by June Carter Perry
Sitting at my desk in March 1996, with a large picture window behind me, in my role as deputy chief of mission in Bangui—the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR)—it seemed a normal lunch hour. Several people had left the chancery, including the ambassador and the consular officer.
The silence of the moment was suddenly broken when the country’s then president, Ange-Felix Patasse, called. In French, he asked first for the ambassador, but since she was away, he spoke to me and uttered one line: “Madame, the soldiers are on the move,” and hung up. Seconds later I heard the crack of gunshots and fell to the floor, far from the picture window. I knew the shots were close. Grabbing my cellphone, I called the State Department’s operations center to give a quick brief. The officer who answered was a woman who had been in my entering Foreign Service class. “Vonda,” I said, “I’m calling you from the floor of my office. The military here is beginning to attack the government and we have shots in the embassy area.” She responded that she’d write up a brief for the secretary of state immediately and told me to call back as soon as safe to do so. My first reaction was not one of fright, but to go into reporting mode: “start a log if there’s a crisis.” I did so on yellow legal paper, aiming to capture every shot or movement.
About five minutes later, the consular office ran into my office, hair askew, his normally placid, serious demeanor mutated into one of fear. He couldn’t get home to his wife and children. Manned barricades of soldiers with AK-47’s barred access to the diplomatic residential section located along the winding Bangui River Road separating the CAR from the Congo. I instructed him to grab the list of all American citizens registered with the embassy so they could be told of the dangerous situation and advised to stay in place until further notified. All this happened like clockwork; I don’t remember feeling anything except the need to get the job done. That is, I must notify Washington (check), start the log (check), and find the ambassador (check). Fortunately, she too came running into the secured area. Her chauffeur caught wind of the fighting as soon as they had begun traveling.
All of this transpired within 15-20 minutes of the president’s call. I knew that I next had to draft a reporting cable and call our country desk officer at the State Department. All of this was automatic. Just like our colleagues in the military, we diplomats undergo stringent training for the unexpected, the sudden coups, natural disasters or civil wars that might occur anywhere in the world. Knowing this methodology intellectually is one thing; having it occur on your watch, another. But my mind, body, fingers, and voice flew into action without a second thought. On automatic, brain and body doing the necessary. Since my secretary’s residence was located before the barricaded road, she had been able to rush back as well. I began dictating the log to her, referencing my legal pad, and then adding the analysis for Washington, in this case for the National Security Council, the Defense Department, intelligence agencies, our United Nations mission, as well as for our allies in Europe, Africa and Asia. All would want to know, as they had vested interests on the continent, and the potential of any conflict bleeding over into a threatening environment for their citizens was always a fear.
I knew that President Patasse had harbored concerns about a move by his military against him. Shortly after my arrival Feb 29, 1996, he had summoned the ambassador and me to the presidential palace to meet with him, the foreign minister and the prime minister. The palace was located about half a mile from the embassy. What would normally have been a courtesy call for the ambassador to introduce me turned into a diatribe by the president about the lack of security forces from the French, the country’s former colonizers. In fact, the French had their main African air base in the CAR in the town of Buoar, as well as a defense attaché and regiments either in the capital or on call within minutes. What the president really wanted to convey was a desire for US military forces on a regular basis and to imply that he felt threatened by some disgruntled members of his own military. In that still royalist-styled, darkened suite, I took in the following: the aged, greying, yet cunning figure of the leader, the formality of protocol at its height in the mannerisms of his staff—the slight bowing of heads, the seemingly simpering obeisance of palace occupants, minions or ministers.
The ambassador calmly explained that the US could not provide forces based only on his request, although she carefully absorbed his concerns while I took copious notes. Both of us felt there must be a threat, but during that encounter in an overstuffed, hot, majestic setting we could not express our views, but only raise questions: “What made Patasse so concerned? Who was behind this possible uprising? Who would gain and what would they, in fact, obtain from such a major uprising?”
In sum, he feared the French would not protect him, some of his cabinet members, notably in his own defense department, would want to replace him, and so forth. It was a schizophrenic moment to analyze, in my view. This country that had suffered horribly as the Central African Empire finally had had a few elections. But, as in all poor countries, no matter where in the world, the lifestyles of the small elite and the great, desperately poor majority were vast and evident. On Thursdays, the Air France flight brought cheese, fresh fruits, meats and, of course, wines to the local elite, the French military and to the diplomatic corps. Foreigners could gather at certain locales such as the French bar, a hotel near the seemingly peaceful, slowly winding Bangui River. All this bounty was available to the foreigners and the country’s elite, but not to the individuals hovering along the dusty roads of Bangui’s so-called marketplace.
