Located about 20 km north of Gulu town, Pabbo internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp is one of the oldest such settlements in northern Uganda. It is also the largest, currently hosting 60,000 IDPs.
"It is 18 years since this camp was created," Uganda's Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Christine Aporu said, as she gazed over the densely packed expanse of mud and grass huts of which the camp consists.
"Many of the children who grew up here have never known anything but camp life," Aporu, who had accompanied top World Food Programme (WFP) officials, including its deputy executive director, Sheila Sisulu, on a visit to the camp last week, added.
The WFP country director in Uganda, Ken Davies, described Pabbo as "a monster camp" that is "so congested, everyone agrees something has to be done about it".
The camp sprang up in 1986 at about the same time as the northern Uganda-based insurgency against President Yoweri Museveni’s newly installed National Resistance Movement government. At the time, many of the inhabitants of the new camp feared reprisals against the Acholis, who had dominated the past government.
The reprisals never came; instead, life in Pabbo camp has since been about avoiding the mindless wrath of a real foe: the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The rebels, who claim to be fighting to bring down Museveni's government have repeatedly targeted civilians living in the very region the LRA claims to be liberating. Observers say the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet, behaves like an ogre who wants to impose himself on Uganda as a sort of spiritual, messianic king.
Like other IDPs camps, Pabbo has never been able to guarantee safety from LRA attacks. On the contrary, residents have reported a string of sporadic attacks on their camp, resulting in killings, maimings, and abductions of children - especially when anyone has to move outside its perimeters to collect food or firewood.
The camp made headlines briefly last month after a fire broke out, destroying several thousand huts. The fire served to highlight the problem of congestion in some of the camps in the region. Following the fire, the government said it would split the camps into smaller, more spaced out settlements. But UN agencies point out that this announcement coincides with moves in other districts to amalgamate such camps into larger units to make them less easy for the LRA to attack.
Residents of Pabbo camp told IRIN that thanks partly to aid from the WFP, the food situation in the camp had improved, but life was still tough. Besides the need for food, water and health care, one of the biggest challenges was how to cope with boredom, they said.
"I’ve been in this place for six years now and I have done nothing," Elijah Okwang, 30, said. "There’s nothing to do. I am a farmer, but we cannot even have a garden in here because there’s no space, while out there it's not safe. I just wish I could have a garden so I could grow food."
Owing to a mixture of luck and resourcefulness, however, some people in the camp have managed to live better than others. Pabbo has a colourful, if rather quiet, market with trade links to the nearby Gulu town.
Two years ago, Oscar Acelam, 29, had never really thought of being a bicycle mechanic. Like the majority of villagers in the region, he used to be a subsistence farmer. But with the escalation of LRA violence against civilians in Gulu District following Ugandan army operations which forced a number of LRA fighters out of their bases in southern Sudan back into Uganda, Acelam found himself having to flee his home. He now repairs bicycles for camp residents and passing traders.
"I sold all my food and belongings for 30,000 shillings [US $15] and came here," he told IRIN. "I noticed there were quite a few bikes here and I knew how to fix my own, so I thought I’d try to make it a business."
Even with a business, life is far from rosy. "Few people have any money to pay for repairs. I get 100 shillings for a job, but most days I don’t get anyone coming here. But I like the work when it comes along."
MORE WATER, PLEASE
By far the biggest grievance of Pabbo residents is the lack of water. Boreholes are scarce and competition for water is putting a huge strain on resources. Water pumps are easy to spot because paths to them are marked by seemingly endless rows of plastic containers.
Susan Aber, 45, who operates a water pump, explained the arithmetic of water sharing. "There are six boreholes in this camp between 60,000 people - that’s one for each 10,000. Each family gets only two jerry cans full per day, and sometimes you have to wait 24 hours to get yours," she said.
"Before anything else, we desperately need more water - people are dying from the lack of it," Aber stressed.
Aporu said the government, in addition to providing more space in the camp, was looking into drilling more boreholes.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions