By Katie Nguyen and Frank Nyakairu
GULU, Uganda (AlertNet) Â? Tall grass and overgrown bush partly conceal the abandoned mud and thatch huts that once sheltered families uprooted by northern UgandaÂ?s two-decade conflict, one of AfricaÂ?s longest-running.
Over 2 million people were displaced at the height of the rebellion by LordÂ?s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters, but it has been five years since the group, notorious for abducting children and mutilating civilians, last attacked the north.
Most northerners have taken advantage of the lull in fighting that coincided with a shaky peace process to return to their villages, and the United Nations now estimates that some 500,000 people remain in camps for the displaced.
But for many, the return home has been frustrated by disputes over land and allegations of land grabbing that have triggered conflict in communities still struggling to put years of suffering at the hands of LRA rebels behind them.
In a camp outside Gulu town, Samuel Okundu, who was a farmer before the insurgency began in 1987, says he lost any hope of leaving a long time ago.
"ItÂ?s very hard to go back and reclaim the plot I once owned because I donÂ?t have the papers to prove it," said the 59-year-old, whose three sons were killed by LRA rebels. "IÂ?m stuck here. ThereÂ?s no other option but to stay."
Okundu ekes out a living weaving papyrus mats which he sells for 2,000 shillings ($1) each.
Hundreds of college students have moved into the Unyama camp, renting huts from former internally displaced people (IDPs).
BIG JUMP IN LAND CLAIMS
Gulu was the epicentre of the LRA rebellion led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony whose guerrillas spread terror through their Acholi communities, attacking civilians, kidnapping tens of thousands of children to serve as soldiers and Â?wivesÂ?, and slicing the lips and noses off their victims.
Gulu district has registered a sharp rise in land cases in recent years, linked to the return of IDPs who have discovered that their land is being occupied by others.
Now the rows over land have sparked new violence -- murders, assaults with machetes and arson. The disputes have overwhelmed local magistrates courts and undermined resettlement efforts seen as key to stability in the war-torn area, judicial officials and rights activists say.
"What has posed a big challenge and a threat to us is that big military figures, who failed to end the war for 20 years, have used the war period to seize hundreds and hundreds of hectares of land, some of which belonged to IDPs," said James Otto, the head of Human Rights Focus, a local rights group.
"Government must move fast to eliminate this interestÂ?or else people will find litigation very incompetent and may resort to taking matters into their hands and more lives will be lost," he told AlertNet.
However, Ugandan army spokesman Lt-Col Felix Kulayigye denied the allegations saying investigations had shown no military officer was involved in land grabbing in the north.
FIGHT FOR FARMING LAND
From Kenya to Zimbabwe to Angola, land ownership is a particularly explosive issue in Africa stemming from the colonial period when settlers grabbed huge tracts of the most fertile, agricultural land. In the post-independence era, senior politicians have taken land for favours and patronage, in many cases dividing it among members of their tribe.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who hosts an African Union summit this week focusing on refugees, returnees and internally displaced, hinted at the pressure on farming land as a valuable resource when he suggested that refugees should be placed in urban areas.
"Refugees must be supported to learn skills to avoid conflicts with locals over agricultural land," Museveni said in a statement. "In this way, they can play a major role when they return to their countries. We need to look at diversification instead of giving refugees just land for agriculture."
Resolving northern UgandaÂ?s land disputes through the courts has been complicated by the scarcity of official records documenting the amount of acreage owned by families or the borders of their plots of land, as well as by meddling by local politicians who have urged people to ignore court evictions, residents say.
Some are calling for village chiefs and elders to arbitrate instead, saying they are better-placed to judge the land claims made in their communities.
But for Grace, who was kidnapped by the LRA and spent five years in captivity, the land-related violence is a sign that things have already gone too far. Â?You find a brother even killing a brother. ItÂ?s again another war,Â? she said.
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