Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Thursday, 30 September 2010 14:27 UK

Bitter legacy of Uganda's civil war

By Richard Dowden

Northern Uganda is still devastated from the effects of a civil war that saw the Acoli people driven off their land and many forced to join the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and commit atrocities on their own families.

(2004 photo) Captured former soldier of the Lord's Resistance Army
Most former Lords Resistance Army soldiers have been given amnesty

The only problem I had on the road north from Karuma Falls where we crossed the Nile was rain.

It started at dusk and hit the windscreen as if we were in a car wash.

The driver's response was to go faster, get to Gulu more quickly, although there were scores of cars and lorries, pedestrians and cyclists on the two-lane road.

Not so long ago this road would have been empty. When I travelled along it last we went in convoy. No one travelled by night.

This was the territory of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) who attacked their own Acholi people, seizing their sons and daughters and forcing them to fight or to carry their loot or act as sex slaves.

To make sure their victims could never go home again, the rebel commanders would sometimes force children to kill their parents or commit some other atrocity like cutting off lips or noses.

An Acholi child in a traditional village
Acholi refugees have now been able to return to their homes and villages

To fight the rebels, the government herded almost a million people off their land and into camps, telling them that if they refused they would be treated as rebels.

All over Acholiland around small towns and army bases, thousands of traditional little round huts, thatched neatly with dried grass, sprung up like fields of giant toadstools.

At one time these camps had the worst recorded levels of mortality and disease of any displacement camps in the world.

In most of them the people were eventually fed and provided with healthcare and education, thanks to the hundreds of UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that flocked to the area.

Four years ago the war began to end and a truce was signed.

Although peace talks eventually broke down in 2008, the LRA had been driven out of Uganda.

The NGOs mostly left and the people of Acholiland were able to go home.

Lost life skills

Most Acholis made their own way back home on foot, recreating paths that have disappeared and rediscovering their farms which have lain untouched and overgrown for years.

(2005 photo) Internally displaced people collect water at a pump in a camp
The camps provided support, but self-sufficiency skills were lost

The houses had collapsed, the wells fallen in. They might as well be returning to virgin bush.

Most went back without any assistance from the government, carrying what pathetically meagre possessions they still owned.

In the camps they were cared for, but a generation grew up there without learning how to farm or support themselves.

Food came off the back of a United Nations truck.

The handouts that kept them alive in the camps did not prepare them for self-sufficiency.

Only a few have been given tools for farming or seeds for planting, but does a new generation know how to use them?

Although some aid agencies such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, have been providing support for the returnees, most returnees are going back to areas without schools or health clinics.

And their most valuable and traditional asset, cattle, has gone.

Everyone I spoke to talked about the growing number of land disputes

Acholi people once valued their cattle only slightly less than their children. Every family kept them, a savings account to be used as bride price or to pay for a funeral.

When the people were herded into camps, the cattle were herded into trucks and driven to the markets of Kampala, the capital, to be sold.

Now all they have is land - some of the most fertile on earth and at the moment lush with rain. But who can remember who owns what?

Map of Uganda showing Gulu and Kampala

The elders, those who might remember the boundary markers like streams, trees or stones, have died.

Everyone I spoke to talked about the growing number of land disputes. Squatters are told to move. Families fall out. Many disputes turn violent.

Over all hangs a fear - almost paranoia - that the government will steal their land and sell it to outsiders.

Olweny Wilson, a local administrator, said many people had given up, sold their land for a pittance, gone back to town and were drinking the money away.

Troubled reconciliation

The other return is even more difficult. Only the core of the LRA rebel movement fled Uganda.

Two men partaking in mato oput
A bowl of bitter mato oput is drunk as part of traditional reconciliation

Some 32,000 fighters surrendered or were captured and are now being reintegrated into society.

Most have been given amnesty but how should their families and victims respond to them?

How do you reconcile with individuals who killed your mother in cold blood or cut the ears or lips off your sister?

And the former fighters themselves, abducted as children, are now young men and women, traumatised by their experiences but with little or no support or counselling.

There is traditional system of forgiveness called mato oput, named after a bitter liquid drunk by offender and victims as a reminder of the pain of the past after a process of seeking forgiveness and paying compensation.

But a fierce argument rages over whether mato oput, can achieve reconciliation within families and communities.

Two fighters that I spoke to said they have come back but are not really accepted.

So people may be going home at last, but they are returning to an area without resources or investment. An area that is going nowhere. For many, it is proving anything but a happy homecoming.

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