Once back at the embassy, the ambassador and I took stock of the situation. Our relationship with the country’s military was good following years of training in English at US bases in America and continuing training in country. Unlike the French, we had never been colonizers in Africa. Americans respected the people as people; we did not discriminate, but offered standard training courses on a non-discriminatory basis; kept the doors to our library open; and traveled with the people, not just with the elite. That relationship would turn out to be a saving grace for us as those initial shots did develop into the first of several coup attempts.
The Crisis Continues
As firing continued around the embassy compound, I was tasked, in addition to drafting the written reports, to call the key diplomatic representatives in Bangui, including the United Nations, France, Chad, Japan, Canada, Russia, China, and Germany. In addition to sharing information, I organized a regular multilateral meeting and a daily telephone conference call with all of the diplomatic corps. I had organized this within 40-60 minutes of the first shots, then had to physically reach the American families who were trapped behind the military barricade. Where does one find the courage to do this? I didn’t think about it. I instructed the ambassador’s chauffeur to go to the banks of the Bangui River, where we encountered soldiers with the always present AK-47s blocking the way. Our superb driver spoke both local dialects as well as French, and we literally talked our way through the barricade. I learned you do what you have to do. There were at least six children plus their mothers in the several homes we had to reach, passing along the way my own house and the deputy chief of mission’s residence, which was across the street from the city’s poorly guarded prison. The families were terrified but, once we had breached the barricade, we had the families form a convoy behind the ambassador’s car and drove back to the Embassy, approximately 3-4 miles away. Fortunately, this embassy, an old, unsecured compound, had the advantage of two sets of apartments for temporary duty personnel. We settled the families in these buildings about 15 yards behind the chancery-the building where the ambassador and embassy staff worked, local and contract personnel on the first floor and USG officers on the second. We had asked the families to bring food with them as we had no idea how long the siege would last. With bullets flying, we did not want people walking around shopping.
In addition to the official American families, there were a number of American non-governmental workers in Bangui. Among them were the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), AFRICARE, and Population Services International (PSI). One diabetic CDC US employee had to walk from the ministry of health to the embassy, at least 8 miles, without medication. She survived. The US citizen presence was compounded by 85 Peace Corps (PC) volunteers spread around the country. We could only reach them via broadband radio at the headquarters of missionaries serving in the country’s rural areas. The Peace Corps director was located in Bangui and assisted in calling the religious groups to ask them via their networks to inform young volunteers of the situation and advise them to await instructions and to stay away from the capital. I had strong feelings for the Corps, both personally and professionally. I had lived with my husband, a PC official, in Guyana, South America and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where our first child was born. I had been public affairs director for the Peace Corps’ Washington headquarters. So, this was personal for me as it was for their parents and for members of Congress and, of course, for State and the White House.
The messages I received from colleagues around the world praising my reporting and supporting the actions being taken by the embassy encouraged me. But I, personally, was at post alone. My husband had remained in Washington since our younger son had his final semester of high school to finish. My colleagues became my family, sometimes a dysfunctional one. This is not unusual today, but twenty years ago, many officers never served the US in an ongoing atmosphere of war; today, unaccompanied posts in danger zones have become common.
Putting aside my personal feelings about the 10,000-mile distance between me and my loved ones, what remained to be done to carry out the US mission objectives? The most pressing was saving lives. One aspect of that which affected me directly was staying put and continuing to send in reports late into the night, hitting the floor, literally, with our secretary as we transmitted message after message to Washington, explaining the status of the fighting as rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) rang over the Embassy’s fragile roof to strike militants. The radio station, desired by all rebels, was on the opposite side of the chancery building. Thus, we were in the middle of the opposing forces. In this surreal atmosphere, we were placed on an “open line” with Washington, meaning our office director and the task force in State comprised of interagency personnel, kept watch officers talking with us. Pressure from Congress was mounting on senior Department officials. Parents of Peace Corps volunteers were calling the White House. I was on the phone with colleagues in Paris and acting as spokesperson with the New York Times, CBS, ITN, the Australian national radio and National Public Radio. The ambassador spoke constantly with the commanding officer of US forces in Germany, should we need an airlift plane. The bureaucratic obstacles were many. Memos between agencies had to be signed. We and the UN managed to have the secretary general send out a mediation team and we convened several African presidents to meet with Patasse in his office, trying to end the fighting before the walls of the Embassy literally caved in on us.
A Short Cease Fire, But No Respite
Patasse finally agreed, under strong pressure from his counterparts from Chad, Mali, and Gabon, to make some concessions to the military. A formal session of parliament was convened, a cease fire ensued. The US families were able to go back to their riverside houses. The ambassador and I considered the peace fragile. This gnawing feeling was enhanced by a lengthy, rambling dinner at President Patasse’s personal home highlighted by expensive champagne, a young second wife with several children under the age of 10, and an extensive oration by Patasse on the “goodness” of the now late Moammar Ghaddafi. After this extraordinary experience, following a harrowing near-breakdown of the country, the ambassador and I thought the next episode would be only months away. We were right.
