Issue 36 - Article 8

Poor, terrorised and internally displaced: the humanitarian situation in Northern Uganda

January 10, 2007

Northern Uganda’s displacement crisis is the worst in the world, with some 1.3 million people crowded into squalid camps, supposedly for their own protection. Although the ceasefire signed by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the government on 26 August 2006 may herald a new start for IDPs, their situation is still difficult, and the outcome of the negotiations in Juba is, at the time of writing, uncertain. The talks may lead to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but the process could also easily break down. Since the peace talks began, some IDPs have started to commute to their original land, but at present most are still in the camps.


This article summarises the findings of an IDP profiling study we conducted for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in June 2005. The study, based on a representative sample of 2,170 households in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, concluded that, even in the event of peace, only two-thirds intended to return home and many would only do so with outside assistance; the rest are likely to stay in the camps until they are convinced that peace really has arrived. It is therefore crucial to understand living conditions in the camps, as they will have a significant impact on any return process. If the peace talks succeed, we need information about the camp population to assist them in their return, and to support those that elect to stay in the camps until peace is assured. Equally, if the peace talks fail this information will be needed to improve assistance while the displacement crisis continues.


Insecurity and trauma


The camps are meant to protect the population. However, in order to be protected people had to give up some of their freedom of movement. Security zones were imposed around each camp, varying from 300 metres to five kilometres, and strict curfew regulations were introduced. Before the peace talks in Juba began, people were not allowed to move along roads between 4pm and 9am. The security zones regulated movement in the bush around the camps. The majority of IDPs were not allowed to move more than two kilometres away from the camps. This restriction has severely disrupted people’s daily lives. Collecting firewood outside the camps, for example, has become both difficult and dangerous; people risk being attacked by the LRA and being mistaken by the Ugandan army for an LRA member. Ninety per cent of the people we spoke to reported being afraid to leave their camp to fetch firewood and cultivate land, and over 60% said that they lived in fear inside the camp.


Northern Uganda is an extremely violent place. According to a study conducted for the World Health Organisation (reported on elsewhere in this issue), 4,000 people, in a population of 1.3 million, were killed between January and mid-July 2005, giving a mean number of 615 civilian deaths each month. The same survey put abductions of IDPs at 1,200 a month. The LRA is infamous for its strategy of abducting children and young people, some of whom it trains as fighters. Even short-term abductions, commonly where victims are forced to act as porters between particular places and then released, are always violent and extremely frightening.


Another unique aspect of this conflict is the short distances that people are displaced. Although the majority of IDPs in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader have been displaced for years, most have not moved very far from their original homes, and only 5% have left the district they were born in. This may make returning a relatively smooth process, but we should not underestimate the humiliation and trauma people say this experience has caused them. These feelings are increased when many people can almost see their land, but cannot visit it. Meanwhile, inside the camps people live in terribly cramped conditions. In Labuje camp, just outside Kitgum Town, 17,000 people live on just 17 hectares of land. Such density means that the risk of fire is high and sanitary conditions are poor; the limited space available for each household is shared by animals, children and adults, and used for cocking, sleeping and storage. It is extremely difficult for households to cultivate garden plots around their huts.


Poverty, aid and income


IDPs survive on aid distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other agencies. Eighty-five per cent of the households we spoke to have received food aid, and about half also reported receiving non-food items such as jerry cans, blankets, tools and seeds.


One of the main reasons why some households have not received aid is because insecurity prevents it. In one camp, Omee Lower in Gulu, WFP did not visit apparently because of insecurity. The camp is isolated, the road leading to it is narrow and the bush is dense. Even the Ugandan army deemed it too insecure. In theory, food is delivered to Omee Lower, but in practice supplies are dropped at the nearest camp, 20 kilometres away, from where the people of Omee Lower must collect it. By the time they find out about a delivery and have made the trek to the distribution point there is often little left for them.


Even those who receive food aid regularly do not get enough to meet their needs, and so find other strategies to survive. Some engage in petty trading, and all camps have some sort of functioning market. Some of these markets are well established, especially in the larger camps situated along major roads. Others are small and informal. People commonly sell part of the aid they receive, sustaining local markets and enabling people to make independent decisions about how to use their resources. Some IDPs supplement their household income with small-scale agricultural activities in the security zones surrounding the camps, along roads, or on small plots around their huts. However, only one in five households has access to land outside the camps, and even then insecurity can prevent cultivation. With the ceasefire, people are starting to commute back to their homes and cultivate their land, particularly where this land is close to roads or near the camp where they live. One question that will need to be faced if and when the conflict finally ends is whether female and child-headed households will have viable access to land. These households were the most vulnerable during the war, and may easily be confronted with new types of vulnerability once it ends.




The situation facing the displaced population in Northern Uganda is appalling. Their camps are over-crowded and insanitary, and they live in constant fear of being killed or abducted. Curfew regulations and security zones severely limit their mobility, and make it impossible for them to cultivate their home land. Instead, people survive on the food distributed by WFP and other agencies, but this aid is irregular and some camps barely receive it at all. Every day is therefore a struggle for survival. Only peace can change this, but even if peace comes Northern Uganda’s IDPs will still need significant assistance, whether they elect to return home immediately or stay in the camps until the situation is clearer. If the Juba talks fail, we must find new ways of improving security in Northern Uganda. We cannot leave these people to live in fear and poverty.


Morten Bøås and Anne Hatløy are researchers at Fafo’s Institute for Applied International Studies, Norway. Their email addresses are: and



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