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Empathy in Uganda
An Essay by NPR's Joanne Silberner

Joanne Silberner
Joanne Silberner

I heard about the terror attacks when I was on a reporting trip in Uganda. I called a U.S. government official in the capital city of Kampala to confirm a meeting, and she asked if I knew anything about an airplane flying into the World Trade Center. I thought maybe some amateur pilot in a single engine plane had gone off course. My producer and I headed toward her office at 5 p.m. Kampala time. It was 10 a.m. in New York. As we drove past the mud-walled shops, banana groves, and small, carefully tended cassava fields that ring downtown Kampala, we turned on the BBC radio report. I figured they had to be exaggerating. When we got back to the hotel, there was the ubiquitous CNN. The truth of the tragedy was unavoidable.

So for five days I sat in my hotel, glued to CNN, waiting for U.S. air space to clear so I could come home, to where people would know and share my sense of horror. At first, I felt incredibly isolated. I grew up near New York City. I watched the World Trade Center being built. And I knew everyone back at NPR was working around the clock to cover the story.

Occasionally I looked out on downtown Kampala where the biggest building I saw was about 20 stories high. The Ugandan people face a hard life. Their average lifespan is 37 years and there are more than a million AIDS orphans. The average annual income is $250. Uganda has barely survived two major internal wars -- tragedies virtually ignored by the rest of the world. But the people there understood what had happened in the United States. When I could drag myself away from the television, the Ugandans I ran into -- every single person -- told me how sorry they were about what happened. They took my arm or hugged me and said, "we're sorry, we're so sorry for what happened in your country."

As it turned out, I was surrounded by people who cared.

After a Ugandan woman expressed her sympathies, I asked her what happened to her during the Ugandan wars. She told me about sitting in front of her home watching some children play in the street. One of the children looked at her and she waved. When the child -- who was holding a stick -- waved back, a nearby soldier shot the child in the head.

The difference between the killings here and those in Uganda is that the Ugandans knew who was killing them. They saw their faces. But there is a key similarity. After a horrible act, healing comes from a sense of community, from a sense of not being alone, and of knowing that others care. The Ugandans I met knew that and were willing to share. For me, the healing had begun.

Joanne Silberner is a health-policy correspondent for NPR.