By May, fighting had broken out again, and we had to evacuate all non-official American citizens and allies; the World Bank president and the Egyptian charge, whose houses were ransacked and burned; the quiet Canadians; and the American NGO director who had declared he could “tough it out” but called us at 2:00 a.m. to request rescue by consular and security officers when his house came into the line of fire. We argued with the French ambassador for helicopters to pick up PC volunteers around the country and to provide an armored military vehicle to rescue 10 volunteers taken hostage by rebels as we tried to drive them to the airport. By this time, the White House had directed the American ambassador to France to convince then President Jacques Chirac (a friend of Patasse who had provided him sanctuary in Paris) to order his ambassador to give us the support we needed. Our little war had become a bone of contention between the US and its oldest ally. The French ambassador was recalled, blaming the US ambassador and me for his dismissal, and a new, war-experienced envoy arrived.
Simultaneously, we secured helicopters from France to airlift the families who had moved back to the river area to be evacuated to American freighters diverted from the war in Liberia to move civilian Americans out of the CAR. Essential personnel—ambassador, deputy chief of mission, the embassy secretary, communicators, a TDY administrative officer, and local security personnel had to stay in Bangui. We lived on the top floor of the chancery, listening to RPG’s passing over our heads throughout the night. It was then that I decided when your time has come, your time has come. One had to keep this mind set, even with a cadre of Marines now stationed on the top of our compound walls as we raced between sniper fire to reach the showers in the apartments and rush back to the main building. The non-essential personnel resented not being present. They were back in Washington criticizing how the evacuation had been handled, and one woman vowed to “ruin my career.” The promotion I received as the crisis continued demonstrated the hollowness of her rants. In fact, our Bangui evacuation became the model for the State Department’s procedures on how to handle a crisis evacuation.
The Final Chapter
As the crisis continued, following the removal of the ambassador to the US embassy in Cameroon, we did have to evacuate my spouse, who, as a former USAID officer, had been allowed to come to post, and others. The administrative and communications officers and I stayed behind to do what was necessary to protect US assets. Finally, a C-130 plane arrived and took me to Yaoundé. From there, I flew to Washington and participated in my son’s high school graduation. However, that was still not the end of the story. I was still on duty and had to go back, as did the ambassador.
Finally, after particularly robust cannon fire, I called Washington while under a mattress at my home (as if that would protect me) before dawn and insisted that we had to leave; we could not do business under wartime conditions, even with US forces in Germany remaining on a live line with us. The ambassador, who had returned from Cameroon as things had appeared to calm down somewhat, drove the armored chief of mission vehicle herself and we made it, once again, safely to the chancery. A tiny group of us, just me, the administrative officer and the communications expert once again remained. We destroyed files, just like in the movies, and lived on whatever the always resourceful Chinese locals could find and cook over a fire near our compound. Citizens rioted in the streets, looted shops, raped French women, burned French houses, and demonstrated the dismay of the dispossessed. A lieutenant of the CAR military called me and in perfect English said, “Madame, do not worry. We will not attack the houses of the Americans.” His statement exemplified for me in the deepest way possible that the right relationships can save one under the most horrific circumstances. I survived, again, gave more media interviews, wore the clothes of a departed secretary twice my size, pinning them in back before the cameras rolled. When the file burning was nearly over, I again left post under cover of night and with the help of Air France returned home.
The events of Bangui in 1996, often referred to by local citizens as a “military mutiny,” remain fresh in my mind. I visualize the armed soldiers at barricades. The memories of close encounters will never leave me. Concurrently, feelings of sadness for the lovely people of the Central African Republic remain. Our beloved LES information officer has died. Our reliable local political LES received the Department’s highest award in recent years and continues to contact me from time to time with greetings from his beleaguered homeland.
The past and present do not encourage hopes for a peaceful future. The State Department posted two ambassadors following the 1996 disturbances. Both had to close down the mission due to recurring violence. Yet, US diplomats continue to promote democracy, even as fissures in the American “experiment” expand at home. We must not let our fears for the future of the CAR and other countries keep us from the struggle to expand democracy, both abroad and at home. On the contrary, may the sorrows of the CAR and other nations lead us to redouble our efforts to strengthen democratic values. There is no other way to ensure a viable global existence.
June Carter Perry was US ambassador to Lesotho and Sierra Leone following assignments as deputy chief of mission in Madagascar and the Central African Republic, director of UN commissions in the State Department’s international organizations bureau, chief of internal political affairs in Paris and special assistant to the deputy secretary of state. She has held a variety of academic positions, including as the Cyrus Vance Visiting Professor at Mount Holyoke College. Her earlier career included appointments by President Carter to positions at the Community Services Administration and Peace Corps headquarters. She received President Obama’s Meritorious Award for advancing US foreign policy. A University of Chicago graduate, she currently serves on the advisory council of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Africa program and on the American Diplomacy board.