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Twice-displaced refugees find new home in Uganda

Twice-displaced refugees find new home in Uganda

"They killed many people, but we just ran and ran."
15 October 2002
Sudanese refugees being relocated from Kiryandongo transit site to Kyangwali settlement in western Uganda.

KYANGWALI, Uganda (UNHCR) - "They came early in the morning. We just ran when we heard the shouting, then the shooting. They killed many people, but we just ran and ran. First we hid in the bush and then we went to the Lira road and walked," recalls Lewis Ohisa, a 22-year-old Sudanese refugee.

Ohisa is recounting an attack in August on Achol-Pii refugee camp in northern Uganda by a shadowy rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The attack killed more than 50 people and sent Ohisa and 24,000 others running for their lives for a second time.

The first time round, Ohisa, then in his early teens, had fled when his hometown of Torit in southern Sudan became the focus of a major battle between government forces and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) of Colonel John Garang. Sudan's civil war - Africa's longest - has left at least two million people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced since 1983.

After arriving in Uganda on foot, Ohisa lived alongside some 24,000 other Sudanese refugees in the Achol-Pii settlements, where many of them attained a degree of self-sufficiency by growing their own food in the fertile land of northern Uganda.

But the relative tranquillity of their lives was shattered on August 5 when the LRA - a semi-religious group who say they are inspired by a desire to rule through the biblical 10 Commandments - launched a devastating pre-dawn raid and dispersed the entire camp's population.

Amid rumours of more attacks, Ohisa and thousands of other refugees fled on foot first to the nearby town of Rachkoko. Then, led by the camp manager and with a tight police escort, they trekked 60 km overnight to Lira town, where UNHCR had set up an emergency reception centre to provide them with food, medicine and blankets.

The same day, the UN refugee agency, which immediately despatched extra staff and supplies to the area, began trucking the terrified refugees to temporary homes at an existing refugee settlement at Kiryandongo in Masindi district, western Uganda. When they arrived, Kiryandongo was already housing some 12,000 refugees from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In close collaboration with the Ugandan authorities, registration and medical centres were quickly set up, plastic sheeting and other supplies provided and officials charged with finding safe long-term locations.

Within two weeks, UNHCR and Ugandan government officials had successfully transferred some 8,800 Achol-Pii refugees to new homes at Kyangwali settlement on the shore of Lake Albert. The location of new homes for the remaining 15,200 refugees will be announced before the end of October following high-level talks between the refugee agency and government officials.

UNHCR trucks making the over-200 km journey to Kyangwali.

"The Kyangwali operation began with a 27-truck convoy on September 5 and was completed with the fifth and last on September 18," says Juan Castro-Magluff, deputy UNHCR representative at the agency's office in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. "It posed a huge logistical challenge to all concerned. Without the closest collaboration with the Ugandan government, it would not have been possible to achieve this level of success. Not one life was lost during this exercise."

The refugees are delighted to be at Kyangwali, where they received a warm reception from an existing group of 7,000 refugees from DRC, Rwanda, Sudan and Kenya. The site has an abundance of fertile land, which, when farmed properly, should provide the refugees with more than half of their needs. The Ugandan government allocates 0.6 hectares of land to each new family.

"Now they [the new refugees] receive 100 percent of food rations, but the plan is to reduce that to anything between 10 and 40 percent," said UNHCR team leader Andrei Kazakov.

To help the new arrivals get back on their feet, the UN refugee agency is assisting in the allocation of plots as quickly as possible. It also provides them with hoes and seeds, other farming tools and cooking utensils.

Some of the 8,800 new arrivals built shelters on allocated plots within days.

Mikeleta Oduha, 39, a mother of nine children, says, "I am so happy to be here. There is no rebel activity here, there is no sound of guns. The children will be able to go to school. I will go back to Sudan when there is peace. To live, I will cultivate here. There will be no problem."

That view is echoed by others.

"This place is safe, we can stay here as refugees and if they give us land I will be able to grow food," says Opulsistu Oduha, 36, as she surveys the lush landscape of Lake Albert, thick with banana trees and vegetable plants.

The challenge is great, but with security assured, few doubt it can be met.

"I like it here, but there is a lot to be done," says refugee Francis Olweny. "This is much better.... Here we can dig and grow. And it is much better than Achol-Pii because there is security."

By Jonathan Clayton
UNHCR Regional Office, Nairobi