Displaced People Better Off At Home Than in Camp

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The Monitor (Kampala)COLUMN
February 28, 2004
Posted to the web February 27, 2004
James Tumusiime

Kampala Shortly after the Abia killings two weeks ago, President Museveni called newspaper editors to State House and told them, among other things, that conditions in the so-called protected camps for the internally displaced people were not "unbearable" or else the residents would have "got out."The President argued that the displaced are still living, get relief food and their children go to school.

I thought that was very insensitive, coming from the President. We know very well that some of these people were literally herded into the camps. Those who tried to resist were in some cases threatened.So, the camps are not a voluntary place of aboard for the majority of people as the President would want us to believe.

Besides, who wants to abandon the comfort of his or her home (however needy they might be) and live in crowded camps where housing is terrible, sanitation is non-existent, food is in short supply!The Abia massacre in Lira district claimed at least 50 civilians who were living in a displaced people's camp. The President must have been a very disappointed man because the attack came at a time when most of us felt we had finally reached the beginning of the end of the insurgency.

The army was enjoying success after success on the battlefield, most especially the killing of one or two senior rebel commanders.Understandably, the President could not let this incident undermine these achievements. He had to play it down and hope it was just a mistake which would not happen again.The conflict is in its dying moments, the President told the editors. In fact, this (Abia) was not a massacre, as the press had put it. What happened was just a 'hiccup', he said. Never mind that that 'hiccup' killed 50 people.The President had spoken too soon.

As if to make him chew his own words, the Lord's Resistance Army rebels struck again this week, killing 80 civilians by government estimates (other sources put the figure at more than 200) at Barlonyo camp for the displaced, again in Lira district.Now, the latest massacre is proof that the President's remarks were not only insensitive but misleading. First, the insurgency is not dying.It is very much alive. Second, conditions in displaced people's camps are not only unbearable, they are hell on earth.

Third, if the Abia massacre was a 'hiccup', what do we call Barlonyo? A 'cough' perhaps?According to the President, a massacre insinuates that the people were defenceless, yet in the case of Abia, they were protected by the Amuka militia who actually put up a brave fight but were overpowered by the rebels.We do not know what to call the Barlonyo killings, but clearly, the two attacks are similar in nature.

The Amuka militia were again guarding the camp but were overpowered.The point however is, whether you call it killings, slaughter, murder or massacre; it is the same thing: hapless innocent people were killed after the government failed to offer them adequate protection.Saying Abia was not a massacre was simply a splitting of hairs in an attempt to downplay the gravity of the problem.

Barlonyo has now exposed this attempt to portray what is going on in the North as a "small problem."As if the semantic debate over the word 'massacre' is not disgusting enough, the government also engages in a game of numbers. Independent sources say 190 people were killed. The government says 80. Others say 200.Again this is aimed at playing down the seriousness of the problem, as if reducing the number by half makes it any less grave. Even one life lost is bad enough.

This obsession with semantics does not end here. We also engage in a useless debate as to whether to call the LRA bandits or terrorists! And we argue over whether it is a war, conflict or terror campaign!Then the all too familiar post mortem after every massacre: It is because the camp was ungazetted; the Amuka did not communicate; the donors and the international community refused us to spend more on weapons, the Sudan, the tall vegetation, etc. But how useful is that if it cannot help us find a solution?The Barlonyo massacre brings back the spotlight on the so-called 'protected' camps.

It is quite clear that contrary to the President's assurances, the conditions in the camps are terrible.Not only is the humanitarian situation catastrophic, the protection which the camp residents sought is not there.The conditions, Mr President, are unbearable but the residents have not walked away in the hope that the government would keep its part of the bargain - to protect them.Now that this protection is no longer guaranteed, maybe the people should consider getting way.

After all, it would appear that they are safer in their homes than in 'protected' camps, which are not 'protected', really.The rebels are able to kill so many people in such a short time because they are gathered in one place. If the people had been in their huts, scattered all over their villages, it would not be that easy, though not impossible.In their villages, the locals would be able to quickly learn of any attack and disperse or hide. In the camps, they are simply collected like grasshoppers and slaughtered like goats.

Without adequate defence, the rebels can easily surround a camp, overrun it and kill. But they would not easily cut off an entire village.That is why most large scale massacres in the North have, ironically, happened in the so-called 'protected' camps. So conditions in the camps are unbearable, Mr President. And the residents should get away.

"The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth becomes the greatest enemy of the state."

- Dr. Joseph M. Goebbels - Hitler's propaganda minister

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