Amid violent confrontations, some 6,000 people in northern Uganda who spent years displaced as the army pursued the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been forced to leave their newfound homes because they lie in what has become a wildlife reserve.
“Where do you expect us to go? This was our ancestral village way back before displacement,” Justin Okot, a local area leader, told IRIN in the village of Apar, in Amuru district.
Another resident, Patrick Kobwola, said: “All I know is, this is my ancestral village, the LRA displaced us and I am back home. I am not leaving whatever the case.”
From 1996, almost the entire population of northern Uganda was obliged to move into what the authorities called “protected villages”. With the LRA no longer active in the country, most people in camps over recent years have left to return home, a process frequently hampered by land disputes.
In Apar, armed police and game rangers have been evicting the former IDPs since 15 February. Their encroachment on the game reserve has led to an increase in elephant poaching, according to Uganda’s Wildlife Authority (UWA) conservation manager Tom Obong Okello.
“We don’t need people here,” said Okello.
UWA in 2005 signed a tripartite agreement with the local government of neighbouring Adjumani District and Lake Albert Safaris to promote tourism and sport hunting in the reserve. Apar straddles the districts of Amuru and Adjumani.
But affected communities say they were not consulted before the signing of the agreement as they were still in the protected villages.
No prior notice to evict was issued, they added. “What is actually happening is intolerable; armed police and game rangers are combing areas in Apar Village ordering everyone out,” Justin Okot, the local area council leader, told IRIN.
“It’s all chaos, guns being fired, security forces descending on whoever dares [to] resist,” he added.
Santo Ongom, a 58-year-old father of five, said: “People are being [loaded] on to a waiting UWA truck and ferried out of the place.”
On 15 February, violent protests over the evictions led to the deaths of at least three civilians; nine other people were injured and 25 more arrested and detained at Openjinji prison in Adjumani district.
“Youths armed with bows and arrows attacked our men enforcing law and order in the area and in [the] crossfire they were shot,” said Grace Turyagamunawe, assistant inspector of police in charge of the eviction.
Many of the evictees are now back living in the squalid sites where they were forced to live during the war, often in the open.
“Being here again brings back the memory of horrendous life in the IDP camp,” Josephine Otto told IRIN in Pabbo sub-county, adding that her harvest had been destroyed in the evictions.
The issue of encroachment on national park land is a challenge for returnees in northern Uganda, notes a 2009 report, Where Justice is a Dream, by the Adjumani District Local Government, the German Overseas Development Programme and the Refugee Law Project (RLP).
For example, the Zoka Forest became a wildlife reserve in 2002 having previously been an area of controlled hunting, stated the report, adding that, “People who had formerly lived and hunted in the area were surprised to discover that they were no longer permitted to stay or hunt within the forest reserve, as this would be contrary to the law.
“Some are living within the park land, while others pass through the reserve.”
Quoting a UWA official, the report said a lack of clear park boundaries was a problem and recommended that population displacement, particularly resulting from genuine developmental and environmental preservation initiatives, take place within the law and not result in eviction. It further called for genuine consultation with those affected, adequate and reasonable notice prior to eviction as well as provision of legal remedies and where possible, legal aid for those who sought redress from the courts.
Meanwhile, another eviction is looming in Lakang village in Amuru district where there are plans to set up a 40,000 hectare sugarcane plantation and sugar processing factory.
The evictions are violating the rights of the war-affected communities, according to Denis Barnaba Otim, a project officer with the advisory consortium on conflict sensitivity at Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project.
“The eviction is interfering with the entire process of return and resettlement,” said Otim. “People are being evicted in a crude way yet they can trace their origin in this place way back from 1911.
“There is physical evidence of mango trees, graves, that showed that people lived here before,” he added.