Through the courtesy of the Foreign Service Journal , we are pleased to present seven personal reports of an unusual but not unknown side of life as a diplomat: the drama of being caught up in dangerous conflicts and experiencing emergency evacuation from a post. American Diplomacy has previously published a number of similar experiences, but this compendium serves to give force to an understanding that Foreign Service life is not by any means all cocktail parties on the lawn and formal social functions at the embassy.
We present the vignettes in the order they appeared in the March 2003 issue of the Journal under the heading “Recalling Past Crises and Evacuations: Part II.” As Journal Editor Steven Allen Honley noted, they are “thoughtful and moving.” A brief identification of the authors may be found at the end of each item. We join that publication in thanking the writers for sharing their experiences with us and our readers.— Ed.
We’re Number One
We did, and after passing several checkpoints manned by Venezuelan soldiers who waved their submachine guns energetically, I edged our Rambler station wagon, with family inside, onto a homemade raft that was to be poled across a last river in the far boonies. The captain, a tough looking hombre brandishing a thick pole, came to the driver’s window for payment and a gruff charla (chat). The front of his T-shirt sported an emblem for elite Ministry of Interior troops; when our Charon turned and walked away (to take us further into the sticks), the back of his T-shirt was revealed: a large “1.” Shades of the Friday briefing! My wife and I exchanged looks.
The crossing went well, but on finally rolling up a sandy pathway to the super-rustic Club Miami, it turned out that we were the only customers for a week under the palms. Our decent-sized one-room cabin — open plan, cots only — had wooden half-walls and screens to the roof; simple for anyone to penetrate, right? Now, where was that mace? But after a good swim and dinner that first night we were soon lulled to sleep by the quiet creep-and-retreat of the waves.
A little before 2 a.m., I sat upright in the cot. A scratching sound from the other side of the half-wall continued; guerrillas working toward the front door? I reached over and touched my wife’s arm. When she awoke, I put a finger to my lips, pointed toward the half-wall and eased out of my cot to crawl on hands and knees to the wall. I inched up the wall, drew in my breath and peeked through the screen. Instead of a guerrilla with an AK-47, though, a big-horned cow was scratching her flank against the outside of the wall.
The next afternoon, we watched a small biplane slip in over the palms, land on the primitive strip behind Club Miami and taxi up. Now what? Who steps out but Charlie Reed, a U.S. Air Force friend from Caracas, just checking up on us. In the end, we had a “number-one” rest, but always — then and later, especially for three years in the Soviet Union — there was the awareness of those who weren’t so lucky.
That was the song that we awoke to in the Disneyland Hotel on Jan. 16, 1991, the day the Gulf War was declared. We had just been evacuated from Pakistan, and somehow the saccharin-sweet melody and lyrics did not compute with what we had experienced in the months leading up to the war and on our 36-hour flight from Pakistan.
Although the government of Pakistan officially supported the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf War, most Pakistanis rallied behind Saddam Hussein. Tensions hovered in the orange zone, and I remember feeling like a potential target because I was American. I would drive a circuitous route to my friend Fran’s house to avoid driving past the Iraqi embassy. Fran decided to take a proactive approach to the Iraqis — she waved at the guards as she drove by, hoping that international politics would not be played out at the individual level.
The evacuation had started with a surreptitious knock on the door by our USAID deputy executive officer at 3 a.m. on Jan. 14. He had been working around the clock trying to get all the tickets in order for the chartered flights out of Islamabad. The plane hop scotched from Islamabad to Karachi to Bangkok to Manila to Tokyo, and finally to Los Angeles, where we planned to overnight before my husband departed to Washington, D.C. The boys and I planned to return to Salem, Ore., where our sons had been enrolled in elementary school.
Our strategy was to put the boys in a school they were familiar with. We needed a respite from too much reality, so we decided to spoil ourselves with some fantasy before being separated for six months.
