Thursday, October 11, 2012

Attack

The last time I posted I was on my way to Washington with my three children to enjoy a month of home leave.  I had just completed two years in Tunis, been through the Jasmine Revolution, learned Arabic, and was eager to return to post and work really hard for two more years.  Today I find myself alone in my living room.  My house is quiet and sad.  My three favorite Things are back in the U.S. and won't be returning to Tunis again.  I will be separated from them for nine months -- though I am planning to fly back and see them as often as I can.  How did I get here?  I'm ready to blog about it now.

Patriot Day, Tuesday, September 11, 2012:  Thing 1 turns 14. During the day I followed the events in Cairo, and heard of protests in Benghazi.   Word got out that someone had died when protesters breached the compound.  Not many details shared.  I was called around midnight to prepare for a possible evacuation of Embassy Tripoli overland to Tunisia.  Began preparations to fly down to the Tunisia/Libya border to assist.  No sleep that night as information continued to trickle in.  Someone was missing, no one said who it was.  I had friends in Benghazi.  I had friends in Tripoli.  One of my staff members was TDY'd to Tripoli.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012:  More details coming out of Benghazi.  My friends, thank goodness, are safe.  The situation is obviously much more serious than we had all initially thought. Tunis won't have a role in the evacuation of Tripoli or Benghazi.  My team stands down.  That afternoon a group of demonstrators show up in front of our Embassy. Tunisian security forces disperse the crowd with tear gas.    The grief on Facebook is palpable.  Someone describes the Foreign Service as a small town of 10,000 spread across the globe.  They're so right.  My stomach turns as I walk past the flag at half-staff for my colleagues.



September 13, 2012:  Protesters attack the Embassy in Sanaa.  We get word to expect a demonstration at our Embassy the following day, September 14.  Something tells me to leave my car at home the next day so I arrange to grab a ride with a coworker the following day.

September 14, 2012:  Morning: I get up at my regular time, and decide to dress casually that day.  I don't often do so. I also decide to bring my camera with me and walk around in the morning and take pictures of the Embassy compound, focusing in particular on the motor pool.

Motor Pool.  Before.

Walk around with my A/GSO and we look at things as if we were the bad guys.  What should we do?  We decide to switch off the gasoline pump and take a few other precautionary measures.  I instructed my warehouse crew to bring mattresses and other supplies into the Chancery, just in case.  "Just in case" is my mantra for the day.  Several of my colleagues tease me good naturedly.  My office looks like an episode of Hoarders.

Noon:  Anxiety is rising a little bit.  Riot police are lined up outside the Embassy, concertina wire rolled out, but no protesters yet.  It's time for Friday prayers.  The American School closes.  I arrange to have my children go home with another Embassy family.  The Embassy announces early release.  Many employees leave.

Getting ready


1400:  Protesters start to show up.  From my vantage point I see several hundred.  Over the radio we get reports from across the city.  A crowd of about 1000 coming from the airport area.  A crowd of 2000 coming from an area east of the Embassy.  It's obvious quickly that the security forces are not going to be able to control an unruly crowd.




Shortly after police used tear gas to disperse the crowd

Tear gas

1430:  Police use tear gas to try to disperse crowds.  Protesters have now surrounded the Embassy on all sides.  Security forces were only set up on one side.  This is bad.  Over the radio we hear reports coming in. They're on the walls.

1500 - ?:  All employees are ordered to the safe haven.  Everyone dutifully files in, deposits their cell phones since the safe haven is a phone-free zone.  Reports continue to come in.  The motor pool is on fire.  The rec center is on fire.  The employee parking lot is on fire.  Protesters are on the roof of the Chancery.  We immediately begin to do what we know to do.  Destroy classified.  I hear the sound of sledge hammers pounding away, comforted to know that my colleagues are destroying the classified material.  The sound of the hammers echo through the Embassy, making the walls vibrate.  Find out that sound isn't coming from within.  The protesters are at our windows and are intent on getting in.  They are attempting to set fire to the Chancery, dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire.  My mind flashes back to the images from Benghazi, just a few days prior.  I visualize the caskets of my dead colleagues on board the C-130 in Tripoli.

A faint smell of smoke begins to waft through the safe haven, where I'm sitting with 103 of my colleagues, some of whom are panicking and crying.  I'm trying very hard to project calm and confidence.  The fire alarm goes off.  Someone decides to go get everyone's cell phones so we can start calling our loved ones.  I sent three quick emails from my blackberry -- to my ex-husband:  "In safehaven.  People are on the compound, on roof.  Tell the kids I love them so much. If the worst happens don't let them forget me.", one to my parents and my sisters, and one to my very special person.  I'm worried sick about my motor pool team, stuck in an outside building.

1630:  I decide to leave the safe haven and along with a friend from A-100 start up a task force in the Front Office, set up a log and let the training kick in.  Keeping busy helps.  Repeated phone calls with Washington, host government officials, the White House, the Secretary.  On the TV we see the President and the Secretary at Dover Air Force base receiving the caskets of our colleagues.  Surreal doesn't even begin to describe the experience.  It's evident that the host government cannot or will not protect our Embassy.

1730?:  My motor pool team makes its way into the Chancery.  They're covered in soot, traumatized and out of breath.  They report that the protesters attempted to set the gas pump on fire but failed because we had turned it off that morning.  The motor pool team reports that they chose to leave the safety of their building and try to save whatever vehicles they could, confronting protesters along the way.  Rather than saving their own cars they hopped into any official vehicle they could find that wasn't on fire and drove through protesters to get the vehicles off the compound and into a safe area.  Were it not for that we would have lost our entire motor pool.

