KWEEN – Hellen Chemutai, who is 32, sits on a rock in ‘Kisangani Camp’ after her family was evicted from their land in Mt Elgon National Park.
Chemutai is seated close to many dilapidated homes in Kisangani village, Kaproron sub-county Kween district at the slopes of Mt Elgon.
Visibly she looks sickly, hungry and weary and wears a look of sadness as she looks up to welcome me.
Chemutai clearly remembers the day in February 2000, when a group of Uganda Wildlife Rangers [UWA] and Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces stormed their home in Kapkwata.
“This is not your home, you must leave, this is national park land, and you are encroachers on government land. You must leave now,” they ordered us before torching our houses.
But Ms Chemutai like most of the displaced, the 2000 incident is still fresh in her memory whenever they encounter UWA and UPDF.
Many including children believe that when the armed forces descended upon their villages and burnt people’s houses, the displaced were left with “mental scars.” “We lost everything and became confused. We now wonder whether we are part of this country or not,” Chemutai says.
For twenty-three years the inhabitants of Mt Elgon have been terrorized by escalating violence from UWA rangers who have kept chasing them from every part of Mt Elgon they have tried to resettle and do farming.
Many have fled to the inhospitable “Kisangani and Rwanda” villages on a rock in Kween district; the lower slopes of the mountain, where they live a precarious existence without land for cultivation and building good shelter for their families devoid of clean safe water.
Although it is a humbling moment listening to the thirty-two-year-old now a mother of four recite the Mt Elgon displaced life, it leaves one bitter.
It is a moment that leaves you torn between fighting to protect the environment or allowing people to resume their lives in Mt Elgon Park in the name of Human Rights.
Chemutai says the UWA and encroachers fights in Mt Elgon National Park have left more than 50 encroachers dead and the evictions have left more than 6000 Ndorobo [Benet] and Yatui communities landless.
“At Kapkwata, people’s houses, crops were burnt, Kapkwata, a trading center was burnt down, cattle and other domestic animals and birds were confiscated and people were left homeless and landless,” Chemutai says.
She said the evicted that included her family sought for shelter in Caves and under trees while the luckier ones stayed at local churches or moved to their relatives.
“And later we finally moved to the present day rock at ‘Kisangani camp while others went to Rwanda’ village [the left side of the rock] in present day Kwanyiny sub-county in Kween district,” Chemutai says further.
She says that less than 20% of the over 6000 people who were evicted from their cradle land in Mt Elgon forest have benefitted from the government’s resettlement plan.
She adds that “The rest of the beneficiaries have never been part of the list of beneficiaries from the people evicted from Mt Elgon.”
Although it is clear that there have been compensations from government, the encroachers say the land compensation schemes have been fraught with problems with thousands of families missing out on the compensation.
“And frustrated, some members of the encroachers have gone back to their land to resettle in the national Park insisting this was their ancestral land,” said Mr Nelson Chelimo, former LCV chairman for Kapchorwa
A visit to this internally displaced people’s camp brings you in touch with a collection of grass thatched huts with wooden walls, makeshift shelters made from timber, mud and wattle huts, scattered on a rocky hill in Chelibei village, aka Kisangani and Rwanda villages in Kween district.
Chemutai is not alone here; many of the evictees claim they were forced to leave ‘their cradle land’ and settle outside the park on a rock in make-shift shelters built with bamboo shoots, timber, mud and wattle.
“We are refugees in our own country, living in deplorable and inhuman conditions without anybody even the government coming to our rescue,” said Chemutai.
Mr Lazaro Mwanawoi, 62, is one of the about 6000 people living in ‘Rwanda and Kisangani’, whose main activity is brewing local gin ‘Malwa’ and making Waragi, a local potent gin here for survival.
Mr Mwanawoi says ever since they were evicted from the park by UWA in 2000, they have been staying on top of this rock and that any attempts to get back to their land are usually answered by brutal arrests or beatings by UWA rangers.
He says despite the government’s promises to give them land in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016 for permanent settlement, nothing has come their way.
In 2000, government gazetted Mt Elgon area as a national park to protect its rich biodiversity and the endangered mountain animals within its confines.
And in the process the traditional Mountain dwelling Benet, Yatui and Kapsegek were thrown out of the park, with no land and without compensation.
“Access to forest and all the traditional activities of these people were henceforth prohibited and this resulted in complete loss of the people’s traditional, social, economic and cultural modes of living,” says Chemutai.
The chairperson of the camp, Mr Patrick Satya, says when government transferred the authority of the park to UWA in 2000, the latter then burnt all settlements that had been constructed by the Yatui and Benet evicted them from Kapkwata, their cradle land, rendering them homeless.
A local human rights activist [Mt Elgon] Mr Yusuf Makweta says from forceful evictions and sexual abuse against women, to the deaths of many civilians who have attempted to go to their cradle land, the UWA actions were pervasive human rights violations.
