Student spends summer helping child soldiers

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Most students come to college searching for their life’s calling, and with luck, they find out what they want to do by graduation. Some people earn a master’s degree or even take a break from school in pursuit of that inspiration.

Travis Hasler, graduate student in journalism and mass communications, spent two years in Uganda working with child soldiers before he figured out what he wanted to do after graduation.

Hasler was in the Peace Corps for 27 months, the first three spent in the capital city of Kampala and the rest in a small northern village. While he worked for the Peace Corps during this period, Hasler was placed with AIDS Care Education and Training, a small nongovernmental organization dedicated to educating people about AIDS and counseling former child soldiers.

Explaining the condition of the countryside and people, Hasler said Uganda had been fighting a civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army since the 1980s, and only in the 2000s was the government able to expel the rebels to the neighboring countries of Sudan and the Congo. Over a period of many years, the LRA kidnapped thousands of child soldiers.

Hasler said counseling the child soldiers was rewarding.

“It was strange and not even what you’d expect. For many kids this has been their way of life since they’ve been born, and many had the preconceived notion they’d be kidnapped, and forced to be a child soldier,” Hasler said. “Many seemed surprised they’re still alive.”

Most of the kids Hasler worked with either escaped from the LRA or were captured by Ugandan forces and are being assimilated into society. The rebels forced boys to fight and kidnapped girls for brides. Many of the children are suffering from HIV infection.

For his counseling, bookkeeping and fundraising projects, Hasler said he first had to learn the language of the northern Ugandans, Acholi. Hasler said he learned it during his first three months training in the Ugandan capital.

Hasler graduated from K-State in 2000 with a degree in public relations, but instead of using his degree, he went into the construction business. He said he was unhappy with his career, so he applied to the Peace Corps. Now, the former Corps member said he wants to do public relations work for nonprofit organizations.

Though Hasler was in Uganda for humanitarian reasons, he said he also had some really memorable experiences.

“I was able to go into Bwindi, an impenetrable forest along Rwanda, and it’s one of the few places you can see mountain gorillas and it’s a rainforest,” Hasler said. “I was actually punched in the ass by a wild gorilla. I got to go on safaris and got to see lions and all that stuff.”

One of the hardest things about living in another country is getting used to the differences in cuisine, and Hasler said the food was very different.

“It’s awful,” Hasler said. “Their main staple is matooke; it’s essentially plantains and bananas, and they try to boil it and smash it into a paste. It’s terrible. The have a lot of rice and chicken, but the chicken is really tough and not very great.”

Besides the differences in food, Hasler also had to get used to living without modern conveniences.

“I had a small apartment in a small northern town, Kitgum. You just move in and live like the locals,” Hasler said. “I had a pit latrine, had to pump my own water for baths, walk a hundred yards and drag it, power was off three or four times a week.”

Without a laundromat, Hasler said he paid local women to do his laundry using the water from boreholes.

Hasler said the experience helped change his life for the better.

“If there are students thinking of doing that after graduation, I would definitely encourage them to do it,” Hasler said. “Even if they aren’t thinking Peace Corps, getting involved in their community, because even here they can make a difference.” 

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