2100 or so:  The situation is finally under control and we prepare to leave under the protection of heavily armed men.  Before we leave the Embassy we're advised to find something to put over our mouths and noses because the tear gas is everywhere.  Even with our faces covered, people are choking and gagging as we jog to cars provide by the host government to whisk us away.

2230 or so:  I finally make it home.  Because I need to return to the Embassy early the following morning I arrange to have my children overnight with the other Embassy family.  Exhausted, I start packing suitcases for them.  Though no one has said so, I know that they will have to leave.

Saturday, September 15:  I get to see the damage for the first time in the light of day.  It breaks my heart, but motivates me like you wouldn't believe.  First order of business, get the flag back up.





To be continued...


27 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this, Lucia. I know it must be tough for you to write about. So glad your kids are safe!

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  2. Thanks for the timeline. I lost all concept of time that day.

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  3. This made me cry - the timeline and journaling brings it home that much more clearly. I am so glad you and your staff and families are all okay, and I'm so proud that your forward-thinking preparations and the actions of your local staff made things so much less inflammatory (literally) than they could have been. Hope the days between now and your next trip to visit the kids go quickly...

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  4. I am so glad your kids are safe, as well as you and the entire embassy staff. Please pass along applause and a huge thanks to your LES staff for their bravery and actions to protect motor pool in the face of dangerous opposition. As far as the FS staff, I can't even imagine watching the 'homecoming' on television at the same time as being shunted into a safe haven for all the same reasons as Benghazi. Thank you for talking about that day and what led up to it. People should know, and I've linked to you. Please let me know if you object. Most of all, I am praying that the time til your reunion with the kids flies until you are there with them. Then it can slo-mo while you get your fill.

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  5. I cried too as I read this. I have friends in Tripoli, Cairo and Tunis (don't we all?) and this has been surreal. Thanks for posting.

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. I, like Sadie, am sitting here crying. I can't imagine having to write the quick notes, especially that note to your ex-husband. I'm so sorry that you're separated from your kids for so long. Thank you so much for your service to our country.

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  8. This hurts so much and made me cry but I'm so glad to read it. and so glad you were able to finally write it. thanks

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  9. Kept it together until I read the email you sent from the safe haven.

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  10. Thank you for all you did and continue to do there.

    (A niggling thing.. the flag on 9/12 was at half-staff, not half-mast. Mast is for boats)

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  11. Wow - Lucia, thank you for writing this. Am thinking of you and your team and kids...very glad you are all safe.

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  12. Wow - thank you for sharing...you and your kids are in my thoughts...hang in there.

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  13. Lucia, I am so thankful that you and the kids are ok... I know it must be hard to be separated from them... stay safe my friend.

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  14. Like everyone else, I am crying too. Thank you for your service and your courage and most importantly, your sacrifice. I also pray that the time goes swiftly and you will be reunited with your children in the blink of an eye. Blessings to you and your family!

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  15. Praying for you, and your dear children. I am so sorry to know that you have had to go through this, but am happy that you and the folks of the embassy there are safe.

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  16. Thanks for the blog. As a spouse of one of your collegues, the emotional view may be similiar on some level. If it was up to my husband, he probably would have come home at some point that night to say "Get the passports, you're leaving NOW." Also, we were glad to be part of the TEAM to escort your children back to the USA.

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    1. Not sure who this is, but there are indeed many people I need to thank for helping get my children back to the U.S. You guys are in part 2 of this story, once I write it! :) Hope you are well.
      4G

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  17. Incredible. I'm so glad that you and your family are safe. Thanks for sharing. Hang in there.

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  18. My son Kevin is there with you and I pray for all of you every day. God, please keep you all safe. Hope you all can reunite with your families.

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    1. Pat, your son is a hero. I'm so glad he was here to take care of all of us. His leadership, competence, and level-headedness kept us all safe. He has my eternal gratitude and respect.

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  19. Count me in with those who started crying at the emails you wrote. Wow. Also, you did a solid management job there - well done and while I hope I never have to follow your lead, I'll keep your experience as a "tip" in the back of my mind.

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  20. I remember talking to you on FB the night of the 11th, when you were gearing up to head to the border to rescue my colleagues. I was so thankful that you were sharing information with me while I was in the US, because I was panicking at the silence from everyone in Libya. I'm back in Tripoli now, and you guys are in our thoughts every day. Stay strong.

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  21. I am amazed by your presence of mind, especially in turning off the gas pump. I am proud to call you a colleague. Stay safe.

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  22. You've got me crying too, Lucia. You're the real Molly Brown out of everyone I've ever met -- but no one should have to go through this. You and the kids are in Martin's and my thoughts and prayers.

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  23. Not sure what to say. You know I love you, Lucia and think about you often. Hope to see you safe and sound in DC real soon. Stay strong!

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  24. Your message brought tears to my eyes as well. I visited Natalie in Tunisia nearly 2 years ago when I was pregnant! It is a lovely country with beautiful people, and I am so saddened by what has happened there. You and your team are amazing people, and I am so grateful that no one was hurt. I amazed by the tenacity of those who stayed behind to rebuild. Thank you for your service to our country.

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