The World Is Their Classroom

Undergraduates doing international research are among the presenters at the EPIIC symposium “Conflict in the 21st Century” Feb. 22–26
View of Ugandan town
A view of Gulu, in northern Uganda. Several students went to the East African country to learn more about the effects of a devastating civil war there.
February 21, 2012

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Their classrooms are in northern Uganda, where they learned firsthand about the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and in Tunisia, where the protest of a man not much older than they gave rise to the Arab Spring, after police prevented him from peddling his fruits and vegetables. Inside Oman’s posh Diplomatic Club, they discovered the complex relationship between the seaside sultanate and Iran. Oman, writes Joe Sax, A15, represents the “convergence of the old and new, the Arab and the Western, the modern and the traditional.”

The worldview for the undergraduate students in Tufts’ Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) program comes from immersion in the world—experiences, writes Konrad Gessler, A14, that have given him a glimpse into the complexities of geopolitics that are not always apparent when he’s “reading about these issues in my dorm room in Medford.”

Gessler and Sax will be among the presenters and panelists—who include leading policymakers and academics, military officers, activists and journalists—at an EPIIC student-organized symposium on global conflict Feb. 22–26 on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.

The five-day symposium, “Conflict in the 21st Century,” will examine the implications of modern warfare. Among the speakers are Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mikleby, a former special strategic assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights; and Ami Ayalon, a former commander in the Israeli Navy and member of the Knesset. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, will receive the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award, named for the former Tufts president, and give the keynote address on Friday, Feb. 24, at 6:30 p.m. in Cabot Auditorium.

The EPIIC students will bring to the conference narratives of their own, the result of their boots-on-the ground research around the globe. We asked five of them—Seth Rau, A12; Christina Goldbaum, A14; Chloe Tomlinson, A12; Konrad Gessler, A14; and Joe Sax, A15—to write about their experiences for Tufts Now.

 

Tunisia: One Year after the Revolution

By Seth Rau, A12

It’s been a year since Tunisian President Ben-Ali was forced to flee the country following violent protests against his rule. The Tunisian people’s enthusiasm for freedom and democracy is still apparent, but that does not mean all is well in Africa’s northernmost county.

A protestor at the Jan. 14 demonstration in Tunis, TunisiaIn January 2012, I co-led a trip with Stephanos Karavas, A13, to Tunisia for nine Tufts students from the New Initiative for Middle East Peace program, which is part of the university’s Institute for Global Leadership. We wanted to find out what was happening a year after the revolution. I examined how Tunisia could return to economic growth with the help of foreign governments and the private sector. I knew there had been a large foreign investor presence in the country under the old regime, and the business climate was good under the autocratic President Ben-Ali. But it appears uncertain under the emerging regime led by the Islamist party Ennahda.

While Ennahda won a plurality of the votes in last October’s elections, many Tunisians are concerned about the future. In our meetings with members of Ennahda, they seemed committed to democracy, maintaining women’s rights and creating jobs. However, their secular opponents question these assertions, and claim that Ennahda is dividing Tunisia between secularists and Islamists. It appears that Tunisia today is not the united country it was a year ago.

On Jan. 14, we had the remarkable opportunity to be at the center of the one-year anniversary events. Ennahda was celebrating the downfall of the regime, while other parties were protesting against Ennahda on the same street. There were probably 20 or so political groups, all protesting together on the main boulevard in downtown Tunis, chanting peaceful yet contradictory messages. Tunisians are still excited to express their freedoms, but it may be impossible for them to agree on a national agenda. (That sounds a lot like the current state of affairs here in the United States.)

Tunisia has its problems, but they are democratic problems, not authoritarian ones, and that’s a huge step forward.

Seth Rau, a senior international relations major, will talk with Stephanos Karavas about Tunisia a year after the revolution during the EPIIC symposium session "#Power: Youth, Technology and the State,” which will take place on Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. in Cabot Auditorium.

 

Uganda: The Legacy of the Lord’s Resistance Army

By Christina Goldbaum, A14

You know, I heard a story a few weeks ago, began Jolly Okot, about a girl who came home, a returnee. She had been in the bush for a few years, but had escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army and returned to her family.

