Uganda was ravaged by a brutal conflict led by the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for two decades. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and more than 1.8 Million Ugandans were forced to leave their homes. As internally displaced people, many lived in refugee camps, in some cases up to twenty years.
Since a ceasefire in 2006, the security situation in northern Uganda has significantly improved, but the return of the internally displaced people or so-called IDPs is still underway.
The German NGO Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, also known as ASB, is helping people to return to their homes in the northern districts of Lira and Pader. Faridah Bongoley, my coproducer and I traveled all the way up north to meet with humanitarian aid workers, IDPs and recent returnees. Listen to our feature story broadcast on Deutsche Welle.
Uganda refugee return by barb
At the height of the conflict 22,000 people used to live in the Acholibur Refugee Camp. Today there are 6,000 people left - but it’s still bustling with activity. During the day the sun is hot and scorching.
Agnes Aloyo is a 28-year old camp worker and shows us around the camp. We’re followed by a hoard of curious but emaciated kids. The poverty here is striking. The camp is crammed with tiny mud huts each no bigger than 5 square meters and housing 6 to 10 people. Agnes says it’s difficult to imagine that the camp used to be even more crowded.
Everyone in the camp obviously wants to go home, but there is one group of people who can not afford to leave the camp. They're called the EVIs - which in humanitarian aid jargon stands for extremely vulnerable individuals. Most of them are old people - mostly women who have lost all their children and relatives during the war. Now they can’t return to their villages because they don’t have the funds to rebuild their homes.
Pirina Akwoch is one of these EVIs and has been living in the Acholibur IDP camp for seven years. The 65-year old says she had five kids - four died during the war, the fifth one was abducted by the rebels and never came back.
Her relatives recently returned to their home village, but they don’t have enough money to support her. The only person who does help is her 12-year old grandson Isaac, an orphan himself. Pirina can’t walk anymore and spends the whole day on a thin mat in her empty hut. She barely manages to sit up for the interview; her eyes are very sad. The heat under the thatched roof and the stench in her hut is unbearable. She says, she doesn't know how she would survive without the food provided by the World Food Programme.
"I would like to go back home, if someone could build me a home. Honestly, I’m frustrated, disappointed and disgusted. I know I’m going to die in this hut."
The displaced people here have suffered tremendously, says Lucy Andrews, the protection coordinator at the ASB’s Pader office. Spending so many years in the camps makes it very difficult for them to return to their villages. They have become used to international aid and the more urban life of the camps.
Yet, people are now returning home and it’s important to demolish the empty huts people leave behind. What became a really huge problem, explains Lucy Andrews, was how abandoned huts were used by thieves to hide whatever they had stolen, and even worse by men to rape and sexually abuse women and young girls.
In the district of Pader there are still 31 official IDP camps hosting a total population of 42,000 people. That's still a lot, says Lucy Andrews, but one should also keep in mind that over 80 % of the population has already gone home.
In order to support the return of the farmers and their families, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is funding so-called farmer field schools. Basically it's a school of around 30 farmers studying in the field or under a tree.
Emmanuel Otim is the programme coordinator for the German NGO ASB. He’s in charge of more than 100 farmer field schools in northern Uganda.
Over a year local farmers gather every morning for a few hours to learn new skills and improve their farming methods. Their training is based on a crop cycle, which means when its time to dig, they learn about land preparation. When it’s time to plant, they learn about crop planting. All the training is hands on, so each farmer can learn at his own pace.
The farmers learn by doing and they gain their knowledge through experiments. The farmer field school just explains the science behind the practices and closes the knowledge gaps. The theory is: if you train the farmers everyday on what they know, they will loose interest and won’t come anymore. "We're here only to find the gaps that are missing. And that's facilitation not teaching", stresses Emmanuel Otim. "It’s important that the farmers decide for themselves what they want to learn." But the farmer field schools are not all about farming - a lot of other life skills are taught as well:
Welcome by barb
"For instance you might find that in a certain community there is a problem of Malaria, the farmers are not coming for training, and when you ask very many people are sick. So then you know you need to train the farmers on Malaria control. If it's HIV/AIDS, than someone has to come and train them on positive living etc, so that the farmers are no only learning about agriculture, but also issues that affect their daily lives."At the Awatngwenino farmer field school in the Oyam district around a hundred villagers are impatiently waiting for us. The farmers can’t wait to show us what they’ve learned since they’ve left the camp two years ago. Their welcome is simply overwhelming:
Francis Ojok is the chairman of the local farmer field school. In his welcome address he outlines the traumas his community endured over the past decade.
