KAMPALA, Uganda—Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee who's widely expected to make a run for the presidency in 2008, completed his first visit to Uganda on Monday in what he called an effort to draw attention to one of the world's most neglected refugee crises.
Edwards' visit was sponsored by the New York-based International Rescue Committee, whose officials took him to IRC projects in the district of Kitgum, where nearly all the people live in government camps, and outside the town of Lira, where some people displaced by warfare have begun returning to their homes.
A two-person film crew that Edwards brought with him from the United States shadowed him throughout his visit.
Edwards said the most haunting moment of his visit was the desperate look he saw in the eyes of an 8-year-old orphan girl he met under a mango tree. Rebel fighters had killed her parents, and she'd been adopted by a local family. Like nearly 2 million others, they fled their homes to escape the fighting and live in a camp where getting food, water and other basic needs is a daily struggle.
"It was painful to see a child that age—about the age of my daughter Emma Claire—and the difference in their eyes was like night and day," Edwards said, hours before boarding a plane to return to the United States.
A mysterious rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army has engaged in a 20-year campaign of murder and mutilation across northern Uganda, a lush, rural country roughly the size of Oregon. The rebels have abducted some 30,000 boys and girls to serve as soldiers or sex slaves, and have robbed thousands more of their parents.
In recent weeks, negotiations between the rebels and the Ugandan government have brought the best hopes for peace since the war began. But Edwards said that the challenges won't end with a peace deal.
"People are worried about their needs once that transition occurs," Edwards said at his hotel in Kampala, the capital. "Are they going to have decent water? How far away is it going to be? Are they going to be able to put their kids in school?"
"World attention has not caught up to the problems of northern Uganda," the Lira district chairman, Franco Ojur, told the IRC delegation on Sunday.
For Edwards, who's scheduled to travel to Beijing later this month, the trip might help burnish his image should he make a presidential run. Edwards' lack of foreign policy experience hurt his campaign for the 2004 presidential nomination, and he's spent a substantial amount of time overseas since he left the Senate in an effort to erase that deficit.
Edwards has been campaigning hard on behalf of Democratic candidates for Congress throughout the United States. On Wednesday, two days before leaving for Uganda, he was in Virginia stumping for Democratic Senate hopeful Jim Webb.
Edwards—whose 2004 stump speech reminded everyone that he was "the son of a mill worker"—has emphasized poverty issues. He said he found similarities between poor communities in the United States and the wretched state of Uganda's camps, where the IRC estimates that 900 people each week die of malaria and other preventable diseases.
"The spirit of people having a very, very hard time is exactly what I've seen in people living in poverty in America," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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