War in Uganda is over. But as humanitarian organizations pull out of the region, locals are left battling an economy so ravaged that people struggle to feed themselves. Our correspondent surveys the situation in the city hardest hit by warlord Joseph Kony's 18-year insurgency.
"I sometimes fail to even provide breakfast for my two children, so I give them porridge for lunch and then they eat cassava in the evening for supper," says Juliet Laker. Despite her regular work as a vegetable vendor at Gulu Main Supermarket, the single mother of two is forced to ration her family's meals.
Gulu is still reeling from the violence inflicted by Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army terrorized this northern town while fighting the Ugandan army. Although most of the district's once internally displaced people may have returned to their villages, making ends meet is more painful than ever.
Laker's daily income of 5,000 Uganda shillings, about 1.60 euros, is spread thin. "With that money, I have to pay rent for two grass thatched houses in [the village of] Pece Layibi at a cost of 15,000 [Uganda shillings; about 4.80 euros], pay school fees, provide food and medical care for my two children," she says.
Larger businesses in the area are also pressed. Sunset Hotel is one of them. "This hotel these days sleeps without anyone, yet those days when NGOs were here all the 35 rooms would be booked every night," says manager Emmanuel Okello.
Why the high cost?
But not too long ago getting "a descent meal", as Laker puts it, was less of a challenge.
James Ochaya, an elder in the town, explains why. "During the war, many people were living in the camps and they used to get food supplies from the World Programme." He says displaced people went back to their villages after the war, but the government failed to carry out a proper resettlement plan for them.
A 40-year-old former NGO staff member also recalls what were more financially comfortable times. "Our welfare was well catered for and, as such, we could afford to buy anything in town at whatever amount because money was not a problem," he says.
David Kilama, a produce dealer who works at Gulu Main Supermarket, believes NGOs are responsible for the pace of current prices. "Before the war, prices of things were stable," he says. "War is good for business because during the time for the war we would sale all our stock within a week. Nowadays, we keep the prices high to try and recover the loss we have suffered after the end of the war because the people who were working in big organizations have all gone away."
Agriculture as an answer
Sixty-five year-old Ochaya predicts that Gulu's cost of living will continue rising unless village residents engage in food production. "Government should have lured the former displaced people into agriculture by giving them agricultural incentives because since they went back to the villages they are not engaged in production and as a result they have also continued to put pressure on the food stock which is brought from distant areas leading to a hike in prices," he says.
If the government could offer her a resettlement package, Laker says she would love to return back to her village and grow food to feed her family. She believes the government should do something to bring down the prices. "The only thing that has changed from the time of the war is that we now sleep inside the house," she says, "but otherwise the cost of living is too high to bear."