Student experiences Ugandan civil war first-hand

When GW senior Jacqueline Burgess arrived in Uganda in February to study abroad, she hoped to focus on improving water sanitization in the developing country. What she didn’t expect was seeing the country’s ongoing civil war, which would change her life forever.

“It’s thrown me into a world I’m going to be entering in about nine months,” she said, referring to her plans to get involved with Uganda issues once she graduates. “I got exposed to things I wasn’t expecting to be exposed to.”

The 19-year-old civil war in northern Uganda has pushed more than 1.6 million people into internally displaced peoples camps and led to the brutal abduction of more than 25,000 children and the death of tens of thousands by the rebel group, Lord’s Resistance Army, according to the Uganda Conflict Action Network, an organization working to end the war.

Burgess said her exposure to Uganda, where civil war ravages the country and running water is a luxury, led her to start the GW chapter of Uganda Conflict Action Network, a new student organization aimed at mobilizing action in the United States to aid the peace process in Uganda. The organization was started Oct. 3, and 12 members have joined, she said.

Burgess helped arrange and participated in D.C.’s GuluWalk Saturday where Uganda activists in the District and in 40 other cities worldwide walked in solidarity to spread awareness about the “night commuters” – 30,000 children in northern Uganda who walk miles every night to nearby parks and cities to sleep and avoid being abducted by the rebels.

In the wet, chilly weather, about 250 people departed from the Ugandan Embassy Saturday afternoon and walked about four miles in two hours to Lafayette Park in front of the White House. About 100 people took part in a candlelight vigil in Lafayette Park, and about 10 people slept outside on Lafayette Park benches, imitating the children, Burgess said.

“They do it every night. We can do it for one, at least,” she said. “I’m fairly satisfied (with the turnout). We aimed for a thousand people, but we only had eight weeks, so we’re aware that that’s really ambitious. Overall, I’m pretty happy.”

Participants included American University graduate student Charles Bongamin, who himself was abducted by the rebels in Uganda while living there as a child, members of the Canadian-based advocacy organization Athletes for Africa and a former ambassador of Uganda, Burgess said.

At the park, about 100 people shielded their candles from the wind as several speakers conveyed messages regarding the child “night commuters” and child soldiers. During the vigil, Bongamin spoke about his personal experience of being abducted by the rebels as a child in Uganda.

“I was disoriented for years … I didn’t think about school. What for? I had no future, I had no hope … I have nothing to lose, nothing to gain,” he said. “You and I have to become advocates for these children. They’re yearning, they’re praying every day and night to see hope.”

Anne Richard, vice president for government relations and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, an organization that serves refugees and community victimized by oppression, cited a study compiled by her organization and the World Health Organization from January to July of 2005. The study said about 1,000 people are dying every week due to malaria, HIV/AIDS, and most of all, violence in Uganda. Also, 16 percent of victims to violence are children and 40 percent of those who died from violence were children under the age of 5. The study also states that about 42 people are abducted per week, and half of them are under the age of 15.

Burgess, who was one of the 10 people who slept on a park bench in Lafayette Park after the vigil, said she did not even know about the civil war until she arrived in Uganda earlier this year. She had gone there to study the affects of decentralized health care on human resources and deal with water sanitation.

“I saw how bad it was, and how cheap it could be to build a boar hole that could sustain a community,” she said, referring to a contained location where the water is clean and sanitized. “I just knew I wanted to do something back at home.”

Burgess now works for the Uganda Conflict Action Network, she said, and hopes that more events will be in held in the District and throughout the country.

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