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The tenuous return

Uganda, November 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kate Dilley/Mercy Corps  </span>
    These are the raw materials for the roof and door of a hut that will house a once-displaced Acholi family as they return to their home village after years of war. Photo: Kate Dilley/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kate Dilley/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The finished hut, with a straw roof and a door made from recycled cooking oil cans. Photo: Kate Dilley/Mercy Corps

Dennis, my driver and impromptu translator, and I walked through the resettlement site towards the grinding mill where we were going to talk with a Youth Empowerment Program beneficiary. We walked past so many huts and I couldn’t help but feel that the camp was too quiet for the number of homes in the area. There weren’t enough children playing or men and women working.

The camp felt eerily like a ghost town.

When we reached the grinding mill, we began to attract a crowd. Children gathered around us playing in the worn down foundation of a hut. Some of the children were naked, others in tattered dirty clothing. Some watched quietly, the curiosity clear on their faces as they crept closer to me and reached out to touch my bag or my skirt. Others played and laughed, oblivious to us, too busy engaged with their playmates to pay attention to the grownup discussion taking place.

We talked with program beneficiaries about life in the camps. Many people are leaving the camps and the resettlement sites for their home villages. The Acholi people or northern Uganda are farmers — they rely on the land for their subsistence. Life in the camps has decimated much of their traditional way of life. They long to be back in their home villages working their land with their own hands to earn a living and provide for their families.

While many people have returned home, the return is not always easy. Having spent so much time in the camps, many people may not know how to farm, or lack the tools or income to purchase tools. Others have lost their drive to be self-sustaining; they are used to the handouts from the aid organizations and are now dependent upon them for their survival.

A cease fire was brokered in mid-2006, but the effects of the conflict are still felt out in the villages. With no final peace deal, many are reluctant to say that the conflict has ended.

As people return home, most of them have to rebuild from the ground up. Their homes have been burnt, and the bush has encroached on their homesteads and gardens. Too many villagers find unexploded land mines out beyond the camps, leaving them dead or maimed. The combination of these challenges and fears creates a tenuous situation, at best, for return.

Despite the challenges and obstacles, many people are hopeful that their lives will soon return to normal. They look forward to getting back to their villages and their gardens. They hope that their children will continue studying in school. They see much opportunity for their lives in northern Uganda. I hope that those who closed the doors to their huts in the camps and have returned to their villages are safe and content to be back home.