The Forgotten Urban IDPs

Posted: December 12, 2007 in Blog

This story ran in today’s paper, following my trip to the stone quarry on Saturday. I’m working on follow-up pieces detailing government/UN policies on resettling people following two decades of rebel fighting. But this piece shines a light on the everyday life of those who fled to urban areas during the conflict.



Under the heat of the mid-day sun, the hills that surround Banda, a Kampala suburb, ring with the distinct chink-chink-chink of metal hitting rock.

Following the sound along winding paths that descend into a massive rock quarry, reveals groups of women and girls, each wielding an engine gear fixed to a wooden stick, methodically crushing rocks.

Many, like 11-year old Irene Abalo who is a three-year veteran of life in the quarry, came here to escape violence in the north. Now, with tentative peace between the government and the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a massive effort has begun to help the millions who fled to IDP camps in the north during the 20-year conflict.

But those who fled to urban areas in the south instead of the camps, estimated to number between 300,000 – 600,000, have so far been left out of the resettlement process and so continue to live a subsistence life as though the conflict never ended.

Abalo and her mother, 25-year old Paska Akello, work side-by-side in the quarry in the hopes of filling enough 20-litre jerry cans with crushed stones to make Shs2,000 between them.

“We came here to escape the LRA,” Ms Akello says. Asked whether she would like to return home to Pader, she nodded yes.
Abalo and Ms Akello are among about 10,000 Ugandans who live in an area that has come to be known as the Acholi Quarters.

Unlike most in the north, they did not flee to IDP camps, but instead sought refuge in Uganda’s urban areas.

Though they put distance between themselves and the violence, these urban IDPs are difficult to distinguish from the broader urban population even though they often have the same resettlement needs as those living in camps.

“The manner in which IDPs are identified tends to exclude urban populations, most of whom have the same needs as those in the camps,” said Mr Moses Okello, the head of research at the Refugee Law Project (RLP), which recently released a report calling on the government and international organizations to include urban IDPs in the resettlement process.

As hundreds leave the camps for home, many like Ms Akello and Abalo continue with subsistence living, unable to afford the costs of transport back home and the start-up costs of rebuilding homes, replanting crops and waiting for the first harvest to come in.

This has angered organisations such as the RLP who say the government’s own definition of an IDP, as established by the National Policy for Internally Displaced Persons, focuses on anyone who has fled their homes due to conflict, regardless of whether or not they fled to a camp.

“The fact that urban IDPs have been left out of the resettlement process is contrary to the government’s own definition of an IDP,” Mr Okello said.

Repeated phone calls to both the Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness Tarsis Kabwegyere and State Minister for Northern Uganda David Wakikona were not answered. Strict roles define life in the quarries.

Men cut the rock with hammers and chisels and transport the large chunks to open areas where women and girls use their metal-topped sticks to crush them into small pieces.

There is a stark difference between life here and life in downtown Kampala, only eight kilometres away. George Lajul, 57, is among the men chiseling rocks out of the high walls of the quarry. He fled Pader in 1993 because of LRA fighting. He once went back home but fled again because of the instability.

“If I could go home, I would,” he says. “But there is not enough money.”

The area around the stone quarry, part of Banda village, has become known as the Acholi Quarter because of the high Acholi population.

It became a magnet for people from the region because many lived here working for the Kireka Tea Estate. But the estate was closed in the early 1970s when Idi Amin expelled Asians.

Many Acholi stayed in the area and began extracting rock. When violence broke out in the north, many there fled to areas where they had relatives. In this case, thousands eventually came here.

Today, those Acholi continue to work in the quarry, where many have died from falling rocks or floods. Many of the workers have cracked and dry hands with broken fingernails from the work.

They talk of those who have died in the quarry, most recently a woman who was crushed by a rock.

“The people in the IDP camps left their homes, but so did those in the urban IDPs,” Ms Milly Grace Akena, 47 said.

She is the chair person of the committee that looks after the concerns of Acholi living in Kampala. After working in the quarry for sometime, she turned to alternative work and today makes paper bead necklaces.

“The government has ignored the urban displaced people,” Ms Akena says while standing in the quarry. “But we are all displaced.”


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