Bill Burke-White had been looking forward to his lunch with
Mirjam Blaak. A faculty member at Penn since 2005, Burke-
White was doing research at The Hague, where he had been
a visiting scholar at the International Criminal Court in 2006,
when Blaak, the Ugandan ambassador to The Netherlands,
asked him to lunch. But once they settled in at her garden-side
table, he surmised quickly — and, it turned out, correctly — that
a breezy meal with an old colleague wasn’t all that was on the
menu on that warm August day in 2007.
Burke-White had been preparing for his upcoming fall seminar at Penn Law on Transitional Justice, a course that examines how governments deal with post-conflict justice and atrocities. The preliminary syllabus he’d drafted for the Fall 2007 term proposed to examine these issues in relation to conflicts in the Congo, Rwanda, and East Timor. But by the time the lunch check landed on the table, all that had changed.
For more than 20 years, the government of Uganda has been locked in a fierce civil war with a military rebel group calling itself the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA believes its leader, Joseph Kony, has a direct pipeline to God, and has used that claim to justify the brutal pursuit of political violence in the northern part of the African nation. In the process, the LRA has been charged with numerous human rights violations in Uganda — including murder, kidnapping, and forcing children into being soldiers and sex slaves. Its leadership is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
As the meal progressed, Blaak updated Burke-White on the latest news: the government and the LRA had finally reached a tentative peace agreement. But now came the tricky part: Coming up with a way to make it stick. Blaak asked Burke- White, who had served as an adviser to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, if he would be willing to give it some thought, perhaps draft a report with suggestions. Thinking about his upcoming Penn seminar, Burke-White upped the ante: How about having his students involved, too?
Blaak loved the idea, and the wheels in Burke-White’s head started turning. What would be ideal, he knew, would be to take his students to Uganda to do the field research, to have them see, in person, the complexity of the issues involved. He didn’t want to issue a report that would end up tossed into some desk drawer, that was for sure. But he also saw a golden opportunity: to challenge his students, get them to tackle a pressing international issue and offer genuine, thought-provoking solutions to address it.
After he left Blaak, Burke-White zipped out an e-mail to the 14 enrollees in his fall class, laying out a new vision for the seminar. The bulk of the term, he told them, would now be devoted to the fragile Ugandan accord and crafting methodology to make it work. Students tried to digest the awesome task Blaak had entrusted to them — along with Burke-White’s gentle warning that the new direction would require a more substantive time commitment. “I was a little apprehensive,” admits Sarah Ashfaq, now a corporate lawyer in New York. “It was my last year, and I was thinking: ‘How busy do I want to be? Do I have the knowledge to take on this project?’” Now, she can’t imagine not having done it. “It was just so incredibly rewarding,” she says. “We were all just so engaged. I wasn’t sweating grades. It was just about getting the job done.”
Despite the daunting task — how do you find a way to resolve more than two decades of war wounds? — the Penn Law students were excited, and determined, to make a difference. Erin Valentine, then a second-year Penn Law student, felt she had a pretty good idea what to expect once the Penn team hit the ground in Uganda: she was one of the most politically active students in the class. And as a director of the campus chapter of the International Human Rights Advocates, she considered herself well-versed in the plight of oppressed peoples around the globe.
But all the classes, marches, and petitions in the world can’t prepare one for what life is really like in a scarred, war-plagued country like Uganda — and that includes the good along with the bad. When Burke-White Valentine and nine classmates ventured into northern Uganda, the site of the LRA’s stronghold, they saw for themselves the effects of civil strife: suffering citizens, bad roads, poor housing conditions. But mostly they were stunned by the luminous allure of Uganda. Its capital city of Kampala was cosmopolitan, romantic in an almost European sense; Lake Victoria was something out of the pages of National Geographic. Ugandan roads out to more remote regions were winding and dusty, but also lush and tranquil. The country is, Valentine says, “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”
Trying to get a handle on the real situation on the ground, the students talked to the widest mix of people they could imagine: from cabinet ministers and officials to women who had been brutally raped, their children enslaved, at the hands of the LRA. Indeed, on the day she found herself in a rehabilitation center in northern Uganda, talking with people who had escaped kidnapping, torture, and enslavement as child soldiers at the hands of rebel forces, Valentine saw something she could have never found in her research documents: the price of war reflected in the flesh-and-blood human faces of the people forced to pay it.
