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Hopes for peace in Northern Uganda encourage displaced to return home

Hopes for peace in Northern Uganda encourage displaced to return home

With glimmers of hope for an end to Uganda's brutal 20-year civil war, thousands of internally displaced people are leaving squalid camps for their home villages. UNHCR and its sister UN agency, the World Food Programme, are supporting them with road projects that provide food now and better economic links for the future.
25 October 2006
In northern Uganda, formerly displaced people use their UNHCR-supplied tools to clear land for a primary school and a road in exchange for food for their families.

LIRA, Northern Uganda, October 25 (UNHCR) - Amugo Camp, one of 239 overcrowded camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Uganda's war-ravaged north, held nothing but horrible memories for Mary Taly. Diseases - easily spread in the appalling conditions of the squalid camp for 20,000 Ugandans - had claimed the lives of three of her ten children.

"Living in the camp was unbearable," she said, now safely back in her home village just a few kilometres away. "People get a lot of diseases when they live so close to each other in a small space. I had ten children when I moved to the camp and I am returning home with only seven of them ... it has been terrible."

So in September, Taly, her husband and remaining children joined the exodus of Ugandans now emboldened to leave the IDP camps by the hope that Uganda's long and brutal civil war may be coming to an end. The camps had become home to 1.6 million Ugandans terrorized by Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) as part of its fight against the Ugandan government over the last 20 years.

Since the beginning of July this year, though, the number of LRA attacks on civilians in northern Uganda has fallen. An estimated 200,000 IDPs have taken advantage of improved security to leave the IDP camps in Lira district and rebuild their lives in villages they left years ago. If the shaky ceasefire reached between the government and the LRA in August holds, another 400,000 displaced Ugandans could also make their way home before the end of the year.

With memories of the squalor and congestion of the IDP camp still fresh in her mind, Taly found her home village, Apud, strikingly greener and even more lush than she remembered it. There were fields of cassava everywhere, bright yellow sunflowers and even small cotton plantations.

To add to the joy of her homecoming, she has found work on a road-building project started by UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) to link Taly's village with the closest trading centre, Kamp, some 3.4 kilometres away, and with the water points and clinics of nearby IDP camps.

Taly is among the 350 especially poor people who were chosen to work on the road, in return from tools from UNHCR and food from WFP. Her face lights up as she recalls how a local council chief of her village approached her to find out if she wanted to join the road improvement team. She agreed without a second thought.

"Without this road, I would not be able to access the health centre that can save the lives of my children," Taly explained. "It would also be difficult to reach the market where we can trade and earn a living."

UNHCR has distributed an assortment of hand tools - grass-cutters, hoes, picks and spades - and teams have started work to convert what was mainly a narrow footpath into a 3.4 km-long road. It's one of six roads to be funded by the UN refugee agency in bid to open up more areas in northern Uganda and give real meaning to freedom of movement for the IDPs. Local women say the road will enable them to avoid walking through tall grass where they ran the risk of being raped.

But the landscape still bears the scars of war. The road's starting point is the charred remains of Apud Primary School, burned to the ground in an LRA attack three years ago. Not only will the new road make it easier to bring in building materials to reconstruct the school, but it will give access to vehicles so farmers can take their crops - cassava, sorghum, beans, sunflowers and cotton - to market.

Maurice Tendamugore, another recent returnee from the IDP camp, is eager to join the road project because, for the first time in a long while, he and other men will have something to do.

"Men had nothing to do in the IDP camps," he confessed. "We had so many problems and we tried to avoid thinking about them by drinking. Now we don't need that because we have a lot of hope. This road is the first step to a future I am looking forward to," he said. "It is the road to the future."

By Roberta Russo in Uganda