The Ugandan government has announced plans to reduce the number of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the northern district of Lira and instead concentrate the people in larger camps to minimise their risk of being attacked by rebels.
Humanitarian workers, however, fear that the move could worsen the humanitarian situation in the area, owing to the more grim living conditions that are likely to be found in larger camps.
"There are currently 42 camps scattered throughout Lira District, but we want to make these 20. The existing camps have 4,000 to 5,000 people. We will simply put several together to make about 20,000 people each, with only two camps in each sub-county," the army spokesman, Maj Shaban Bantariza, told IRIN on Thursday.
The government decision is a response to recent massacres of IDPs by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the northern region. On 21 February, the LRA attacked Barlonyo IDPs camp, 30 km north of Lira town, killing more than 200 people. Most of the victims were shot, burned or hacked to death by the LRA, who overpowered local militias deployed to guard the camp.
Addressing a news conference last week, President Yoweri Museveni said the failure of the security forces to prevent the Barlonyo attack was because the camp had not been properly established, but was instead a makeshift structure "that had grown up around a local defence detachment [unit] in an otherwise deserted area".
"Such detachments should not have the population around them since they are not [strong] enough to protect people," he added.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) confirmed the move to concentrate the Lira IDPs camps.
"The people in the smaller camps will be joining the larger camps, but the figures have not yet been defined," Eliane Duthoit, the OCHA head of office in the capital, Kampala, said on Thursday. "We will be sending someone to Lira to do an assessment next week."
Duthoit, however, said it could worsen the humanitarian situation in Lira. "We have the experience of Gulu District [also in northern Uganda]: the bigger, more congested camps are more difficult to provide public health and sanitation to," she said. "In Gulu there are, conversely, talks of having the larger camps, like Pabbo, decongested by spreading them out."
The Gulu proposal comes about a month after a fire in Pabbo camp – which houses some 60,000 IDPs – devastated the camp, leaving many IDPs homeless. The fire was blamed on the fact that the thatched huts that make up the camp are huddled so closely together.
Humanitarian workers said the choice between larger, congested camps and smaller, scattered settlements presented a dilemma. On the one hand, congested camps led to intolerable living conditions, poor sanitation, competition for water, medicines, food, and associated diseases like cholera. On the other hand, scattered camps were sitting ducks for the LRA, because they were inadequately protected, they said.
Duthoit told IRIN that, where possible, she "would like to see smaller settlements, if the camps are properly protected. But this means we need more soldiers assigned to protect the camps, and we are told they [the Ugandan army] are overstretched".
Bantariza admitted concentrating Lira IDPs could worsen living conditions, but described it as "the lesser of two evils".
"Living conditions may not be better, but it is better to live in poor conditions than to die. They [the IDPs] can ask for better health, food, sanitation, but not if they are dead," he told IRIN.
Northern Uganda’s civilians have suffered the LRA insurgency for 18 years. Led by a mystic recluse, Joseph Kony, the rebels claim they want to topple Museveni's government, yet they have killed thousands of civilians, according to estimates by aid workers.
At least 1.4 million northern Ugandans have been displaced and live in camps. Last November, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Jan Egeland, after a visit to the region, declared it "one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises".
Bantariza repeated Museveni’s rejection of a proposal – mooted by donors and Uganda’s parliament two weeks ago – to declare northern Uganda a humanitarian disaster area. But Duthoit commented: "When we are reaching nearly 1.5 million displaced people living in appalling conditions and the government is saying there’s no disaster, [then] I think we need to sit down and agree on a definition of a disaster."
According to the government, the army has killed many LRA commanders in the recent past and has gained the upper hand in the war. But religious leaders disagree, saying the best way to end the conflict is to talk peace with the rebels.
Meanwhile, on Monday night, the rebels attacked a small IDPs camp outside Lira town, 380 km north of Kampala, killing nine people. Father Sebhat Ayele, a Catholic priest in the town, told IRIN that the attack had targeted a settlement called Teobro in Oromo sub-county, which housed 7,000 people.