“If you went to ‘Kisangani and Rwanda’, small and temporary huts constructed using timber, leaves and mud and wattle, some covered by big polythene bags and papyrus mats serve as the dwelling place for the Mt Elgon displaced, the place looks remarkably pre-stone age, this is not right people must be allowed to access their land,” said Mr Makweta.
He said besides the Benet [Kween], Yatui and Kapsegek [Bukwo], UWA also evicted people from Bumasobo, Zesui [Sironko], Bududa, Bumbo and Buwabwala [Namisindwa/Manafwa].
Mr Makweta says while UWA makes millions from tourism, socio-economic impact the eviction has had on the displaced people around Mt Elgon area is devastating.
Mr Peter Kamuron, a former council Member for Bukwo and Kween districts, says the displaced people live in dire poverty on less than 50 cents a day compared to the Ugandan average daily income [$1,80].
“And for close to two decades now, the displaced have struggled to have their rights recognized, have struggled to gain back their land inside the park without success and nobody is willing to listen to them,” said Mr Kamuron.
Local leaders led by the LCIII chairman for Kwanyiny Mr Satya say that the people of Mount Elgon are strong and resourceful – they don’t want to live in a refugee camp.
“Wherever they go they try to make it work, to make something happen for them, but after twenty-three years of enduring this violence and fear they really are stretched to the limit and we cannot meet all their other needs, like their need for shelter, schooling for their kids, tools to farm their land as a local government,” said Mr Satya.
The LCV chairman for Kween Mr Geoffrey Chelogoi says they have made reports about the people and the place they are staying in and that the government is yet to respond.
Mr Chelogoi said his people have never been compensated for their losses and have been reduced to squatters living in deplorable conditions on a rock and forbidden from going back to their ancestral land, the Park.
“To date no Benet, Yatui and Kapsegek is allowed in the park. If they try to get in, they are arrested and beaten for reasons they don’t know. Their rights are being trampled upon, yet they feel the forest belongs to them,” said Mr Chelogoi.
The MP Kween Mr Abdi Chemaswet said although during the two decades, development has been increasingly related to the issue of conservation, it is important that the Benet are compensated for the loss of their land.
“The conservation approach has changed from merely limiting damage to focusing on sustainability. It emphasizes that conservation, protection of the environment and sustainable use of the eco-systems is highly important in order to attain sustainable development,” said Mr Chemaswet.
“This view is now dominating contemporary bio-diversity use and so UWA can allow the people back in the forest as long as they sustainably live with the environment,” added Mr Chemaswet.
The communities accuse both the UWA and UPDF forces to be responsible for serious human rights abuses and fighting in Mt. Elgon which has risen to the level of an armed conflict, where both sides have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law (the ‘laws of war’) that amount to war crimes.
The government of Uganda has a responsibility to promptly and impartially investigate and prosecute the individuals responsible for these crimes but so far the official response has been muted and insufficient.
But UWA director legal and corporate affairs Mr Chemonges Sabilla, says even when they are aware of the people in “Rwanda and Kisangani villages in Kween”, they have no power as UWA to curve out any area in the park to give out to any individuals for settlement but that Parliament does.
Mr Chemonges says UWA found it prudent to address the issue of encroachment in the park which was illegal as the boundaries of the park had been redefined.
“And the eviction was undertaken humanely because UWA had given these people time to vacate,” said Mr Chemonges.
Ms Christine Nakayenze, warden in charge tourism at Mt Elgon thinks Mt Elgon National Park land should not be given out to anybody but rather should be conserved.
“Mt Elgon slopes should be gazetted as a disaster area because a comprehensive geological study by Makerere University has found out that encroachers have gone past the 1993 boundary up to the cliff close to the bamboo zone which makes it even more dangerous,” said Ms Nakayenze.
But records at UWA Mbale office [Mt Elgon conservation area offices] accessed by this reporter indicate that the Benet got land within the park for resettlement in 1983 and recently in 2009/2010 and that the people in “Rwanda and Kisangani” claiming for settlement and land are not Benet, Yatui or Kapsegek.
“We allocated more land to the Yatui in Bukwo, Benet and Kapsegek, what do people want? The national park land can only be given out by parliament and for us as UWA, we have no authority,” said Mr Richard Matanda, senior warden Bokora-Matheniko Game reserve.
A new report:
A new verification report for 2013 by the Inter-ministerial mission to Mt Elgon National park which made an assessment of the possibility of degazetting parts of Mt Elgon to resettle the people living in ‘Kisangani and Rwanda’ near Kapkwata also says the people on the rock are not Benet, Yatui and Kapsegek.
The report is signed by Ms Pamela Komujuni [then disaster management officer at OPM], Mr. John Makombo director of conservation at UWA, Mr. Domisiano Owor Wildlife officer at the ministry of tourism, trade and industry and Mr Julius Mafumbo senior environment officer at the ministry of water and environment.
Yet, reducing this complex situation to such a dichotomy, as is often the case when it comes to conflicts, is not only simplistic but very misleading.