I remember feeling a disconnect with the 24-hour news coverage from CNN about our enemies, the Iraqis, and the “It’s a Small World” melody blasting from the loudspeakers advocating brotherly love. More than oceans divided the allies from the Iraqis. Recent history suggests that a gulf still exists between them and us, but I’m hopeful that common sense can prevail to prevent yet another war in Iraq. As the lyrics go, “There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware, it’s a small world after all.”
Evacuating Nha Trang, Vietnam, April 1, 1975
In these circumstances, early and effective planning for an evacuation should have been our priority. The mind set coming from the embassy, however, was to project full confidence in our allies. This in turn was taken to mean that evacuation planning and implementation should be downplayed. Efforts at evacuation began, but without full urgency.
Early on April 1, we learned that the South Vietnamese military command had departed Nha Trang. We left helter-skelter the same day, improvising a helicopter landing area at the consulate and taking those Vietnamese employees with us who had the good sense or good fortune to be near at hand. As we departed, Nha Trang was falling into chaos; I vividly recall marauding South Vietnamese soldiers pointing their weapons at us as we choppered away.
In Saigon, we were greeted by cheerful embassy dependents who appeared to have little sense of what we had just been through — or that they would be going through the same in short order. Ambassador Graham Martin received us at the embassy, affirming bravely that a reduced South Vietnam — “Cochinchina” — would be viable. I was invited to stay on in the embassy, but sensing that our evacuation from Saigon would be at least as improvised as our departure from the north, I chose to leave as soon as I could assemble a new wardrobe (my possessions having been left behind in Nha Trang) and acquire a plane ticket.
The lesson here is the obvious one, that policy goals and evacuation planning may appear to conflict, posing difficult choices. My own view is that by failing to give evacuation the priority it deserved, we made the wrong choices in Vietnam in 1975. Indeed, I believe we made wrong policy choices in Vietnam going back to the 1950s, but that is another story.
Three weeks later, I was given my first assignment: Islamabad. We were scheduled to leave for Pakistan on the first of November. However, following the events of Sept. 11, I was notified by my career development officer that Pakistan was under ordered departure status, and since my position was classified as non-emergency, I would remain in Washington until further notice.
My first assignment in the Foreign Service, and I was evacuated before I even got to post!
By December 2001 the ordered departure was lifted for employees only; family members remained under evacuation.
It was hard leaving my husband in Washington and going to my first assignment alone. I didn’t know what to expect in many ways, since the entire experience was brand new for me. During my two-day journey to Pakistan, I experienced a wide variety of feelings and emotions. In addition to starting this exciting new career/life solo, I left not even knowing when my husband would be able to join me.
Upon my arrival, I was greeted with warm, open arms. Yet even though everyone did their best to make me feel comfortable and welcome, I could sense the sadness, loneliness and low spirits in people throughout the embassy. I adjusted by throwing myself into my job and working seven days a week, trying not to focus on being separated from my husband, as hard as that was.
Two months later, the ordered departure for family members was lifted. My husband was able to join me in Pakistan!
Then, three short weeks after his arrival, there was a terrorist attack at a church near the embassy, and within a week, Pakistan was once again under evacuation status. My husband had to leave after a brief, three-week reunion.
Shortly thereafter, it was insinuated that Pakistan would become an unaccompanied post once the evacuation was lifted. I immediately submitted a request to curtail [my assignment], went back to Washington under evacuation status, and was given a new assignment to New Delhi.We were scheduled to leave Washington on June 4, 2002. Three days before that, India went into an authorized departure status due to tensions with Pakistan. Once again, I was caught up in an evacuation before I even got to post! Fortunately, that evacuation was short lived and was lifted in July.
Thus, I found myself in evacuation status three times less than a year after entering the Foreign Service.
Even though all the uncertainty and living in limbo during the first year was hard for me, it was even more difficult for my husband. During each evacuation, he was unsure whether he should find a job, take some courses, or just wait, since evacuations can be in effect for one month, or up to six.
