Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We're all okay

My students and I are fine. In fact, we weren't even in Kampala when the bombings occurred. We are in Fort Portal, where we just finished day two of the first of 24 peace journalism seminars I'm leading over the coming months. See below for my reflections.

The internet commection in Fort Portal is glacial, and my Park email barely/rarely works. So, if you have sent me an email, please be patient--I will respond when I can.

We'll stay safe. I promise.

Living through, and mulling over, a tragedy

FORT PORTAL, UGANDA--In the living room of my apartment in Kampala, I have an ad clipped from a newspaper that was printed a few days before Sunday’s tragedy.

If you didn’t see the news, bombs exploded at two sites in Kampala, a restaurant and a rugby club, on Sunday night. The bombers chose sites where crowds would be gathered watching the World Cup final. 74 innocent people, just soccer fans enjoying an exciting night out, never made it home. Authorities said both Ugandans and foreign nationals were targeted.

On Sunday, I was en route to Fort Portal, a small town in Western Uganda where I was to begin teaching a peace journalism seminar the next day. I was joined on this journey by two Park University students, Andria Enns and Keith Taylor, who are in Uganda on a special study abroad program. We arrived in Fort Portal at 8:30 p.m. after a ridiculously long, dusty, detour-riddled, six and a half hour journey. It usually takes four hours, but road construction and a traffic jam in Kampala slowed us considerably.

My students and I had made plans to find a place to watch the World Cup together. But by the time we arrived, we were so tired that all we wanted to do was stretch out on a bed in our rooms.

The soccer match started at 9:30 p.m., and I settled in comfortably to watch the game. I drifted off about 11:00, but woke back up about 11:30—right about the time the bombs went off several hundred miles away. My students, they told me later, were asleep by 11:00. I hadn’t given their safety, or mine, a second thought.

When I stumbled into the breakfast room at the hotel, it was a little before 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning. I immediately noticed something amiss. There were perhaps 10 Ugandans in the room, and they looked stunned, silently and intently staring at the TV hanging from the ceiling. The images on the TV were horrible—bloody bodies, victims of some sort being carried from the scene of a disaster, cries of anguish. This was just raw video, and it seemed to run for 10 or 15 minutes before a commentator came on and filled us in on what was happening. My mind raced, and I was shaken.

I took some deep breaths and composed myself before my students joined me at breakfast. Andria came down first. She was calm and attentive as I relayed the bad news. Keith already had CNN on before he came down, so he knew what happened. I asked them point blank if they were scared. Both said no, and I believed them. I was proud of their bravery.

At my seminar a few minutes later, we were greeted by 19 radio journalists and announcers. After the usual introductions, I addressed the two-ton elephant in the room—the bombings. I thought it might be cathartic for them to discuss what happened, and the way it was covered by the media. I figured if I could make 9/11 a teaching moment (I held three classes that day), I could do the same this time. I was wrong. The journalists were silent, perhaps too stunned to say anything, perhaps put off by my directness.

As I moved into my planned lecture, the seminar participants opened up a bit, and commented about how the media reported the words of the police chief who had prematurely assigned blame for the incident. These students and other Ugandans I talked to seemed upset, but also appeared to handle the incident in stride.

One reason I was so shaken by this tragedy is that newspaper ad sitting on my living room end-table. About a week ago, I saw an announcement for an Ethiopian restaurant in Kampala, so I clipped the ad so that I could find the place, since I love Ethiopian food. As I mentioned, two different locales were bombed Sunday night—a rugby club, and a restaurant—the same Ethiopian restaurant that I had planned to visit.

I am grateful for the dozens of sincere messages that I received expressing concern about our safety. Thank you. For those who would have me board the next plane for Kansas City, I am just arrogant or foolish enough to think that perhaps the work I am doing here can help prevent the next tragedy. I will be more watchful, and avoid crowds and Ethiopian restaurants to be sure, but I’m not coming home until my work is done.

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