping with her daughter. Those are also issues. But I want to say nobody should take advantage of this situation of the victims,” Ms Kwiyucwiny said.
What they say...
I do not have anything. When the war ended, I went back home to my uncles, but I did not stay there for even a year. They sold the land they had allocated to me. Only one of my children is alive. Their father was killed during the insurgency when I was in the camp here,”
Jessica Aleti, victim
The father of the children was killed during the war. My current father-in-law was also killed and my husband was chased away from his paternal home. Now we both do not have our own land to raise our three children. The others are with my mother in another village,”
Grace Aryemo, victim
Some mothers had children from different fathers. We have got land wrangles, children born in captivity. The fathers are not known. Some of them sneaked back to the camps. So we have got problems of people who returned to smaller satellite camps after leaving bigger camps like Pabbo here,”
Micheal Lakony, Amuru District chairman