In essence, a year of ongoing evacuations set him back a lot as far as his job situation was concerned. However, now that we are settled in New Delhi, we cling to the hope that we have “paid our evacuation dues” and can enjoy the remainder of our tour in India evacuation-free
Kyla J. Seals
Adversity Brings People Together
I did, however, experience life at several posts during evacuations. My experience was that everyone became closer.I went to Cairo while our mission there was still an interest section rather than an embassy. Nearly everyone lived on the compound and anything that happened included everyone assigned. During my tour, the Kissinger visits and the peace talks took place, the cover came off our eagle and the flag went up, and we became an embassy. The personnel who were there before this happened had a special closeness.
During Desert Storm, I served as information management officer in Damascus. The embassy staff became quite small and there was a special camaraderie evident. I remember one weekend when I offered to let TDY [temporary duty] Information Management Office operators and technicians come over to my house to wash clothes. I then decided to cook dinner and called around for anyone not working to come by for spaghetti. The TDY personnel were astounded to find the ambassador, DCM and various other officers showing up. While it is true that relationships are normally tighter at smaller “hardship” posts, circumstances such as these make them even more so. I’d like to say, too, that once you’ve had an experience like this with anyone, your friendship is always just a little stronger.
A Curious Definition of Hardship
After gathering my dazed wits (‘What the heck?! The president was just here!”), I leaped into clothes and raced to the chancery. Yes, we were told, Washington had ordered the post to go to ordered departure status, though Amb. Martin Indyk had protested the order since he doubted its necessity. Among the suggestions which had long been discussed at our post was the idea of an internal evacuation point. In our case, we all felt that it would make more sense for families to be moved temporarily to Beersheva, where they could be held in a wait-and-see mode so as to evaluate the necessity for a full evacuation. This suggestion, so far as I know, has never been seriously considered.
We were still USIA employees then, so, after determining that there was no way to avoid the evacuation, I got on the phone to our area office. If I had to go to the U.S. just before Christmas, Washington was not the place I wanted to be. I have no family there. It took all day, but I got permission to go to my home leave address instead of Washington, with the understanding that I would have to be on leave since I could not report for work.
After finally getting my orders, I raced home. I had about an hour to pack our bags before we had to leave for the airport. With no idea how long the evacuation would last, whether I would be working in Washington, or whether my son would have to start school in the States, I threw a jumble of items into the suitcases. I mainly remember packing all of my son’s Christmas presents. I did not pack any of the things I had thought I would pack in such a situation (like family photo albums, important documents) because I did not think it likely my possessions would be destroyed in my absence, but I did take two big bags for each of us with a variety of clothes.
We caught a charter flight as directed by the embassy, along with many of our colleagues. The charter put us into Kennedy International Airport at 4 a.m. At that hour, the inter-terminal buses are not running, but we nevertheless had to go immediately from the terminal where we landed to a different one since our connecting flight was departing at 6 a.m. I still have a vivid memory of trying to push a cart loaded with four big bags uphill in very cold weather while at the same time holding onto my son’s hand. When he started to cry, mainly from the cold, but also from tiredness and fear, I had to stop. I unloaded the cart, unlocked each of the bags until I located his overcoat, bundled him up, then started out again. We made the connecting flight, but just barely.
Exhausted, we finally made it to my mother’s house. We were lucky that I had a parent who was willing and able to provide us a temporary haven. I checked in with the office the following day, only to be told that it was likely that the ordered departure status would be lifted before Christmas, and we would then have a day or two to return to post. At that point, I rebelled. No way was I going to return to Tel Aviv just before Christmas, let alone on Christmas Day. In the end, we returned to Tel Aviv on Dec. 29.Despite the evacuation; despite the fact that Israel is the only post for which I have ever been issued a gas mask, atropine, and instructions on sealing my house in case of a biological or chemical attack; despite the fact that Israel is the prime target of suicide bombers and became even more of a target after the second intifadah began in September 1999, Israel was designated a non-hardship post. I was, to put it mildly, surprised to learn that after three years of working in Israel and Gaza I was a “fair share” bidder [for ongoing assignments].
So it happened that after 18 years on the job, serving at six different posts, most of them hardship and one of them a danger-pay post, I finally got evacuated — from a supposedly non-hardship post.
Julie Gianelloni Connor