"During the war insurgents took all our animals, raped our wives and daughters. Healthy young men and boys were taken captive to become soldiers. Women abducted to become the wives of the rebel leaders, even older people were abducted to carry their luggage. And so many people were killed brutally, leaving a lot of orphans behind. HIV/AIDS is also a big problem here, because so many women were raped."In June 2008 the ASB launched the farmer field school here in Awatngwenino. Francis recalls that the farmers had lost most of their skills, but they all worked together and have learned a lot within a year. On a study plot they grew tomatoes together and studied pest control. The study plot was divided into three sub-plots: the first one was the control plot where they planted tomatoes and let them grow. On the second plot they used chemical pesticides and on the third they used home made pesticides. The conclusion was: the best way to grow healthy tomatoes is to use home-made pesticides, because it not only treats pests effectively, it’s also the easiest and cheapest option.
In addition to the field studies, the farmers also started a successful little savings group. In one year they’ve managed to save roughly 900,000 Ugandan shillings or almost 500 US-Dollars.
They also set up a small piggery and learned how to build energy saving stoves.
Florence Omara is one of the farmers and a proud member of the local farmer field school. The young woman says she's benefited a lot from the energy saving stoves, as it saves her time, firewood and even improved her health. In northern Uganda there used to be a lot of firewood, but nowadays, there’s no firewood at all. It's a constant struggle to get firewood and with the traditional way of cooking women need seven or eight large pieces of wood. Today, with energy saving stoves they only need one or two.
Two years ago Florence and her family of five left the camp. The return was difficult, their village was destroyed. But no doubt the hardest thing was overcoming the trauma of the past and the abuses by the rebels and the army.
"There was constant fear... we were so afraid of going to the nearest village to look for firewood... and small small food to bring back for our children. The rebels would capture you, drag you into the bush, rape you and leave you there until the morning. That is what they were doing to we women."Today Florence says she's free - and she can sleep again.
Her face lights up when she talks about the benefits of the farmer field school. Now instead of growing 10 different crops, she knows how to select the profitable crops and how to fight pests and diseases and achieve high yields.
But the farmer field school is more than simply improving farming skills. Florence tells us about her young daughter who fell sick earlier this year.
Florence sent her husband back to see if the savings group in the village could help.
"She was in a critical condition, so I took her to the health center, but there was no good medicine. Then I took her to the hospital in Lira, the capital of our province. But they were demanding a lot of money, and I was having very little."
"I said, go to my chairperson and ask him to give you at least 100,000 Ugandan shillings (35 €) so we can save our child. You know, nowadays if you don’t have money, you can easily die."Thanks to the savings of the farmer field, school Florence was able to get the money she needed to pay the bills for the medicine, the hospital and also the costs of staying in town with her daughter.
Now, 5 months later she's already managed to repay her debt, including a small interest rate.
"I really benefited from it, because if I had not been in this group, no one would have given me the money I needed. Nobody in our village was having that amount. You can find someone with 500, 5,000, maybe even 10,000, but that's not enough, and you can’t go begging from door to door. So being in a group - that's the best thing I got from the farmer field school."
In the past Florence says the farmers used to only fend for themselves, now they’re working together. Francis, the president of the association, agrees.
"The farmer field school has changed the way we think. Before we only thought about ourselves and our families, people used to stay in isolation, but the farmer field school has brought us together and now we are a real community."And as we're sitting under a tree listening to the songs of the farmers and eating the little feast they have prepared for us you can really feel the group spirit, it feels like a community is rebuilding. The farmers have used some of their savings to buy T-shirts and caps where they’ve printed the name of their farmer field school: