By Haggai Matsiko
Security operatives displaced over 60,000 people to allegedly expand barracks and refugee camp
Two crisis meetings involving President Yoweri Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi have resolved to resettle, supply relief food and compensate over 60,000 that were forcefully evicted near Kyangwali Resettlement Camp, following an expose by The Independent magazine.
The Independent, in the previous issue, reported how on Aug.29 security forces descended on two villages of Bukinda and Katikala, forcefully evicting residents and destroying their property. This was after an official from State House had agreed with the Commissioner Refugees under the Office of the Prime Minister, Apollo Kazungu not to go ahead with the eviction until certain facts were established.
Mohammed Abdi Adar, the Country Representative of the United Nations Commission for Refugees, had also personally warned Kazungu against the eviction after the locals lodged a complaint with him.
“Commissioner,” he said while calling Kazungu, “I am not in agreement with what you are doing; you cannot settle refugees on people’s land.”
But security operatives went ahead evicting people and destroying their property, essentially establishing another large camp of internally displaced refugees that pitched camp at Kyangwali Sub-County headquarters in Hoima district, southwestern Uganda.
When The Independent visited this place on Aug.30, the local leaders said the evicted numbered over 60,000. One of the leaders sat on a desk surrounded by children, women and the elderly all scampering to be registered on the seemingly endless lists of names in two big books and three sheets of papers.
The sub-county headquarters was a mess. Babies and children were wailing, and heaps of mattresses and other beddings, saucepans and other home items are strewn all over the compound of the small sub-county space. The facilities, including the pit latrines meant for only a few officials, were overwhelmed and a disease outbreak was feared.
Godfrey Turyamureba, 15, one of the many young boys caught up in the evictions told The Independent of how the soldiers destroyed his home.
“We came here all the way on foot, last night was terrible, we slept on the grass and had to bear the cold,” he said.
It is suffering like that which prompted the locals to petition the President and the Prime Minister. On Sept. 13, the same day The Independent story was published, Mbabazi allowed to meet the representatives of the victims.
The meeting that lasted for over two hours took place in the Prime Minister’s boardroom and ended about 10:00pm. Among the attendees were five representatives of the victims, the Prime Minister, some MPs, and Kazungu, himself.
Mbabazi first asked the representatives what their problem was. One by one they explained what had happened. Their leader, the Chairman LCIII Rwemera Mazirane Mazirane, took the longest time explaining to Mbabazi.
Mbabazi asked all of them when they had settled on the land. Four of them admitted they had not been born on the land but had spent over 15 years, some less than that. But one of them was different. “I was born on that land, my father was born on that and my grandfather too,” one of the victims, Joseph Kwezi, said in Runyoro.
Kazungu had already told Mbabazi that the land in the sub-county belonged to the refugee camp. When Mbabazi asked the LCIII chairman, when the sub-county had been established, it turned out that it predated the resettlement camp. While the sub-county was established in 1937, the camp came 30 years after, Mbabazi was told.
Kwezi says that he had been on that land with his parents in 1964 before the land for refugees was demarcated in 1967.
Midway through the meeting, President Museveni called Mbabazi. Mbabazi told the people to first excuse him so he could talk to “the president”. The victims looked on as Mbabazi placed ear pieces in his ears and started talking. They could not hear what the President was saying but they were connecting his answers to the possible questions from Museveni.
“Yes, in fact the meeting I am chairing is with those people from Kyangwali,” at some point Mbabazi muttered.
“That is the only report we have,” he added shortly. President Museveni had asked Mbabazi that if officials in Mbabazi’s office [Kazungu and company] were saying that the report presented by the victims from the ministry of lands was not accurate, where was the right report.
The Independent had reported that while meeting these same locals in his office, Kazungu had quashed their claims and told them that their report was wrong.
The report Kazungu quashed included, a title certified by the Commissioner Lands and the job history of the survey among others. These documents showed that consultants who surveyed the land, Technology Consults Ltd, according to the job history left 7.36 square kilometres and 36.9 square kilometres for the locals in Katikara and Bukinda villages respectively, leaving 91.4 square kilometres for the refugee camp.
However, officials at the Ministry of Lands, noted faults in the survey but instead of correcting them, kept exchanging back and forth correspondences between themselves and the Permanent Secretary OPM. Kazungu had capitalised on this.
After the call, Mbabazi also told the meeting that President Museveni had mentioned The Independent and wondered whether they knew anything about that.
One of the victims, who was armed with a copy of The Independent quickly put the copy containing the story across the table; “here sir,” he said as he extended it.
As the meeting ended at about 10:00 pm, Mbabazi assured the locals that the eviction was not a government project and asked them to be patient for a few days until he found a solution.
But before the locals left, Mbabazi got on his phone and rung several ministers. These included; Aronda Nyakairima, the minister for Internal Affairs, Ernest Kiiza, the minister for Bunyoro Affairs, Musa Ecweru, the minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Peter Nyombi, the Attorney General among others. He made an appointment with all these for a meeting about this crisis on Sept.16.