Christina Goldbaum, A14, in UgandaI was writing this down, frantically. Only 30 minutes before, I had received a call from Jolly’s husband, who told me she was free right now, and if I wanted an interview I had to go to her office immediately. I jumped on the first motorcycle taxi I saw, which took me down the long dirt road to the office of Invisible Children Gulu.

She was outside one day cutting banana leaves with a machete. This was a few weeks after she returned. I was sitting in Jolly’s office and feeling exhausted from running on an American schedule in the Ugandan heat for the past week.

She called to her father, who was inside the house, to come outside; she said she wanted to show him something she learned in the bush. He went over to his daughter and with one swift cut his head fell to the ground. He was dead; this girl had just killed her father. She paused. I stopped writing.

When the family saw this and came outside, wailing over his body, she didn’t understand. This girl didn’t understand that she had just killed her own father.

I looked up from my notebook to see Jolly’s piercing stare, a mixture of pain and defiance in her dark auburn eyes.

In northern Uganda, it’s nearly impossible to find someone who hasn’t been affected by the war. Everyone has a story, and with every anecdote, the narrative of the 24-year insurgency becomes infinitely more complex and immeasurably more personal. In the EPIIC program at Tufts, we’ve been charged with embracing ambiguity, with accepting the interwoven complexities and layers upon layers of contradiction that comprise the world in which we live.

Indeed, when researching local perspectives on the United States’ recent deployment of 100 military advisors to Uganda, my peers and I were given answers riddled with ambiguity, confusion, fervor and fear. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which the Ugandan military is reportedly being trained to pursue, is itself an intricate puzzle.

Since fleeing Uganda and abandoning any political motivation it once possessed, the LRA has acted as a grassroots mercenary organization, operating under the guise of an insurgency and funded by governments who seek mass murderers. U.S. military involvement is, therefore, complex, and the efficacy of such capacity building debatable. Nearly every individual we interviewed began with the question, “Why now?”

And while their answers often pointed to the recent discovery of oil in Uganda, my suspicions leaned more toward the Ugandan military’s presence in Somalia, a country that is home to Al Qaeda, whose growing influence over insurgent groups such as Al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria is certainly alarming to policymakers in Washington. Perhaps “capacity building to combat the LRA” is really a reflection of a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy, favoring a new approach to nation building and preventive action in allied nations surrounding terrorist safe havens.

And while I can analyze these changing norms of international relations, I can’t help but think about Jolly Okot and the changing norms for a young girl returning home after being indoctrinated with a homicidal ideology. Embrace ambiguity. Accept complexity. Difficult tasks indeed.

A political science major, Goldbaum will discuss her findings in Uganda during the EPIIC symposium session “Responsibility to Protect, Right to Prosecute?” on Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. in Cabot Auditorium.

 

Uganda: The Peace Is Thin

By Chloe Tomlinson, A12

After decades of war and neglect, roads are being rebuilt in Gulu Town, Uganda. In the heat of the afternoon sun, I rode with Yusuf, a respected mzee (elder) in the community, as he navigated his sedan through the construction. Yusuf has served as the interlocutor for several rounds of peace talks in the region.

Chloe Tomlinson, A12, with Yusuf  in UgandaI was in Gulu to research people’s reaction to the deployment of U.S. military advisers to the region to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has waged a bloody and devastating war against the central government of Uganda since the late 1980s. Headed by Joseph Kony, the LRA initially championed the marginalized Acholi people of northern Uganda, but soon was committing atrocities against those same people. Under pressure from the Ugandan military, its fighters dispersed to South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Yusuf suggested that we go with him to visit the Acholi War Debt Claimant’s Association, an organization founded in 2005 to lobby the government to compensate Acholi communities for the loss of human lives, livestock and property at the hands of the current government’s army. The government’s role in the conflict is often forgotten in the media’s narrative.

There are still extensive grievances against the current government, grievances that led to the birth of the LRA in 1987. This small excursion from our regular research activities reminded us that we are just observers, stepping briefly into a complex, multilayered conflict.

The peace in northern Uganda is thin. Although the battleground has moved to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, conflict still exists in the continued inequality in the country and in the haunting possibility that the LRA might return.

