UNHCR takes on new role protecting Ugandans displaced by civil war

In a departure from its usual role of aiding refugees, the UN refugee agency has selected three African countries as pilots for a new involvement with internally displaced people. Uganda's 1.5 million people displaced by a rebellion by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, will be among the first beneficiaries.

Displaced by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, Grace still works on her farm during the day but returns each night to sleep at an IDP camp where she feels safer from attack and there's less chance of her children being abducted.   © UNHCR/R.Russo

LIRA, Uganda, May 22 (UNHCR) - Grace, a 52-year-old widow and the mother of 10 children, is one of the 1.5 million Ugandans who have been chased from their homes in one of the world's most overlooked conflicts.

Since 1987, the brutal Lord's Resistance Army has been attacking Ugandan civilians in villages, camps, trading centres and on roadways, killing, harassing, raping, and - its trademark - abducting children. The Ugandan government strategy to fight the LRA has also forced many people from their villages into camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), where they live without adequate humanitarian services, and where their freedom of movement is curtailed.

"My husband died in 2001 and I have to raise 10 children by myself now," Grace says in the camp where she lives in Lira, northern Uganda. "School fees are so high and it is difficult to pay them. I am working so much because I really want my children to study. They will make a change in Uganda, one day".

Grace is luckier than many others because she still has a small plot of land to cultivate. She leaves the camp every day to go home and tend her farm, which provides her only source of income. At night, she returns to the IDP camp, where she can sleep with less fear that the Lord's Resistance Army will attack her house, abduct her children and steal her property.

In a departure from its traditional role of protecting and aiding refugees (people who have crossed international borders in their flight from persecution), the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is now helping internally displaced people in Uganda. One of its efforts in Uganda is to work with the government to allow for greater freedom of movement for people like Grace and to help displaced people return to their original homes.

"Too often in the past, IDPs' needs have gone unaddressed," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in announcing the agency's new engagement with IDPs at the end of last year.

"IDPs are now an integral and important part of UNHCR's global activities," he said. Uganda is one of three pilot countries in Africa (the other two are the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia) where UNHCR will lead the UN's activities with displaced people. UNHCR is taking the lead for protection and camp management within the UN Country Team, and is tasked with developing strategies and coordinating the work of other agencies and non-governmental organizations.

"In Uganda, UNHCR has two main objectives for the protection of the IDPs," said Cynthia Burns, UNHCR's Representative in Uganda. "First, to assist the planned, orderly, voluntary and sustainable return of the displaced people to their areas of origin. Second, for those who are unable to return to their villages because of insecurity, UNHCR will improve protection activities and delivery of assistance in the camps where IDPs live."

The overcrowded, impoverished IDP camps in northern Uganda are home to about 1.5 million people who have fled one of Africa's longest-running and most vicious conflicts, a civil war started by the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla force led by the mysterious Joseph Kony. A self-proclaimed spirit medium, Kony has vague political aims beyond establishing a state based on his interpretation of the Bible.

His hallmark is the targeting of children, who are often forced to kill their own parents so they have no way back. International human rights groups estimate that the LRA - which consists today of perhaps 2,000 combatants - has kidnapped 30,000 children since 1987 for use as child soldiers and sex slaves. An estimated 12,000 people have died because of the fighting and the disease and malnutrition it has engendered.

A further 30,000 to 40,000 children, the so-called "night commuters", walk enormous distances every night from the IDP camps to sleep in relative safety on the streets of larger towns like Gulu to avoid being kidnapped during the night.

The LRA's atrocities against children were condemned by the UN Security Council in April, 2004, and Kony and other LRA leaders are the subject of the first arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court.

While an end to the rebellion remains the only guarantee of a peaceful life for the 1.5 million IDPs, UNHCR plans to work with the Ugandan government to try to alleviate their suffering in the meantime.

"Many IDPs are already in the process of returning home to places that seem safe," said Burns. "UNHCR and UNDP are assessing what conditions people are returning to and how to help them through the struggle of the first few months when they return home to destroyed houses, untended fields and weak social support."

"So far," Burns added, "people are enthusiastic about returning, but remain fearful about future LRA activity. Most people want to return to their land and feed their families, but fear remains high."

By Roberta Russo in Kampala, Uganda