Over the past week and a half, about 200 people from the northern Uganda village of Apaa have traveled 100 kilometers to the town of Gulu seeking safety - and help - after Ugandan soldiers allegedly torched their homes. They have turned to the United Nations for assistance with their plight, and are camped outside the offices of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
In a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, local leaders from Apaa allege that since late 2017 soldiers have "burned over 800 houses, caused three deaths, and perpetrated countless severe beatings of Apaa residents." They ask the OHCHR to engage with the Ugandan government to end the attacks and to compensate victims for injuries and loss of homes and property.
For many years, Apaa has been awash with contentious land disputes. The Ugandan army, alongside wildlife and forestry authorities, has carried out evictions for several years, claiming their actions are justified because the government set the area aside as a game and forest reserve.
Uganda's Minister of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities has said these evictions have been peaceful and voluntary, but evidence of how previous forced evictions in Apaa were conducted in 2015 and recent media and civil society reporting suggests this may not be true.
The area has a long history of land conflict and forced evictions. On September 7, 2015, army officers, police, and officials from the Uganda Wildlife Authority beat fired live ammunition and arrested dozens of civilians in connection with the land conflict. "We weren't armed. They were armed," one 70-year-old woman who was beaten by a soldier following the 2015 incident told Human Rights Watch. "How could they fire their guns when we are not armed?"
Again, in March 2018, soldiers used excessive force to carry out evictions, prompting some residents' recent flight to Gulu's OHCHR offices. Local leaders say that a 26-year-old man was shot dead by people in Ugandan military uniforms and that a 4-year-old child went missing during the operation.
Community members are clear that they want to return to Apaa. If the Ugandan government has legitimate and justified reasons that cannot happen, it still has obligations to address the dispute in a manner that fully respects the community's rights, providing an effective remedy and full compensation for any loss. They also have to investigate all allegations of abuse and hold the military and wildlife authorities forces accountable for their conduct.
Oryem Nyeko (Researcher, Africa Division)