Tomlinson, a senior majoring in peace and justice studies, spent the spring 2011 semester in northern Uganda. She will talk about her experiences during the EPIIC symposium session “Responsibility to Protect, Right to Prosecute?” on Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. in Cabot Auditorium.

 

Oman: A “Healthy Respect” for Iran

By Konrad Gessler, A14

As soon as the security guard cleared our entry into Oman’s Diplomatic Club, I was anxious as I prepared to interview His Excellency Mohammad Ali Al-Khusaiby, Oman’s ambassador to the United States and Japan.

Joe Sax [A15] and I were ushered into the lobby, where we reviewed the questions we wanted to ask him for our research on Omani-Iranian relations. The ambassador gave us a tour of the club, including an elaborate swimming pool whose bottom was a map of the world created from mosaic tiles.

The former chief of the Royal Air Force of Oman, Talib Miran, joined us, and for the next few hours, we talked about a range of issues: Oman’s ability to mediate disputes with Iran and the United States, its role in the Gulf War and its education system.

Iran and Oman have longstanding diplomatic and economic ties, including a recent agreement for Iran to supply natural gas to Oman. Although the relations between the two neighbors chilled during the Gulf War, after Iran put anti-ship missile launchers along the Strait of Hormuz, the two since have reconciled. Unlike others in the region, Oman has not publically expressed concern over Iran’s nuclear program.

My research challenged my assumptions about the region and gave me a glimpse into the recent tension between Iran and the West through a different lens. Instead of assuming that Iran can be brought into the world community through sanctions, the Omanis have a healthy respect for their neighbor across the Strait of Hormuz. After listening to personal accounts of Omani politicians who have dealings with Iran, I have a better sense of the complexity of this relationship, much more so than simply reading about these issues in my dorm room in Medford.

Gessler is a sophomore majoring in international relations with a concentration in security studies. He will talk about his work in Oman during the EPIIC symposium session “Future Flashpoints” on Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. in Cabot Auditorium.

 

Oman: A Nation of Anomalies

By Joe Sax, A15

When I was designing my project for my trip to Oman this past winter break, I thought I was going to be researching Omani national identity. I thought I was going to be talking to Omanis about how they make sense of foreign policy decisions on which they have no input. I envisioned a project about how an absolute head of state can, with the consent of his people, shape the identity of a country and its role in the international system as he sees fit.

The new and the old along the coast of OmanI was in for a surprise. Oman defies description. It is, in almost every way, an anomaly. Oman has diverse tribes like Yemen, but is not beset by intertribal conflict. Oman is a monarchy like Saudi Arabia, but is not a religious police state, where women are not entitled to full participation in society. It has progressed economically, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but still holds onto its strong Arabic culture, especially Ibadhism, a moderate version of Islam, different from the Sunni and Shia sects.

The secret to Oman’s success is a history of bringing in ideas from outside and harmonizing them with Oman’s own culture. Oman has long sat on prosperous Indian Ocean trade routes, and once had a small trading empire of its own, with possessions in East Africa and Pakistan. Today, a Swahili speaker from Zanzibar living in Muscat is as much an Omani as an Arab from the interior who speaks his or her own tribal language. Oman has always been a country of different groups of people coming together. Rather than keeping their customs separate, they combine them to make something special.

I recall two examples. A cap called a kuma is worn by Omani men when they’re outside. The cap is of East African origin. For formal occasions, the kuma is wrapped in a musar, a shawl from Kashmir. And so an Omani Arab man in a formal setting represents the convergence of cultures three thousand miles apart.

If that distance seems astonishing, consider an experience I had in Muscat’s seaside corniche. Three ships bobbed lazily at anchor. The first was a dhow, a beautiful wooden sailing ship whose triangle-sailed ancestors plied the Indian Ocean centuries ago. The next was an oil tanker. And moored next to the dhow was the Al Said, the enormous luxury yacht owned by the sultan of Oman. The hulking, functional oil tanker and the opulent Al Said contrasted with the simple beauty of the dhow are reminders that the convergence of the old and new, the Arab and the Western, the modern and the traditional make Oman the bewildering, unique, wonderful place that it is.

Sax, a freshman, will talk about his research during the EPIIC symposium session “Future Flashpoints” on Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. in Cabot Auditorium.

 

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