Africa Land-Grab: Evicted Peasants Fear Cholera outbreak in Ugandan U.N. Compound Where they fled for protection


[Speaking Truth To Power]

Given the 2010 catastrophe in Haiti, where infected peacekeepers from Nepal spread the disease that claimed over 10,000 lives, the United Nations must quickly address fears of a potential cholera outbreak by hundreds of victims of illegal farm evictions by the Ugandan regime. These domestic refugees sought protection on the compounds of a U.N. field office three weeks ago.

On July 11, more than 240 people from rural farming communities in Apaa region in the northern part of Uganda, fleeing from a deadly land-grab campaign on behalf of foreign investors by the military entered the compound of the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The land-grab is being carried out by the army under Gen. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s dictator of 32 years. He has ignored a 2012 Uganda High Court order staying all evictions from the luscious green fertile Apaa land.

It’s believed the regime wants to lease the land to foreign commercial farmers and to also expand game preserves for tourism. These refugees’ numbers reportedly swelled to 340. They’ve been sleeping beneath plastic tents. It’s been raining. Mosquitoes have been biting. Children are sick from malaria and medicines are running out. Food is low. The toilets are overflowing and now these refugees fear a cholera outbreak could wipe them out. Some of them believe it could be a strategy by U.N. staffers in Gulu; to let the health conditions break down, as a way to force them to flee from the compound.

A Ugandan official, Maj. Santos Okot Lapolo, the Gulu Resident District Commissioner, told the country’s independent daily, The Monitor, that the refugees want to “embarrass” the government before the international community. Is the U.N. staff in Uganda more concerned about that issue than the life-and-death danger faced by the refugees from the soldiers who attacked their communities and now from the compound itself? Reporters in Gulu have been blocked from access to the compound to see the conditions there. Many of the Apaa refugees say they fear being killed by soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF). The refugees, activists, and a human rights organization, report that the ongoing evictions and land-grab campaign have been vicious. In addition to violent evictions, the regime has stoked inter-ethnic violence between Acholis who inhabit the land the government wants and people from the neighboring Madi community –who have been armed by the regime–as part of the scheme to have people flee the area. As many as 12 people have been reported killed, many have been injured and some people have disappeared during the ongoing land-grab evictions. 

Uganda’s The Daily Monitor has covered many cases where homes were torched and people killed. Even the elderly have not been spared and as of May this year The Monitor reported on the death of a 95-year old woman during one such military attack. At least 500 homes had been burned by May –the new estimate is 800– properties looted, and crops destroyed. 

This is classic ethnic cleansing. The campaign is reminiscent of the one in 1986 when Gen. Museveni forced up to 90% of the population of Acholi region –about two million– to abandon their homes and live in squalid concentration camps where the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) reported that 1,000 excess deaths occurred per week. The camps existed for 20 years meaning possibly over 1 million people died under the regime’s policy of planned neglect. Now the people of Apaa are seeking protection from the current campaign to oust them from their land. The outside world plays a major role in Uganda because Gen. Museveni’s dictatorship and human rights abuses couldn’t last without foreign support. The United States alone backs the Museveni regime with weapons and financing in excess of $1 billion annually.

The Apaa refugees say they are now homeless and fear being killed should they return to Apaa as the attacks by the UPDF, the Uganda Police and armed security agents of the Uganda Wildlife Agency, reportedly continue. Some of the refugees emerged briefly from the U.N. compound and recounted their ordeal, including the violent evictions, and conditions in the U.N. compound, at a press conference with journalists at the Northern Uganda Media Center (NUMEC), an organization that pools resources for reporters.

Video footage of the testimonies were sent by a reporter to this writer.

The refugees who spoke to reporters at NUMEC, in addition to concerns about overflowing toilets, spoke of food and medication shortages, and children suffering from malaria. When they first arrived at the camp the refugees delivered a set of demands through a letter signed by one of their community leaders, Odoki Silvesto, addressed to Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N.’s outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Prince Zeid has been praised for publicly denouncing Donald Trump’s verbal attacks against immigrants and his hostile positions on refugees).

The demands of the Apaa refugees include: that the U.N. intervene so the Museveni regime halts the violent attacks; that the regime compensate victims or relatives for loss of lives, destruction of homes, injuries and looted properties; that the regime remove all roadblocks near their communities and stop harassing them; that those who initiated the violent campaigns be held accountable; and that the government honor a 2012 Uganda High Court ruling staying all evictions from Apaa land.

When I first learned that the Apaa refugees had fled to the U.N. compound in Gulu, I sent detailed questions via e-mail message to the Geneva headquarters of the OHCHR but received no response. Since the High Commissioner of Human Rights is appointed by the Secretary General, on July 31, I contacted Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesperson for Antonio Guterres about the matter. Haq said the U.N.’s “humanitarian team” in New York “have no reporting on this for the past month” which indicates New York has been kept in the dark about the Apaa refugees plight. Haq said he would check with UNHCR and suggested I do the same.

After my second inquiry to Geneva on August 1 –it included questions about the potential risk of a cholera outbreak, reported shortage of food, water and medical supplies and fears of attacks by the UPDF once refugees return home– today I received the following response (yesterday was a holiday there I am informed) which is a statement issued on July 24:

“On 11 July 2018, a group of 234 people (including 32 children) from Apaa village, Northern Uganda entered the field office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Gulu, Northern Uganda, after asking to hand over a petition. OHCHR had no prior knowledge of this action, nor of the petitioners’ intent to set up camp at the premises. The petitioners are demanding that their grievances related to forced evictions and other alleged human rights violations are acted on by national authorities. The concerns of the Apaa community were transmitted, through the UN Resident Coordinator, to the highest level of authority of State, who are seized with the matter and have conveyed the designation of a senior Government representative to interact with the affected people. OHCHR welcomes that a Government representative has been designated to travel to the region in the coming days to engage with the group, and are hopeful that such engagement will allow the Government to work towards finding a long-term solution for the Apaa community and other stakeholders in the area. OHCHR welcomes the involvement of cultural and religious leaders to assist in identifying immediate relief measures and in contributing to long-term solutions.As the petitioners have used a peaceful stance, OHCHR has accepted that the group temporarily stay at the premises, but has repeatedly asked that they leave voluntarily. OHCHR has informed the petitioners and the Government that its office compound is not suited to host the group and provide for their basic needs. OHCHR appreciates that the law enforcement agencies on site have assisted in managing the situation in line with human rights principles. As part of its efforts to support solutions, OHCHR has expressed its view to all relevant stakeholders that the situation of Apaa should be resolved through dialogue, without resorting to the use of force, including in connection to vacating the OHCHR premises. As part of the UN System in Uganda, OHCHR stands ready to support the Uganda Human Rights Commission and relevant State authorities in their efforts to find sustainable solutions for this situation and to address the grievances of the Apaa community in a prompt, effective and dignified manner, in line with relevant international human rights standards.”

Meanwhile the fears about cholera by the Apaa refugees remains unaddressed.

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