When guns fell silent in northern Uganda around 2007 after the UPDF drove Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels to the Central African Republic following aborted peace talks, the family of Grace Achola believed that was the end of war.
But a dozen years later, Achola finds herself at the centre of an altogether different battlefront. Together with her mother and six sisters, she spends a lot of time strategizing with their legal team how to defeat a group of neighbours fighting tooth-and-nail to take the land that she says belonged to her late father.
Achola says that when the LRA war ended, her father didn’t return his family to their ancestral land as others had done. He remained at a trading centre in Amida Sub County, Kitgum district to run his business.
In 2015, Achola’s father died. The neighbours subsequently decided to exploit the vacuum left by his absence, and by the fact that Achola’s mother and her daughters continue to stay in the trading centre, to encroach on their family land. In 2016, the neighbours forcefully grabbed one acre; then another in 2017; and a third in 2018.
By then, Achola, her siblings and mother could not take it anymore.
“Last year we started a case with the LC I Chairman, who forwarded it to the LC II Chairman. The case reached up to the Sub County Level,” said the 41-year-old, who is a primary school teacher at Kitgum Public School.
However, the case suffered a stillbirth when Achola and her mother were asked to pay money for a qualified land surveyor to assess the contested land. Instead, they opted for arbitration with the help of a council of elders.
It didn’t yield a resolution to the dispute.
Early this year, Achola’s mother attempted to plant millet on one of the disputed plots of land. The neighbours ploughed through the millet, destroying the entire crop. Achola contacted a lawyer, who told her to report a criminal trespass case to the Police.
“Unfortunately, the issue is now delaying,” she says. “The Police referred the file to the State Attorney who sanctioned it to be taken to Court. The State Attorney told me that it is only the Court that can determine land ownership.”
Achola has increasingly grown impatient with the protracted processes that courts engage in. As a result, the State Attorney advised her to seek an independent view of how the courts work.
On August 28, 2019, Achola was one of the hundreds of people who turned up at Kitgum boma grounds to attend a mobile legal aid clinic organised by UGANET, a civil society organization working on health, HIV and gender justice.
“Our father gave birth to only girls – we are seven girls – and that’s why they are disturbing us,” laments Achola, who is the firstborn in her family.
“I want the legal team to stand with us the poor people who are not able to afford [private] lawyers. If you could stand with my Mom so that we win that case and we stay free in our father’s land and make our young children grow out of planting crops in those gardens,” added Achola, who is a mother of two and is HIV positive.
A second lady, Grace Larudi from Nyanya village said she is battling a child custody and maintenance case against her husband. Larudi said her husband left her on February 27, 2018, and went to work in Kampala after he found that they were both HIV positive.
According to Larudi, since then, her daughter has suffered the kind of discrimination that has seen her abandon studying in two different primary schools.
“When I am having that child with HIV, in that school they want to tell her you have HIV and she feared the school,”
“The child tells me that when they are in school, other children tell her, ‘you have HIV’ and so she fears to stay in school. I just tell her that, ‘yes, you have HIV but you be strong’ and then we take our drugs,” said Larudi, who adds that she now shoulders all the bills for the upkeep of their two children.
Larudi says that after she lodged the child custody and maintenance case against her erstwhile husband, the Gulu magistrate’s court has summoned him to appear thrice but he has not made an appearance each time.
The head of the legal aid department at UGANET, Grace Nayiga, said that the majority of the cases that her team registered during the legal aid clinic involve land disputes, with women often finding themselves on the losing end.
“The land disputes are worse in the sense that you find a person living with HIV being widowed and left with orphans but their land is grabbed from them. Also, the land tenure system in Kitgum is own customary and that system tends to disadvantage women in the sense that land belongs to the clan so the women are chased away [once their husband dies] to go back to their homes,” she said.
According to Nayiga, the second matter that has featured prominently among the cases that they registered is defilement. One of the most eye-catching cases that the UGANET team handled was of an 11-year-old boy who was accused of defiling a three-year-old girl. The boy, who is HIV positive, is currently being held at Gulu remand home.
“When we tried to ask for details, the facts are wanting. But that aside, we found that his status of being HIV positive is being used against him and it is affecting everyone’s judgment. The people feel that he should not go back to the community because he could infect other children. So you find that his status, already, in a way, is fuelling violation of his human rights as a child and also as a person living with HIV,” she said, adding that UGANET would take up the boy’s case and support him to access justice.
Nayiga said the mobile legal aid camp which they conducted for 10 days from August 26 involved sensitization of the community on legal issues, offering legal advice, and registration of cases, including those that UGANET will take up. She added that their focus is on vulnerable members of society, especially those who are suffering from or affected by the HIV/AIDS condition.
The UGANET mobile legal aid camp attracted several leaders of Kitgum district, including the Chief Magistrate, Hussein Nasur Ntalo, the District Police Commander, Moses Bwire, and his counterparts from other Police departments, as well as the district Community Liaison Officer, Amina Jennifer Apwoyocan.
“One of our strategies is to work with key leaders,” said Nayiga. “We hope that we can work well with the partners and follow up on our cases. There are those that we hope we will be able to resolve within one week. But those that cannot, UGANET and the development partners have supported us to facilitate lawyers to come back, especially for those that are still in court, and continue with the litigation process that might not end in a period of, like, three months.”
Speaking to the locals who attended the legal aid clinic on August 28, Chief Magistrate Ntalo extolled the importance of knowing the law and individuals rights regardless of one’s HIV status or any other level of vulnerability.
“Whether you are infected or not infected [with HIV], you have a Constitutional right to live in this country,” he said. “It is the duty of the government to ensure that it protects those who are not infected and to provide health facilities to those who have HIV. And that is why the government has allowed UGANET and other organizations to sensitize people.”
In an interview later, Ntalo said there was a need for more activism to support women in northern Uganda, many of who are victims of domestic violence as well as discrimination by families since they are seen as not having the right to own property.
“Very many people are suffering in many ways, which requires us to have some proactive interaction with them,” he said. “When people are trained and know their rights, that’s when we can help them.”
Ntalo said northern Uganda needs more sensitization that most areas because it is still recovering from the effects of the nearly 30-year-war between the government of Uganda and the different rebels groups in the area, including the LRA. He added that while the war ended more than a decade ago, there is still a level of lawlessness that continues to infringe on the rights of law-abiding members of society.
The head of advocacy at UGANET, Immaculate Owomugisha said the goal of the mobile legal aid clinic was to carry out sensitization to combat the stigmatization, stop discrimination and end the criminalization of persons living with HIV in Kitgum district. She said it is part of the wider UGANET mandate countrywide.
“When HIV is in the picture, there are a lot of sentiments that come out. So we are here purposely to address those issues but also to work with the courts and the different stakeholders to see how we can work together to end HIV criminalization and also to make communities aware about their rights, especially in the area of HIV.”