Losing place: Experiencing a sense of “home” in the face of internal displacement
“Home,” according to Otim, a solemn, middle-aged Acholi man, “is where ancestors live, where your god dwells, where you were born, and where your kids live.” Homes tell stories about their people. For the Acholi, a sense of belonging to a “home” is tied up in whether or not a place belongs to them. As in many agrarian communities, the Acholi traditionally divvy up ownership and access to a place through customary land tenure laws. These boundary-setting traditions and laws embody layers of economics, symbolism, and memory. What are the social implications of losing “home” in the face of conflict and displacement?
To find out, I walked the dirt streets of an accidental city in northern Uganda this summer. I inquired about social displacement through a series of interviews with non-governmental organizations in Gulu, Uganda in June and July 2013. For the past decade, these organizations have been the record-keepers for a city of agrarian refugees in a region devastated by twenty years of civil war. The sources of damage and disorientation were twofold. Most caustically, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terrorized Acholi villages as they confronted Ugandan government forces in guerrilla warfare and replenished their ranks by abducting Acholi children to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves. But in response, the Ugandan government uprooted villages and sent inhabitants to stay at enforced “protected villages” in the 1990s and 2000s. While civilian protection may have been the government’s intent, according to several interviewees and emerging written accounts, government forces also contributed to looting and violence against civilians.
The cessation of violence in 2006 allowed the gradual return home of nearly 1.1 million internally displaced persons, mostly of Acholi ethnicity, from government camps. Given the centrality of land to livelihoods and social organization among the Acholi, the vast majority of returning refugees are currently making claims on land upon their arrival home. Land tenure in the Acholi region means “no ownership of land, only access,” according to one interviewee. Considering that customary land tenure laws were traditionally negotiated and reinforced in generations past by village social structures, the inevitable conflict over land boundaries among returnees threatens to negate the stability gained since the ceasefire.
The growing rumble of land disputes was heavy on the minds of the Acholi in June 2013. Most days, the Gulu city newspaper reported some story of land-related violence when multiple parties laid claim to the same plot of land. Family and clan members returned from IDP camps reconvene at overgrown sites, struggling to recall forgotten boundaries. Often, ‘squatters’ cling to an unclear Ugandan law of eminent domain which permits an individual to lay claim to land after 12 years of undisputed residency. Land disputes that are litigated in court tend to favor the party which has means to afford steep lawyer fees, high transportation costs, and drawn-out processes. From these tensions, violence erupts.
I asked Candice, a non-Acholi Bugandan who has lived in Gulu for two years, why people fight over land. From an outsiders perspective, she shrugged: “land stays!” Houses have been destroyed, belongings have been looted, but land continues over time. Or, as Martine, the elderly secretary at the Gulu office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, sighed, “it’s not that Acholi particularly love their land…it’s simply all they’ve got left.” A Ugandan lawyer explained it well: “Land is the most important asset here. If you have land, you can cultivate it, sell your produce, and empower yourself. If you do not have access to land, or if you cannot own land, then that means that you’re not going to be economically empowered…[land] denotes power. The more land you have, the more powerful you are, the more respectable you are. You don’t have land, you are nobody.”