government gambling with the lives of IDPs

Coming into Kampala this morning, I saw on one of the ubiquitous Daily Monitor signposts that the government is shutting down all IDP camps by the end of the year, making their inhabitants return home. Ugandan Minister of Relief and Disaster Preparedness Tarsis Kabwegyere claims that the dismantlement of the overcrowded camps will improve the plight of nearly 2 million Internally Displaced Persons who currently face extreme shortages of food and water and exceedingly high rates of cholera, AIDS and malaria. Kabwegyere also threatened anyone who would try to delay the process.

The government claims that it is prepared to help IDPs return to their homes, but residents of camps in both Lira and Teso have expressed serious concerns that the pledged resettlement packages may come too late or not at all. The challenge of resettlement is an enormous one — people who have been away from their homes for two decades need homes, agricultural supplies, schools, boreholes and medical facilities in addition to counseling and reintegration assistance.

Disputes over land are sure to arise — after 20 years, familiar landmarks separating properties have changed, and some returnees are bound to lay claim to land that is not theirs in the general confusion of the process. The issue of security has also yet to be resolved. The LRA conflict is one of 22 armed rebellions that have taken place in the country in the last 20 years. Sending IDPs home without providing protection — especially in northeastern Uganda, where the United Nations estimates that 40,000 guns are circulating — is no better than originally herding them into camps where they have been victim to LRA attacks.

The government’s showy closing of the IDP camps as proof that northern Uganda is finally safe is a dangerous move, with the potential to further damage the lives of millions of conflict-affected people. Though LRA attacks have dramatically reduced since the beginning of the peace talks in Juba, a better system for resettlement needs to be firmly in place before IDPs are forced to return.