Cultural Studies Essays - War-Torn Uganda

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War-Torn Uganda: A Generation of Migration

Since 1986, northern Uganda has been a worn-torn nation characterized by the kidnapping of its innocent children and the forced migration of its people into internal displacement camps. The war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has put nearly two million innocent Ugandan civilians in danger. Since 1996, the Ugandan government has forcibly expelled over 1.5 million of its citizens from their homes and moved them into internal displacement camps, in an effort to protect them from being murdered or kidnapped by the rebel army. Despite a temporary cessation of hostilities between the LRA and the Ugandan government, the majority of northern Uganda’s people still live in internal displacement camps where the struggle to protect themselves from disease, poverty and starvation is a daily obstacle (“History of the War”). Forced migration has become a way of life in northern Uganda, whether it involves night-commuting to safety, migrating to internal displacement camps for protection or returning home to start a new, hopeful life.

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In Uganda, conflict-induced migration has plagued the country, forcing innocent people to leave their homes in search of safety and protection. Since the beginning of the war, approximately 25,000 innocent children between the ages of three and 17 have been forced to travel up to 12 miles a night in order to avoid being abducted by the LRA (Annan 1). According to the Survey of War Affected Youth in Uganda, “The popular notion is that young adolescents were targeted as they were easier to terrorize, could be molded into compliant soldiers, and could less easily escape” (Annan 3). Approximately 71% of all kidnappings occur in homes and the LRA mainly targets young adolescents, particularly boys aged 12 to 17 (Annan 3). If children are not free from danger in their own homes, the only practical option is to seek safety by migrating to more protected locations. These children sleep together in masses in highly populated towns, where the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) offer them refuge during night hours. Hospitals, empty churches, terraces and bus parks are all commonly used as night shelters for young commuters. However, children are not the only innocent civilians who migrate for safety purposes. Young women who are kidnapped by LRA forces are frequently raped, defiled and “are often forced to become sex slaves or so-called “wives” of rebel commanders, subject to forced pregnancies aimed at continually repopulating the ranks of LRA fighters” (Patrick 1). Internal displacement camps were established throughout northern Uganda in order to provide shelter and protection to families who were being terrorized by the rebel army.

Although internal displacement camps offer Ugandan refugees a better alternative to most war-torn areas where they previously lived, there are many negative aspects to residing in overcrowded, disease stricken camps. Since the first displacement camp started as a village for protection in 1999, these locations of forced migration have been almost equally as dangerous as surrounding areas, providing Ugandan citizens with little hope for guaranteed security and defense. According to the Northern Uganda IDP Profiling Study:

“The IDPs in Northern Uganda are constantly afraid, both outside of the camps and inside them as well. They are extremely poor, with limited possibilities for cash income, almost no credit available, and very few receive remittances from relatives. They depend on humanitarian aid. The IDP population is young, more than 50 percent are under the age of fifteen. As many as 25 percent of the children have lost one, or both of their parents, and a huge number of the women are widows (“Executive Summary” 5).

The establishment of internal displacement camps was a last resort for the Ugandan government in response to the LRA violence throughout northern Uganda. With over 1.5 million people currently living in an internal displacement camp, sanitation, disease and marginalization continue to be major problems. “Approximately one out of five households use unsafe water – running a risk of diarrhea and other waterborne diseases…Their current skills level is low, but was originally in accordance with what was needed in a rural population occupied with agriculture” (“Executive Summary” 40). However, the recent peace talks have given internally displaced persons (IDPs) some hope that they will soon leave the internal displacement camps and continue their migration attempts: home to regenerate their land or elsewhere to start a new life.

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In August of 2006, a cessation of hostility agreement was signed by both the Ugandan government and the LRA, the most optimistic indicator of peace to come since the beginning of the war. As a result of the peace talks, increased freedom to migrate and better security throughout the nation has allowed some IDPs to return home, but many remain displaced in the relocation camps. According to the UN Refugee Agency, starting to shut down internal displacement camps is a breakthrough for Uganda, a country whose citizens have spent up to eight years contained in these camps.

“At the peak of displacement, in 2005, there were 242 camps hosting 1,842,500 IDPs forced from their homes by the war between the LRA and the Ugandan Government forces. As of the end of June 2007, 539,550 IDPs had returned to their homes and some 916,000 IDPs remain in the camps. Another 381,000 moved to the new sites closer to their homes” (Redmond).

On September 11, 2007, the first two relocation camps for IDPs in the country’s Lango region were closed, allowing those citizens to return to their villages with a heightened sense of security (Redmond). The UN Refugee Agency and its partners are working daily to construct new schools, roads, places to retrieve clean water and health centers to ensure that people have basis necessities when they migrate back to their hometowns. According to Harry Leefe, the UN Refugee Agency chief in Gulu and IDP operations in northern Uganda, “we are working together with district authorities and other NGOs to enable communities to access markets. We want children to be able to get to school. The roads will also be used by NGOs and district authorities in providing water and other services to the communities” (Odokonyero). Life outside the displacement camps is still plagued with uncertainties, making the choice to migrate a difficult step for numerous citizens to overcome. Many IDPs are waiting for the pull factors, such as clean water, schools, health centers and access to land and agricultural tools to be readily available before they decide to migrate back to their villages.

