Kiryandongo land evictions force children out of school

A man washes clothes near his makeshift structure in Kiryandongo District on Monday. Land evictions in the district have made many children to drop out of school. PHOTO/BILL OKETCH

What you need to know:

Locals say the evictions were illegally carried out in 2019 by people who didn’t have a court order

Hundreds of children have dropped out of school after the demolition of community schools established in disputed land in Kiryandongo District.

Some of the schools have been rendered non-functional.

While the children have been home since 2019, their parents are now trapped in the middle of gardens belonging to three multi-national companies – Agilis Partners, Kiryandongo Sugar Ltd and Great Season SMC Ltd – who have allegedly evicted people from the disputed land.

The ongoing disputes are happening on abandoned national ranches, which have for long been settled and farmed by people, who came to the area fleeing from war and natural calamities in neighbouring areas.

The local population claim they are being displaced without notice. As a result, it has caused untold suffering to more than 35,000 families residing in the disputed territory, which measures approximately 9,300 acres.

The evictees now live in makeshift structures at dozens of camps.

However, the former Kiryandongo Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Mr Peter Debele, said: “Encroachers took advantage of the land and settled on the vast fertile ranches’’.

“They went there on their own. So, the government has come out and allocated the land for serious farming activities,” he told this newspaper in February 2020.

But our investigation established that a lot has since changed. For instance, many children affected by the dispute are no longer going to school as their parents wallow in abject poverty. Majority of the evictees cannot afford two meals a day or send their children to schools.

On Monday,  we visited Spark Settlement Camp to examine the plight of out-of-school children. Ms Evelyne Nabokonde, 36, said her eldest son, Sam Majaki, dropped out of school in 2018.

The 15-year-old was among 450 pupils schooling at Alokolum Community School before the unending evictions that have left the Catholic-founded school deserted.

“The school was closed when Majaki was in Primary Three because of the eviction. Right now, all the children who were studying there are no longer going to school,” the mother-of-five says.

Some 27 million children are out of school in conflict zones, according to a September 18, 2017 United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund report. Focusing on the importance of education for children who have been forced from their homes by conflict and disasters, the report notes that failure to provide learning opportunities for uprooted children has profound consequences for individuals and nations.

Demolitions

Residents and human rights activists say tractors started pulling down schools, churches, banana plantations and homes in the disputed Kiryandongo land in 2019.  They say the evictions were carried out by people who didn’t have a court order.

By February 2020, 14 primary schools, 20 churches and eight private health units had already been demolished by the investors, according to residents.

Mr Joseph Walekula, the secretary of the affected community, says during the time of evictions, people shifted to safe places in the neighbourhood.

“So, they had constructed temporary structures, but wildfire came and burnt the settlements. Children lost their lives when their mothers and fathers had gone to look for food,” he says, adding that basic needs are no longer being provided to the evictees by government or humanitarian organisations.

Mr Benon Beryaija, the area land rights defender, says they have been negatively impacted by the projects.

Agilis Partners is engaged in growing simsim (sesame), maize, sunflower, and soybean. Kiryandongo Sugar Ltd is planting and producing sugar and Great Season is growing coffee.

“Some of us are trapped in the middle of their gardens, we don’t have anywhere to go. We don’t have where to farm, all our land was grabbed by the companies. We don’t have food and water because our boreholes were destroyed,” Mr Beryaija says.

“But because of unending evictions, we ran to court seeking justice to regain our land. We are very happy that the High Court in Masindi fixed all cases and the hearing of the first group will be on April 20,” he adds.

Mr Wilson Tugume, the chairperson of Kiryandongo Sub-county, said many people have suffered as a result of the unending evictions.

“They evicted people in Ranch 23, 28, 29, and 30. They demolished my house and my mother’s house. They are pretending to have compensated people and yet they have not,” he says.

Mr Linos Ngompek, the Member of Parliament for Kibanda North, said they have issues with Ranch 21 and 22 that was sold to Agilis Partners.

“When they (investors) came in 2017, they hurriedly paid those who had settled on the land with little compensation rate, other locals went to court,” he said.

Mr Geoffrey Wokulira, the country director of Witness Radio, a non-governmental organisation, said: “We went to court to seek justice for the affected people. Even when the matter is in court, the companies are using forceful means to evict people”.

However, Mr Wycliffe Birungi, a lawyer for Great Season, earlier said they followed “the right procedures” in acquiring their two-square mile farmland.

“For us, we acquired land from people. The acquisition was done two years back and we have been already in business. It is a fully-pledged commercial farm venture, but we have neighbours – there is a big farm called Agilis, there is also some other big farm,” he said in 2020.

The spokesperson of Agilis Partners, Mr Emmanuel Onyango, dismissed the allegations of unending forceful evictions as baseless.

“I don’t know why people accuse us of evictions, yet we still have people residing on Ranch 20 and 21. For a company that is providing agronomic support to farmers and employing hundreds of locals, this is really sad,” he said yesterday.

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