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Uganda: Across the airwaves comes reassurance to go home


Uganda: Across the airwaves comes reassurance to go home

Two decades after fighting drove them from their homes, more than half-a-million displaced Ugandans have plucked up the courage to come home, spurred by UNHCR radio.
29 October 2007
Women returnees clean beans in Gulu District, northern Uganda. Many people are going back to the area after hearing radio messages sponsored by UNHCR.

GULU, Uganda, October 29 (UNHCR) - Still hale and hearty at 75, David Olanya takes a break from digging in his garden to explain his joy at getting a new home and plot of land, more than a decade after he was forced on the run by fighting between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government.

"We needed to move out and farm in our lands and produce our own food. That's why we are here," said Olanya, a father of five. It was the news that it's now safe to move around Gulu and Amuru districts in northern Uganda that prompted Olanya to leave Anaka camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), a haven his family had called home for so long.

"We are here because of what we heard on the radio," he continued. "If we had not heard on the radio that we are free to be here, we would not be here." The radio messages that changed his life are sponsored by the UN refugee agency to help displaced people make informed choices on whether to return to their villages and parishes from the IDP camps.

The new calm - after 20 years of fighting and brutal abductions - stems from peace talks in neighbouring South Sudan between the Ugandan government and the LRA. The improvement in security has made it possible for more than half-a-million IDPs to leave camps for their homes, villages and parishes of origin.

Between November last year, when freedom of movement was declared in Gulu and Amuru districts, and June of this year, approximately 539,550 people returned to their homes in northern Uganda, out of an estimated 2 million displaced by the LRA rebellion.

Realizing that timely and accurate information from relevant authorities and officials was a key requirement for the success of the return process, UNHCR in April and May this year contracted radio stations Mega and Choice FM to broadcast messages to help IDPs in northern Uganda to make informed and voluntary choices on return.

"Radio is a very effective means of mass communication in rural communities," said Harry Leefe, head of UNHCR's office in Gulu. With these two radio stations reaching about 80 percent of the people in northern Uganda, "We found they were the best we could use to get messages across to remote areas in the region," said Leefe.

Officials from Gulu district take part in a UNHCR-sponsored radio programme on Mega FM.

The four hours of weekly programming - aired twice a day, four days a week - have proved hugely popular. Programmes have covered security, education, water, health, gender-based violence, agriculture and road accessibility. Topics are chosen with listener input.

"We go out to the field and talk to the community to find out their concerns," said Joyce Achan, senior protection clerk with UNHCR in Gulu. Internally displaced listeners also telephone or write to the radio stations with questions for Ugandan authorities to answer on-air.

"The radio educates us. It tells us things that we would not have otherwise known," said Jina Amato, 50, a neighbour of David Olanya in Got-Ngu, a return site in Amuru district.

Amato hopes that many more displaced Ugandans will be encouraged to leave the IDP camps, like Anaka, where she lived since it was set up in 1996. "There is more space here than in the camp," she says of her new home. "The children have a place to play. I am happy to be here."

Above all, she dreams that the peace that now reigns will prove permanent. "I keep praying that things remain this way. Camp life has been part of our life for a very long time and I was very tired of it," she added.

By Moses Odokonyero in Gulu, Uganda