By Yasin Kakande
KAMPALA, Oct 03 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The bulldozers came after midnight, sirens wailing. Startled from their sleep, slum-dwellers dashed for safety as the diggers tore through wood, brick and corrugated iron.
It was a typical eviction in Banda slum, home to an informal settlement of around 1.3 million people on the outskirts of Kampala. Residents lost everything: clothing, furniture, the roofs over their heads.
"One minute you're being sent away, the next you're staying, then you're being warned and told to leave again," said Safina Nankwanga, a resident since 2001, recalling the night two years ago when 20,000 families were made homeless in just a few hours.
That eviction was carried out by Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) and Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) to make way for a new railway line to connect Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.
The demolitions were halted temporarily by a court order but more than two years later the shadow of eviction still looms over residents of Banda who - as in other slums - fear their homes could be casualties of the city's rapid urbanisation.
They include Joseph Kmaru, a father of eight, who lost everything that night and who is among residents who have taken their fight against the evictions to court - so far in vain.
"We don't want to insist on staying here, but we want the government to help us relocate to another place," he said.
According to a 2014 study carried out with Slum Development International (SDI), 85% of slum-dwellers live in constant fear of their homes being demolished amid a wave of private sector development and infrastructure upgrades by the government.
As the KCCA implements urbanisation projects, it has been searching for innovative ways to organise slum communities so that they can meaningfully participate in development that affects their areas, said Harriet Mudondo, who heads the KCCA's Directorate of Gender, Community, Services and Production.
"The slum-dwellers in Kampala, who form around 70% of the city's residents, are faced with the threat of eviction because they dwell on land that does not belong to them," Mudondo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said the KCCA is working with local NGO ACTogether to find solutions for land tenure issues and to promote sustainable housing for communities whose rights are a grey area.
Lutwama Medie, executive director of ACTogether, said 60% of the city's informal settlements have existed for more than 60 years, complicating the issue of who has rights to the land.
"The urban poor are the engines of the city's economy," he said, noting slum-dwellers' contribution as workers and consumers. "The city cannot do without slum-dwellers so the question is, how do we organise them and make sure they work together [with the city] to upgrade their environment."
One way is by sharing land, as under a scheme developed by ACTogether and the KCCA.
"Land-sharing is a process where a registered landowner whose land has been encroached by lawful or unlawful squatters, enters into an agreement with the squatters, city authorities amd the private developer to upgrade the area," Medie said.
Land-sharing schemes work in different ways, but usually involve cooperation between developers, land owners and squatters so that slum-dwellers free up land for development in exchange of being resettled with upgraded living conditions.
Mudondo said land-sharing arrangements can be a "win-win solution" for both landlords and slum-dwellers. "This is because the landlord is able to free up his encroached-upon land for economic productivity without evicting the slum-dwellers."
For slum-dwellers like Nankwanga, who survived the demolitions in 2014 but still fears being "chased out of my home", such a scheme could improve conditions for her family.
"The situation we live in here is not good," she said, referring to social problems in Banda. "As a parent, you cannot feel comfortable with that."
The Uganda Railways Corporation declined to comment on the Banda evictions, saying the case was still in court.