Trouble in paradise for LRA returnees

LRA returnees, people with disabilities and people living with HIV/Aids hold a meeting about their plight in Gulu Town in 2018. It is though such meeting that the group receives services such as counselling and information on their rights from activists and other stakeholders. PHOTO / TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • Many female returnees can relate with what Ms Aketowanga grapples with. It’s been the order of the day ever since the guns went silent in northern Uganda 16 years ago.
  • While Ms Aketowanga is fortunate to own land, civil liberties groups have disclosed to Saturday Monitor accounts of violation of land rights of returnee women.

Although she faces strong headwinds, Ms Imelda Aketowanga’s home at Lajwartek Village, Gulu East Division, is as perfect as can be. Her half-acre piece of land has micro plots of okra, tomatoes, carrots, beetroots, onions and maize, with a sumptuous green view to go along with.

Her three children are studying in a nearby midscale preparatory school in the middle of Gulu City. She owes this semblance of stability to a tailoring and fashion business she invested in four years ago. Yet all of this—together with a motorcycle she uses for her transport—have not insulated her from the stigma of having been held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

She is part of what has come to be known as “the rejected lot.”

“I bought the land in November 2019 at Shs2.3m once I netted a deal of making school uniforms with a group of four friends,” she says, adding, “I critically needed to have my piece of land to settle my [fatherless] children who had been turned away by my family and relatives.”

Ms Aketowanga describes the life that confronted her after she returned from captivity in 2009 as “horrible.” Her family, she adds, “did not want me because of the children.” She had the three children with different men, each one terminating the relationship during her pregnancy upon realising she was a returnee.

Many female returnees can relate with what Ms Aketowanga grapples with. It’s been the order of the day ever since the guns went silent in northern Uganda 16 years ago.

While Ms Aketowanga is fortunate to own land, civil liberties groups have disclosed to Saturday Monitor accounts of violation of land rights of returnee women.

“While the social protection mechanisms of [returnee women] are dead in the Acholi cultural setting, many are suffering,” Mr David Komakech, the project coordinator on land rights at Action Aid Uganda, told Saturday Monitor.

He added: “They are denied land rights, so they cannot produce food for their own.”

While the reconstruction that followed the insurgency by Joseph Kony and his LRA acolytes has concentrated on socio-economic issues, returnee women have been a footnote.

“When you look back upon the return process, our women and girls suffered through the second circle of violence,” Mr Komakech reasons, adding, “Upon return, others who were abducted at a tender age returned and had a lot of challenges tracing where they were once settled. Others returned and found out that their land had been sold and others found people settled on their land.”

Mr Komakech says many of them returned with ‘fatherless’ children, who were later rejected by their own families.

“We have children who have not been accounted for. Their whereabouts is not known, but we are engaging at a policy level to ensure the government responds,” he further reveals, adding, “This has in the long run culminated into the existence of a large group of disgruntled women, who are struggling to obtain land and also improve their livelihoods amid challenges and limited support.”

Rwot Otinga Otto Yayi, the Lamogi clan chief, says the situation keeps worsening with each passing day.

“The matter is serious … there are children of these women who are being denied National IDs because their origin is not clear and that means they cannot access public services because their background cannot be traced,” he told Saturday Monitor.

Fatherless children

Besides killings, maiming and injuries inflicted by the rebels on the population, thousands of women were raped and underage girls defiled as the war swept through the region across two decades. Many children were consequently born by women in captivity.

“Today, there is a large number of single mothers (returnees) who have been disowned by their families and relatives upon return from captivity as they possessed children sired in captivity,” the Lamogi clan chief says, adding that this also includes “women who have tried in vain to resettle in families but would be divorced by their husbands once they realised their children were produced from the bush.”

In Amuru, the situation is no different as per the district chairperson, Mr Michael Lakony. The sense of disenfranchisement is there for all to see.

“We have got very many cases in regard to that and it is always very difficult to handle because their voices are deliberately not heard, so they remain vulnerable and dependent,” Mr Lakony notes, adding that cases of “children born in captivity and whose fathers are not known are too rampant.”

The children, Mr Lakony notes, face “difficulties” not just in their maternal homes but also at “the hands of their uncles and children of their uncles because time and again they are stigmatised.”

Trouble brewing

Recent research on the subject by Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa Research titled Politics of Return indicates that poverty and denied access to land for returnees have hampered their reintegration and recovery.

Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony. While the reconstruction that followed the insurgency by the rebel leader and his acolytes has concentrated on socio-economic issues, returnee women have been a footnote. PHOTO / FILE 

“The returnees face comparably difficult situations when they return to their original homes due to rejection, trauma and denial of access to family assets such as land,” the research’s body of work reads, in part.