The current migration situation in northern Uganda involves a gradual process of returning to previous communities, as opposed to immigrating to other countries or beginning a new life in an unknown location. Many villages were founded less than 50 years ago when people settled in fertile areas, and they became “owners” of the land they cultivated. Migration efforts are focused on helping citizens return to their village and attempt to recreate their old way of life, despite some hardships like border disputes, overgrown land and minimal access to services (“Executive Summary” 56). The Department of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees has suggested that some family members leave the camp to cultivate and reclaim their land while others stay in the camp, where the education and health services are more advanced. According to Cynthia Burns, the UN Refugee Agency’s Representative in Uganda, “UNHCR has two main objectives for the protection of the IDPs. 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” (Russo). Since the majority of internal displacement camps are within close proximity to citizens’ places of origin, the gradual phasing out of camps should be a productive transition as regions in northern Uganda become more secure (“Executive Summary” 56).

In many cases, migration from the internal displacement camps is a difficult task, which is why UNHCR and other organizations are trying to transform previous camp sites into livable communities. For those Ugandan citizens who are unable to migrate, the camp phase-out communities will allow previously displaced persons to establish a new life in an area where basic necessities are provided to them.

“UNHCR intends to transform all residual IDP sites into viable communities. The Camp Phase-out Committees will identify these former camps and advise on activities to facilitate their transformation into sustainable communities. The budget for these activities is US$18,000 per camp and so far three are scheduled for such transformation. UNHCR will carry out environmental rehabilitation and environmental education in consultation with the host community and local authorities. Subject to the availability of funds, support for the re-establishment of market facilities, rehabilitation of roads, health and education facilities, tree planting, support of livelihoods, etc. will be also implemented” (Redmond).

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The camp phase-out communities provide a functional home for Ugandan citizens, which is one reason why people choose not to immigrate. The areas are supported by a well-known, respectable organization that has the resources necessary to help transform the camps into new villages. For families who are wary about immigrating or returning home, the camps provide a logical solution to the issues that surround migration.

Research on why Ugandan citizens decide to migrate back to their home villages or remain in camp phase-out communities, as opposed to immigrating to other nations in Africa or elsewhere is extremely limited. However, the pull factors that influence their return home seem to outweigh the push factors that would involve immigrating. According to the class discussions about immigration from Africa, many immigrants have some level of schooling which allows them to immigrate to other nations and continue their studies (which was discussed concerning the flight of human capital). In the case of many Ugandan citizens, according to the Northern Uganda Internally Displaced Persons Profiling Study:

“The educational level in the adult population in the camps is low, and clearly lower among the women compared to the men. Eighty-four percent of the women, 15 years of age and above, have not finished primary school, or have never attended school – only one percent has finished secondary school. The educational level among men in the same age group is somewhat higher, but even among them; only nine percent have finished secondary school” (“Executive Summary 31”).

For this reason, many Ugandan families are almost certainly unable to afford the transportation and movement necessary to immigrate because they have minimal education and therefore in most cases, meager incomes. Many families are unable to work while living in displacement camps, so earning and saving money for immigration purposes is not a viable option. Although Uganda is a country where poor economic conditions, political violence, repression of human rights and other push factors are widespread, Ugandan citizens are not being “pushed” out of the country. Under these terrible circumstances, most people would generally decide to leave their country and find refuge in safer nations with better living conditions. However, lack of schooling, no expendable income, and ties to their family land seem to be factors keeping Ugandan citizens from immigrating. Therefore, migrating back to their home villages, which tend to be closer to displacement camps than immigration destinations, is the only possible alternative for many families.

Over the past year, the war-torn regions of northern Uganda have received increased media attention and support, especially from international organizations with the ability to bring about positive change in local communities. The UN Refugee Agency and The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have been two of the most committed organizations, creating strict plans to help rebuild communities and ensure a protective environment for families to migrate back to. According to Keith McKenzie, the head of UNICEF operations in Uganda, “Placing the centre of support squarely on community members is essential to giving the formerly abducted their lives back. Without this strong sense of ownership, one squanders the opportunity for children and young persons, our most precious resource, to grow up in a climate of peace and tolerance” (Hyun). With the help of these organizations, migration from internal displacement camps to places of origin will be a celebratory transition from a life of uncertainty to the beginning of a new chapter of revitalization.

Over the course of the war in Uganda, thousands of innocent civilians were forced to migrate to different locations for various reasons. It began with the invisible children, who were forced to travel extensive distances every night to avoid being kidnapped by the rebel army. In time, families were required to migrate to internal displacement camps for protection and safety, because their home villages were being pillaged and destroyed by the LRA. Luckily, the cessation of hostilities between the LRA and the Ugandan government has brought about the closure of two displacement camps, with 39 more camp closures planned for the end of this year as peace talks progress. Although no final peace agreement has been reached, many Ugandan citizens, organizations and supporters are hopeful. According to Musa Ecweru, Refugee minister in Uganda, “We have had to bend backwards to make sure that this peace is achieved and we are committed to seeing this peace becoming a reality. But in this part of the country people have already gone home anyway, and we think we should build on that” (Grainger). Currently, a country of people plagued by war for over two decades have the freedom to choose where they will migrate after being released from the camps, if they wish to do so. Many families are awaiting the closure of the displacement camp they were relocated to, while others have decided to return home to their villages or remain in the camp phase-out communities that have been established. Within the next year, voluntary migration will be widespread throughout the country, and for the first time, people will be filled with hope and optimism about the future as they begin the next chapter of their lives in Uganda.