“All they wanted was opportunity,” she recalls. “One woman wanted to start her own hair salon — that’s all she wanted, the chance to own her own salon. Another wanted a sewing machine. I was struck by how simple their wants were, which to them were a lot to ask for.” The students probed deeper and found a palpable hesitation among the Ugandan people, a feeling that while they still dared to hope their lives could be different, the spectre of fear still overshadows everything. “They looked at us and said, ‘How can you tell us that Kony won’t be president one day? That he won’t rule this country and come back and finish us for coming out and telling our stories?’” Valentine recalls. “It was hard to convince them that the international community wouldn’t let that happen.”
But that didn’t stop the Penn contingent from trying. And, in a significant way, succeeding.The Rewards of Field Work – and the Compelling Stories that Result
Burke-White had approached Dean Michael Fitts to try and raise the money he’d needed to take the students on the 10-day trip to Uganda. In the end, a generous alum provided the funding to make the trip possible (see next page). Students spent months beforehand researching the conflict, exploring the complicated history of African tribal politics and diving into statistics, compiling interviews, and reading and reading and reading everything and anything about the LRA. With the trip set for January 2008 (given the scope of the task, the seminar stretched into a second term), Burke-White’s goal came into focus, to “try and transform what are research reports and scholarly papers into a very real set of concepts, and understanding other people’s lives,” he says.
In the end, ten students made the 20-hour trip along with Burke-White, flying from Washington, D.C. to Uganda for both a serious, weighty mission of diplomacy and the adventure of a lifetime. For 10 days, the students — broken up into small teams, each with a different focus, such as the treatment of women and girls, the domestic court system, and reparations for victims — met together for breakfast, then interviewed as many Ugandans as possible. “We got a wide spectrum of emotions,” Ashfaq recalls. “We encountered people who were very optimistic, and many who were not. But people were very receptive, especially when we told them who we were. They were thrilled we were there, that we were trying to help.”
A sightseeing trip this was not. After days spent canvassing, interviewing, and reporting, evenings meant wolfing down dinner, then downloading notes and fresh observations onto laptops, often late into the night. By the time they made it back to the U.S. the students were exhausted. But the real work had yet to be done — the drafting of what would eventually be a 61-page report titled A Just Peace, outlining a path to stitch Ugandan society back together.
For weeks this past spring, the group met to discuss and debate their findings, dealing with issues like the preeminence of tribal law in Africa, or how to attain meaningful but practically attainable justice for women and children. “We had to make hard choices,” Burke-White says, talking about the makeshift League of Nations that sprang up inside his class. “It wasn’t easy. But if it had been easy, we probably would have done something wrong along the way.”
In the end, the report proposed the creation of a domestic trial system in Uganda, whole-scale reforms to Uganda’s Amnesty Act, and establishment of an independent “truth and reconciliation commission” to both rebuild Ugandan society and institute reparations.
The report is no panacea, something Burke-White and his students readily acknowledge. A class of law students, no matter how impassioned or creative, cannot single-handedly alter the course of decades-long civil strife. Even as the report was being sent to Ugandan officials in mid-May (a formal presentation was scheduled for August), setbacks on the ground made the prospect for peace seem even that much further away, creating “a real sense of sadness that the process was slipping sideways or backwards,” Burke-White says. But even if long-term peace for Uganda remains elusive, he says the project made a larger point. “Law students really can have a legal impact, and so can academics,” he says. “We presented a number of ideas the U.S. government had apparently not thought of or not grappled with, and they were really appreciative.” So was Ambassador Blaak. “I am very impressed with the quality of the report,” she expressed in a note to Burke-White, “and the way you have managed to handle very complex and difficult issues.”
In the end, it may have been Bill Burke-White’s students who came away most impressed — not with their own work, but with the inspiring resilience of the Ugandan people. “When people think of Uganda, I don’t want them to think of this poor, destroyed country,” Valentine says. “I want them to think about happy people who are trying to make the most of their lives and the things they have, and who don’t want people to feel sorry for them. Attention should be paid, so they can do what they need to do.” Because beyond the violence that intrudes on it far too often, Uganda, she says, “is a very happy place.”Michael Callahan is the Articles Editor at Philadelphia Magazine.