The study focused on the daily experiences of those attempting to build or rebuild communities in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic to understand how internally displaced people and former combatants negotiate and experience return.

A 2018 Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) report indicated that 90 percent of the 447 returnee women sampled suffered stigmatisation, rejection, trauma, behavioural challenges, failure to meet basic needs, and failed access to land.

Of the 1,609 children aged between one and 31 years under the care of the women sampled, at least 80 percent of those aged above five were in school; although 90 percent of them faced critical challenges in paying school fees.

The research also revealed that 437 of the 1,609 children reported (27 percent)  were conceived because of an act of sexual violence against the mother. It further shows that 311 (68 percent) were conceived in captivity, 80 (18 percent) were conceived of rape, 33 (seven percent) were conceived of defilement, and 33 (seven percent) were conceived of sexual exploitation, while 481 (30 percent) of the fathers of all children reported were in an armed group at the time of conception.

Of the children conceived through sexual violence, 330 (88 percent) of the fathers were in the LRA and 46 (12 percent) of the fathers were in the state’s forces (Uganda People’s Defence Force).

The JRP report also indicated that the primary challenges facing the women and their children included stigmatisation and rejection, trauma and behavioural challenges, and inability to meet basic needs, identity, and access to land.

“There are unique gender dimensions to the needs of these children, with the female ones being more susceptible to sexual exploitation and abusive marriages,” the report reads in part.

Interventions

In Nwoya District, female returnees, the elderly, and the disabled, are now forming grassroots paralegal taskforces to tackle the persisting land rights abuse against them in their communities, Saturday Monitor has learnt.

Unlike before, it now takes less time to mediate and settle disputes related to land in one sub-county in the district. This is due to the efforts of the paralegal taskforces that started two years ago as per Mr Galdino Ongwech, the Anaka Sub-county area land committee chairperson.

In Anaka, Purongo and Alero sub-counties, the women have formed action groups and also bank on teams of paralegals to counsel and mediate in land wrangles.

Ms Fiona Aporomon, a member of the paralegal group and resident of Alokolum-Gok parish, says she joined the group two years ago after fighting to reclaim ownership of a three-acre piece of land from her in-laws grabbed once her husband died.

According to her, married women, widows, the elderly and even single women with children were entitled to have land under the customary settings. The greed to sell land, lack of safeguards by the government and population pressure have either worked in unison or isolation to change the picture.

Using the paralegal structure, Ms Aporomon explains thus, “Where we have conflicts and wrangles, we struggle so hard to bring them to an end. Upon invitation, we mediate the wrangles without taking sides.”

Using both the paralegal and reflex action groups, they also counsel the parties on the importance of registering their land and having their borders defined.

In Purongo Sub-county, the paralegal and the reflex action groups do not work in isolation, Ms Veronica Aling—a member of the reflex action group of Lamoki Village in Purongo Sub-county—tells Saturday Monitor.

She adds: “In barazas [community dialogues] and also on market days, we speak not only to women, but also the men. We counsel all of them since land conflicts don’t involve women alone. In the sessions, we ask the communities to respect and protect women and their rights.”

Fighting back

In 2018, these groups were empowered on land rights and justice by Action Aid Uganda to reinforce their knowledge on land matters to be able to carry out their activities effectively, Mr Ongwech reveales.

He also added that Action Aid later started supporting disadvantaged women who had been helped to regain rights to their land to process certificates of customary ownership with Nwoya District.

In Anaka Sub-county alone, there are 486 homesteads that have got their land certified (titled) under this intervention. Certificates of a further 662 homesteads are undergoing processing.

Mr Komakech says the organisation, now running the same intervention in Nwoya, Amuru, Gulu and Omoro districts, is encouraging land registration and focusing on cheaper models to facilitate women and other vulnerable groups to reclaim their rights to land.

While Mr Lakony says Amuru District is implementing a policy that exonerates returnee women and women living with disability from paying local trading dues and registration fees when forming groups such as VSLAs, SACCOS, etc., Action Aid Uganda is providing litigation services in land matters involving them.

“What we have done is to provide litigation. This year alone, we [have] registered 61 cases for people with disabilities (PWDs) … out of the 61, we managed to directly support 45 to get their land back through mediation (alternative dispute resolution) and five were cases litigated in court,” Mr Komakech reveals, adding, “In 2022, we registered a total of 465 cases from all four districts, including those involving returnees, the only challenge is that the speed at which these cases are litigated in court is much more slower compared to the LC courts.”

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