By Haggai Matsiko
UNHCR , army, Prime Minister’s Office, sucked into ugly eviction of 60,000 residents
When Mohammed Abdi Adar, the Country Representative of the United Nations Commission for Refugees heard what was happening near Kyangwali, one of the biggest refugee camps in Hoima district, southwestern Uganda, he instantly picked the phone and called the Commissioner for Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, Apollo Kazung
“Commissioner,” he said, “I am not in agreement with what you are doing; you cannot settle refugees on people’s land.”
It was wasted breath.
On Aug.29 security forces started forcefully evicting of residents from two villages in this highly security-sensitive oil-rich region.
Soon a large camp of internally displaced refugees was pitching camp at Kyangwali Sub-County headquarters in Hoima district, southwestern Uganda. Local leaders say the evicted number over 60,000. When we were there on Aug. 30, one of the locals was registering them on seemingly endless lists of names in two big books and three sheets of papers.
“We came here all the way on foot, last night was terrible, we slept on the grass and had to bear the cold,” Godfrey Turyamureba, 15, one of the many young boys caught up in the evictions told us, “They destroyed our house.”
Babies and children are 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, are overwhelmed and a disease outbreak is feared.
Kyangwali Refugee Resettlement Camp officially has over 20,000 refugees from DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, and Burundi. But 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 now claim they are flushing out villagers to clear way for expansion of the refugee camp and the army detachment. But the villagers doubt it. They have seen a lot of land grabbing and suspect the soldiers have a corrupt agenda.
This is 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.
“When a government wants to cheat its people,” one of the evictees says, “it uses guns. It is strange to see people who are supposed to protect people and their property, busy terrorising those same people.”
The locals believe settling refugees is a pretext for the government or some individuals 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.
The eviction is the latest of many that have taken place in many parts of this region but, residents say, this is like no other.
The army and police descended on Bukinda and Katikara, two of 28 villages targeted for eviction in Kasonga and Bukinda parishes. They threatened residents and marked their house doors with a big letter x, as a sign that they are not needed here.
“They gave us a two day ultimatum,” says Sandy Matia, 39, a father of seven children, “they said that after that if they find us here, they will beat the hell out of us.”
Matia and his wife looked on as a man plucked the iron sheets off their four-roomed, neatly painted house. Next the doors came off, followed by the remaining pieces of furniture. He, like the other villagers, was told to take whatever he could and run.
Along the road, from Bukinda trading centre and Katikara through the refugee camp, we saw processions of locals carrying old iron sheets, doors, shop items, and freshly uprooted food items like cassava tubers.
“Those who can, are carrying whatever they can,” Immaculate Tushemereirwe told us, as her months old baby suckled on her breast, “I couldn’t get anything from my garden, I was forced to flee and there are so many like me.”
“What hurts me most is that they are spoiling our crops, forcing me from the land that my father was born on,” says 40-year old Asimwe Birungi, “what am I to do with my for children where am I to go? Worse still no government leader has come to explain any of this to us.”
As Birungi talks, a crowd of boys and men, girls and women; the young and very old gathers around her. They are all want answers to the same questions she is asking. Unfortunately, there is no one with answers. Even their leaders have been targeted.
One of them, Lazaro Tirwomwe, says the area UPDF commandant, Kirya Amos 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 have not been spared.
“I have a title for my 100 acres of land,” Yoram Kibalyanga says, “there is no UPDF headquarters I haven’t been to explaining myself. I have been to Bombo, Mbuya, Masindi with documents showing that I officially own this land but armed UPDF officials came and evicted me and my family from our land. I am now a refugee in Buseruka.”
Kibalyanga, who owns 50 cows, says his neighbor Oliver Bekita, was also evicted from her 300 acres of land and in the process she lost 11 cows.
Kyangwali is largely vast fertile land and has over the years attracted migrants. But Kibalyanga and Bekita are among many evictees who include indigenous Banyoro, whose great grandparents lived and died here. They say the refugee camp and the UPDF barracks are evicting them illegally.
“How can the government evict us, its citizens from our land and give it to refugees?” a man asks angrily, while passing at Kinakitaka Primary School where the new refugees have been camped.
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.
The Kyangwali Sub-county Chairman LCIII, Rwemera 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 met in Kampala with Kazungu; the Commissioner for Refugees in OPM and another official called Bafaki, together with an official from President’s Office; one Charity.
Mazirane told the meeting that the evictions had potential to spark off a conflict between the aggrieved locals and the refugees. The security threat is real. The rebel Allied Democratic Forces recruits and operate here.
Mazirane also gave the commissioner a copy of documents he said showed that the villages in which locals have been evicted were not part of the camp.
According to the documents which The Independent has seen, confusion in the lands ministry and that of the Office of the Prime Minister appears to be at the heart of the crisis.
The 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.
One of the letters, written by D.K Kiwanuka, then-Assistant Director, Lands and Environment states: “Let me say it again here that the consultant’s work is suspect, it has been proved wrong in the field and I am concerned that such a survey should form part of a National Survey Record…if such a job is allowed to pass, as it is, then I wonder whether the job Department of Lands and Surveys will in future have any credibility of returning survey job to the field.”
The survey job was not approved, leaving the situation unclear—something that has sparked the current disagreement.
When shown the correspondences between the Ministry of Lands officials and those in the Office of the Prime Minister, the Commissioner for Refugees told the Kyangwali group that this is the first time he was seeing these documents. He said, however, they were useless since they were inaccurate.
One of the residents, Joseph Kwezi told the meeting that he had been on that land with his parents in 1964 before the land for refugees was demarcated in 1967.
He told the meeting that while the first demarcation was carried out in 1964, refugees first came here in 1967. He narrated how, when the Sudanese refugees left, another survey was done in 1999.
He said the Commission for Refugees even consulted him about the boundaries of the land and about the families that were there before the demarcation of the refugee land. Bafaki, the official at the commission backed Kwezi’s story. Kwezi said the UPDF only came into the picture with a detachment in Ngurwe village around 2002.
Kwezi said he was shocked the UPDF was evicting him.
“The soldiers have come to my home twice attempting to evict me,” he told the meeting.
The meeting agreed to settle the new refugees on the empty camp land and halt evictions until a clear verification was done.
But hardly a week after this meeting, the armed forces pounced, vandalized property, razed homes, destroyed crops, and emptied two local semi-urban settlements.
“It is now clear we have two sets of refugees, the refugees from Bundibugyo and these ones who have been evicted from their land,” says Mazirane.
His only hope and that of his people had been pinned on a delegation expected from the OPM and President’s Office. They never showed up. However, he was not certain what difference they would have made given that people had already been forced off their land, the houses and crops destroyed, and their lives shattered.