World Refugee Day Q&A: Former Ugandan refugee plans to use Oxford degree to help others

News Stories, 20 June 2007

© and courtesy of Gemma Tracee Apiku
Gemma Tracee Apiku, former Ugandan refugee and Oxford University student. Photo

KAMPALA, Uganda, June 20 (UNHCR) Ugandan Gemma Tracee Apiku spent eight years as a refugee in southern Sudan. She is writing her thesis for a Masters in humanitarian science and practice from Oxford Brookes University and hopes to work in the aid sector. Apiku will be in London on World Refugee Day, attending a panel discussion on asylum seekers. She recently spoke to UNHCR Public Information Officer Peter-Bastian Halberg after visiting camps in northern Uganda for Sudanese refugees and people displaced during two decades of fighting between government forces and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. Peace talks have raised hopes that the internally displaced will soon be able to return home. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about your flight from Uganda

In 1979, the year I was born, war broke out in Uganda between government forces and the Tanzanian army.... This war led to the overthrow of [Uganda's President] Idi Amin. My father was in the army at that time and we lived in the town of Masaka [in southern Uganda].

During the process of regime change and the consolidation of power by the new rulers, people from the West Nile region of Uganda [where Amin and Apiku's family came from] were purged from government positions and businesses.... Military personnel like my father were labelled as Amin's soldiers and he was arrested and detained at Luzira Prison [in Kampala] until 1981.

The situation became unbearable. All of my family, except for my father who had been arrested, fled from Kampala to my home village in Moyo [northern Uganda] and then through the bush to safety across the border in Sudan. There was no proper means of transport ... our only option was to go on foot. I was only a baby, so I was carried by one of my sisters, who was about eight.

Humanitarian organizations came to our rescue [in southern Sudan] and we were registered in camps, which became our home for the next eight years.... We were moved between several camps in Yei and I started my primary education in a refugee camp.... In Sudan, we were often teased by some of the local people who referred to us as refugees.... Going back home, after eight years of living in exile was like a dream come true.

When did you become interested in doing humanitarian work?

On returning home, the family settled in Moyo for a few years before moving to Kampala, where my father had found a job in 1992. After secondary education, I went to Uganda Christian University in Mukono [town in central Uganda] and obtained a BA in mass communication.

I had harboured thoughts from an early age of becoming a humanitarian worker. With my first degree in hand, I decided to pursue further studies to gain the necessary skills and knowledge that would allow me to take up a career in the humanitarian sector. That's how I ended up studying in Oxford.

While searching for courses related to wars, armed conflict and the like, I came across the MA course in humanitarian and development practice offered by Oxford Brookes University [in the United Kingdom] and thought: "This is for me." The modules cover areas such as human rights practice and activism; armed conflict and international humanitarianism; development practice, refugee studies. It perfectly reflects my background experience and future career interests.

You fled to Moyo on your way to Sudan and returned to live there for a while in 1988. Why have you recently returned to the border region?

My initial idea of going back to northern Uganda was not only to do a bit of research for my dissertation, but also to observe and try to understand the situation on the ground from an adult perspective, rather than what I knew or felt from my experience of living in a refugee camp or a war-torn environment.

Visiting the IDP camps in northern Uganda brought back memories of what it feels like to be displaced, how tough life was and the severe lack of basic necessities, the desperate living conditions. My main interest, however, was to understand what was being done to eliminate or minimize these problems.

What are your impressions of the situation in the north?

The current situation seems fine in terms of security, but most of the war victims seem to be exposed to even more vulnerable conditions such as ill health, poor sanitation, lack of education and homelessness. I must admit to feeling disappointed with the situation, especially after talking with some of the IDPs who have suffered for more than 10 years but are still stuck in camps with no immediate hopes of any major improvements. I was amazed by the fact that the huts are built in such close proximity a fire or an infectious disease could be catastrophic.

The humanitarian organizations working in northern Uganda have obviously done much to save people ... but political constraints may have reduced their effectiveness.

Does it remind you of your own flight and time in camps?

Yes like the constant feeling of uncertainty, fear, psychological torture and dependency on what the government or humanitarian agencies will do next to save the situation. Usually, people who are affected by armed conflict or other disasters lose everything they have got and it takes years, if not forever, to recover. In my own experience, young children who are exposed to this kind of suffering lose the golden years of their youth. They begin to see things not through the eyes of a child, but as stressed victims in a war-torn environment.

Because of the war that once made me a refugee, I lost many valuable years and opportunities that could have made my life much more rewarding and interesting. This is something that I see some of the displaced people are going through in northern Uganda.

While in Sudan, I always hoped and wished for a better future than the traumatizing life I found myself living in a refugee camp at a very tender age. However, I must say that the experience had a major impact on my approach to life, way of thinking I became mature enough to understand how conflicts can shatter dreams and turn lives upside down. By the time I completed secondary school, I had a clear idea of the kind of career I wanted to practise.

Tell us a bit more about your aspirations

I feel closer to my past and it is quite exciting to know that I am in a better position now [thanks to studies at Oxford] to understand and analyze similar situations, and hopefully use the knowledge I have acquired and my refugee experience to fulfil my ambition.

I would like to look more into protection issues, education, health and other issues exposing IDPs and refugees to vulnerable situations....

As an individual, I am not anticipating making major changes, but as a humanitarian worker, my contribution will be working for and helping vulnerable persons going through similar situations to those that I experienced during my childhood.

I also hope to use the knowledge and training I have got from the course to work together with a team either within an organization, government or other agency to try to eliminate or reduce the suffering of IDPs, refugees and other victims of disaster.

Do you have any message for the people you visited in the north?

I hope there will soon be long-lasting peace and the conflict will be brought to an end. The people of northern Uganda have suffered long enough and the war has affected the economic development of the region too. I think it is time for the people of this area to have peace of mind, start new lives, be able to build homes, businesses and move on.