By Tim Cocks
PABBO CAMP, Uganda, April 29 (Reuters) - Through two decades of civil war, Vincent Akena watched his once sleepy home town mushroom into one of northern Uganda's miserably swollen camps.
"The first thing I noticed was all the death," the 55-year-old said, staring out across a vast expanse of thatched huts huddled together.
"When the refugees started fleeing here, people were dying from bullet wounds, cholera, children were dying of malaria. There were deaths every day."
For twenty years, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels have waged an insurgency in northern Uganda.
The fighting, led by rebels known for beating civilians to death, hacking lips off survivors and kidnapping children, has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced nearly two million more into such squalid camps.
On Thursday, peace talks between the two sides resumed in neighbouring southern Sudan, raising hopes of an end to one of Africa's longest and most brutal conflicts.
Before the war, Pabbo camp was a flourishing trading centre, a place where villagers from a wide area came to market the food they grew in their abundant fertile fields.
Akena used to grow rice and cassava to sell at the trading centre, but as the violence worsened, he left his fields fallow rather than risk being killed or abducted by marauding rebels.
Pabbo's population of internally-displaced now tops 50,000 people, most of them hungry and dependent on U.N. food aid.
"We are praying the peace talks will work," Akena said. "What difference will it make? We will be free. We'll be living a normal life, not living like slaves waiting for handouts."
A truce first signed in August and repeatedly renewed since then has largely held, giving some refugees enough confidence to start moving closer to home.
"GETTING OUT OF HERE"
"I really think talks will be fruitful this time," said another Pabbo resident, Nighty Adokorac, 23. "I am getting out of here as soon as possible."
Home to 2,700 people, Otorkome is one of a growing number of "decongestion camps" -- settlements where the uprooted can move closer to their home villages and find space to grow food.
Besides lessening their dependence on the U.N. World Food Programme, they are cleaner than the disease-ridden big camps.
"You can see, it is still in progress," said camp leader Paddy Okot, 52, as he strolled past a series of round mud huts, some with only the skeleton of a roof, others still being stacked up with clay bricks by young men in torn clothes.
"There is still no bore hole for water, yet," Okot said. "But this beats Pabbo. All those diseases, like cholera. That place was horrible."
He said the ceasefire and peace talks gave him confidence to move, but he is not holding his breath. "We have had peace talks before, and they collapsed back into war," he said.
As he spoke, a man behind him walked past holding an unexploded mortar round, caked in mud.
"See this? This is normal," he said, holding up the missile-shaped metal object with a mangled tail. "There are plenty more where that came from. It is a real danger."
Officials say many Ugandans brave enough to venture out still keep their spots in the bigger camps as a second home -- should things go wrong again.
"They have all got the worst case scenario playing in their heads," said Moses Oryema, WFP deputy programme manager for Gulu district, at the epicentre of the conflict.
"If anything happens they will go straight back to the camps, where life has not changed since the war started."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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