Kampala — Rebel deserters in camps near the Sudanese border fear that they will be caught and punished
About 50,000 Sudanese refugees living in Adjumani district are being targeted for conscription into the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a report by the Refugee Law Project (RLP) has warned. The report, based on research done in the Adjumani refugee settlements also says the refugees face attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.
The two rebel groups, it says, create an environment of fear for the refugees, in addition to the long-standing problems of hunger and under-development that the displaced people in Southern Sudan face.
The report says: "Many of the settlements in Adjumani are located near territory where the LRA has frequent activity. They are confined to specific areas called settlements, where all their food and possessions are concentrated. This makes them a perfect target for the LRA to replenish their supplies."
The report, released last week, is based on research done in 12 of the 33 refugee settlements in Adjumani district in May. The research team was led by Kirk Huff, an advocacy officer with the Refugee Law Project, an autonomous project within the Faculty of Law of Makerere University.
The 15-page report quotes several testimonies attesting to the 'continuing pressure' being exerted on individual refugees, many of whom have fled from the SPLA, to join (or return to) active service. Some of the former SPLA officers say they are being targeted because they know secrets of the rebel group.
Other testimonies in the report describe how people living in Mirieyi settlement are taken from their huts at night to unknown destinations by the SPLA. Another refugee who fled to Kampala after fleeing from the SPLA told the researchers about continued mobilisation in Adjumani. He also spoke of child soldiers being recruited through subtle pressure put on communities to supply one child per family for military service.
"Although these people have fled the war in their home country and are now living in Uganda as refugees," the report warns, "individual refugees-especially former soldiers-- still feel threatened by SPLA activity inside Uganda."
One refugee told the research team: "I live in fear. I know they are looking for me. I cannot run because I have children."
RLP researchers found that rebels are captured and bound while their houses and fields are looted of food, pots, clothes and other items. Refugees are stripped and forced to carry the loot.
The report says: "Though most are released to find their own way back to the settlements, some refugees are killed or abducted. Most witnesses interviewed by the RLP claimed that security provided by the over-stretched UPDF-led Local Defence Units (LDUs) is insufficient. This lack of adequate security allows the rebels in the area to continue their insurgency."
Researchers also got evidence that deserters are severely punished when apprehended. Those of high rank may even be killed upon their return to Sudan, they add.
The report says the refugees in the settlements that were opened under the recent Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS) in southern Adjumani are more vulnerable to LRA attacks. Many of those interviewed, it says, perceived themselves to be some kind of barrier between the rebels and the national population.
"There is too much fear. The people live in horror. They do not live in the huts they have built," one refugee told the research team.
In its conclusion, the report calls for "durable solutions" to address the question of insecurity in the settlements.
With regard to LRA activity, the report prescribes an urgent need for a greater UPDF presence in and around the settlements. The report says: "The LDUs play a lesser role as they are generally perceived to be unpaid, under-trained and insufficient for protection. Improving security numerically would have an immediate positive effect on the situation and would act as a major deterrent to rebels who are currently exploiting the inadequacy of Uganda's efforts to protect those living within its borders."
The Refugee Law Project also calls on Government to improve opportunities for refugees with past involvement in SPLA by moving them to other locations within Uganda that are further from the Sudan border. Those who are at risk, it recommends, must be given greater opportunity to leave the north and either be resettled elsewhere within Uganda or in a third country.
The report says: "At the same time, the leadership of the SPLA needs to take responsibility for its human rights abuses in Adjumani, and implement change in its recruitment policy. Forced recruitment discredits it in the eyes of the international community and erodes the legitimacy of its struggle."
Mr. Zachary Lomo, the Project Director, said plans are under way to study the living conditions of the refugees in the districts bordering Adjumani. He says: "The proposals for field trips to Arua and Kitgum are being finalised. The study might be done before the end of the year."