On Sept.16, a crisis cabinet meeting was summoned. This time, Gen. Aronda, Ecweru, Kiiza, Nyombi and the Prime Ministers and two MPs attended the meeting. The commissioner, Kazungu was also in attendance.
Apparently, Mbabazi told the mini-cabinet meeting that he was shocked that all this got into the press before he was even aware of anything. In brief, he had not directed the eviction. A source who was part of this meeting intimated to The Independent that President Museveni was deeply concerned and kept in touch on phone with Mbabazi.
Aronda was also shocked that the police had been involved yet there was no court order. He also said he was not aware of who had directed this eviction.
When Kazungu told the meeting that the locals had left the land voluntarily, the ministers almost chewed him up. The Bunyoro Affairs minister, who had travelled to the area and produced a report on the matter, was also peddling the same line as Kazungu’s.
“You Kazungu, can you destroy the house you have built like this?” one of the ministers asked the commissioner. Matters got worse when one of the MPs presented pictures showing how people’s properties had been destroyed.
“We have been trying to get people off land belonging to Kabamba Barracks in vain,” a furious Aronda said looking at Kazungu, “how can you say that these people left voluntarily?”
Kazungu could not find words to respond to the ministers that were visibly too angry. As the meeting ended, they resolved to have all the victims called back to their land. The ministers also resolved to send relief food to these locals.
According to sources, President Museveni, who was not there instructed that people go back to their land until the commission of inquiry investigated the matter and came up with what exactly happened.
The ministers agreed that proper boundaries have to be established before anyone can be evicted. The meeting also instructed the relief minister to send to Kyangwali Sub-county about 100 bags of posho and 30 of beans for the people who were evicted.
Kazungu’s office had evicted residents claiming they encroached on the Kyangwali Refugee Resettlement Camp, which officially has over 20,000 refugees from DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, and Burundi. In mid-August, the government started bringing in more refugees from Bubukwanga Refugee Transit Centre in the neighbouring Bundibugyo district.
The refugees were fleeing the latest flare up of fighting in the DR Congo between the several rebel groups including M23, ADF and the Congolese government army.
The soldiers and police claimed they are flushing out villagers to clear way for expansion of the refugee camp and the army detachment.
But just as the villagers doubted, this was not the case. Indeed as the villagers worried, the biggest suspicion is that some government officials were colluding with Kazungu and the local security and district operatives to grab their land.
It is easy to understand their suspicions. Apart from a small area where the camp headquarters are, the 91 square kilometres refugee camp that stretches until the eye can see no more is largely empty. Refugee authorities would need millions of refugees to fill, not the few thousands they are bringing in. But land grabbers have several reasons to target here. The area is vast and fertile.
It is also oil-rich land. Buhuuka parish, where the Chinese Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) is operating the estimated 300 million barrel Kingfisher oil field, is just 10kms away. The neighbouring Buliisa district has most of the 3.5 billion barrels of Uganda’s oil and gas deposits.
This reporter found several residents watching as their iron sheets got plucked off their well-built permanent houses.
Along the road, from Bukinda trading centre and Katikara through the refugee camp, processions of locals carrying old iron sheets, doors, shop items, and freshly uprooted food items like cassava tubers, could be seen.
One woman, a 40-year old Asimwe Birungi told The Independent that she was hurt to see security operatives “spoiling our crops, forcing me from the land that my father was born on”.
“What am I to do with my for children where am I to go?” she angrily asked as a crowd of boys and men, girls and women; the young and very old gathered around her, seemingly seeking similar answers, “Worse still no government leader has come to explain any of this to us.”
Another local, Lazaro Tirwomwe, told The Independent that the area UPDF commandant, Kirya Amos had told him to get off his land because he was the one setting a bad example for the rest.
Tirwomwe refused: “I am not going anywhere. If the commandant is killing me, let him go ahead, I cannot dismantle my three block permanent house.” Tirwomwe says he is one of his father’s 30 children that have spent over 24 years on the land.
Even those holding genuine land titles had not been spared. A one Yoram Kibalyanga said he had been to all UPDF headquarters with all documentation showing that he was the owner of the land but they had gone ahead to kick him off of his 100 acres land.
Although he successfully fled with his fifty cows, his neighbour Oliver Bekita, was also evicted from her 300 acres of land and in the process she lost 11 cows.
The whole drama started on June 26, when the Hoima Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Jean Kaliba, while officiating at the World Refugee Day held at Kasonga Refugee Settlement offices, ordered the locals in the two villages to immediately vacate their land. He said it belongs to the Refugee Settlement and the UPDF.
Mazirane and other leaders petitioned the Office of the President, the Commander of Defence Forces, Gen. Katumba Wamala, and sought a meeting with the country representative of UNHCR.
On August 22, the local leaders meeting with Kazungu had given them some hope as an official from President’s Office; one Charity had convinced Kazungu to postpone the eviction until thorough investigations were carried out. But
But hardly a week after, security operatives swung into action. Now, of the many aspects Museveni, and the respective ministers want to find out is who was behind the eviction.