Three weeks after I left Ikafe the base camp at Bidibidi was attacked by gunmen, probably from the West Bank Nile Front but supported by some local people. No-one was killed but all staff were evacuated to Arua, the nearest local town. Young people from the Aringa area moved in to guard the camp with bows and arrows.
Southern Ikafe - where Izarugu and Yassin and Johnson and Martina live - also came under attack. There was looting and rape, though no-one quite knows who was responsible. Five thousand refugees fled to the north of the settlement.
Meanwhile, a wave of banditry and violence spread throughout northern Uganda, with refugees being particularly targeted. Koboko Camp, where the Ikafe refugees originally came from, was partially evacuated by the Red Cross after a rebel attack that left eight dead and 23 wounded; Rhino Camp, immediately south of Ikafe, was also partially evacuated following an attack. More recently, convoys of food heading north have come under fire from the Lord's Resistance Army, who also murdered one hundred and thirty refugees at Acholi-pii Camp south of Kitgum, in the north-east of Uganda.
President Museveni has sent heavy reinforcements to the north and vowed to 'crush and finish the rebels'. But to date the military have been unable to control the lawlessness.
Although Museveni was re-elected in May with nearly three-quarters of the overall vote, opposition leader Paul Ssemogerere won between 80 and 90 per cent in northern Uganda. 'The election was a clear result of objection by northerners to President Museveni's government,' said one northern parliamentarian.
Back in Ikafe the refugees must be hunkering down waiting for the current violence to pass. But the attempt to foster self-reliance in the settlement has paid off. During the recent conflict the refugees were apparently able to organize their own food distribution without major outside intervention. And now staff are gradually returning to the base camps.
I phoned Tony Burdon, Oxfam's country representative in Uganda, just before press time, to find out what had happened. 'We all hope that reconciliation will take place' he said, 'and that the Government will regain control. But all we can say at the moment is that the future is uncertain.'
As I sit at my desk in Oxford, I remember all the refugees who spoke to me with such openness and showed me such generosity. I know that some of those I met will have had to leave their homes and their fields. I can only hope that their lives have not been shattered once again by the sound of gunfire and the shouts of frightened children.
Nikki van der Gaag
Thanks to: Simon Ameny, Jamie Balfour-Paul, Tony Burdon, Ros David, Sarah Hayward, Nick Leader, Ian Leggett, Koos Neefjes, Geoff Sayer, and OXFAM. To Lina Payne for her support and detailed research. To my partner Chris and my children Rosa and George for putting up with my absence. To Jenny Matthews for her photographic skills and endless stamina, and to all the refugees and Ugandans in Ikafe who gave me such a warm welcome, especially those featured in this magazine.
From New Internationalist magazine Issue 283, September 1996.