Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cleaning Up

There are a lot of emotions at play following a violent incident.

At first you feel relieved, elated even.  No one was seriously injured during our attack.  Major, major credit for that goes to our security team -- in particular our RSO who demonstrated tremendous leadership -- and our Front Office for making the call earlier in the day to get people off the compound.

Then there's shock.  Things happened quickly for us after the attack.  Within 36 hours Washington had arranged for a charter plane to come get our families and non-emergency personnel out of Tunis. I worked all day Saturday.  I didn't get to see my kids until Saturday night.  I hadn't seen them since Friday morning when I sent them off to school.  On our last night together I let the kids sleep in bed with me.  The following morning I had to wake them up to put them on a bus to get on a plane to leave.  I was in a daze for several days, working on adrenaline but not entirely processing the magnitude of what had happened.

The bus with my kids (and friends and colleagues) heading to the airport Sunday morning.

Then there's anger.  Anger that people would attack us the way they did.  Anger that the host government didn't do more to prevent it, or respond immediately when we called for help.  This wasn't a game of capture the flag and burn a little stuff in the process.  The attackers were intent on killing people.  It was blatantly obvious.

That level of pure hatred caught me by surprise.  Tunisians by and large are kind, friendly people.  I haven't felt unsafe in Tunis, even after going through the "revolution" in January 2011.  I don't really feel unsafe now either.  I have full confidence in my Front Office and our RSO office.  It is clear to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the safety of mission personnel is their number one priority.  It's why I wanted to stay to help clean up and rebuild.


"You killed Bin Laden and we are all Bin Laden"

"There is no god but god.  We are all Bin Laden.  There is no god but god."

Our mail room.  :(  

On a side note, I've been asked by multiple people why I was "forced" to stay in Tunis.  I was not forced to stay here. My Front Office and my colleagues at post have always been very understanding of my personal circumstances.  I was given the option to leave with everyone else but I wanted to stay here.  I knew the operations best, have previous crisis management experience, and could speak both French and Arabic.  The Department and the taxpayers put a lot of time and money into me and my training.  They deserved to get their money's worth.  I realized that staying here would mean a separation from my children, and while that is very difficult for me, I know the kids are safe with their dad.  It was important to me to stay here and I think my children understand (or will eventually) why.  I also need to thank everyone that helped get my kids to Frankfurt, took care of them in Frankfurt and then got them back to the U.S.  It really does take a village, and I love my little village.

After anger comes resolve.  Our compound sustained a lot of damage.  We lost 111 motorized vehicles.  The attackers destroyed pretty much anything that wasn't Forced Entry/Ballistic Resistant (FE/BR).  There were lots of things to clean up.  Speaking of FE/BR, I am beyond impressed by how well those things worked and I'm really, really glad we were in one of the New Embassy Compounds.  The security features worked really well.  There were no major injuries on our end and we were able to hunker down and wait for the events to play out.

That Saturday a handful of us were authorized to come in and take stock of what had happened.  There were still some fires going.  I was given the go ahead to call in some of my staff to immediately start the process of securing the Embassy and cleaning up.

Employee Parking Lot
And here's where I need to stop for a little bit to acknowledge our local staff.  In many ways this attack has been worse for them that it was for the American staff.  The Embassy is their livelihood.  They are worried about their personal safety. Many, many of them lost cars in the attack.  Buying a car here is NOT easy.  Even though the Department is reimbursing employees since insurance won't (BTW, kudos to the Department!!), they will still go months without a car.  Most of our employees are in single car households.  This is a tremendous burden on them and their families.

Notwithstanding all this, every single person I called in showed up.  That Saturday the air was still thick with tear gas.  Much of the work that had to be done was outdoors.  The local staff never complained.  They donned face masks and worked for hours, in the heat.  It was a point of pride for them.  And I have never been more proud that I am now to be leading such a dedicated, hard working and loyal team.  They motivate me.  Every single day since the attack they have done what has been asked of them and more.

I already spoke of the heroics of our motor pool team but allow me to go into a little more detail.  Even though I had explicitly told them not to risk their lives, that I didn't care if the entire motor pool went up in smoke, none of it was worth any of them getting hurt, they acted swiftly when they saw the attackers trying to set fire to our gasoline pump.  Although we had turned off the pump earlier in the day as a precaution, we still didn't know for sure what would happen if anyone tried to set it on fire.  The motor pool team sprung into action and confronted the attackers, attackers that had been taunting them through the glass, gesturing that they were going to slit their throats and set them on fire.  They extinguished the fire at the gas pump, and since they were already out there, decided to hop into any car that wasn't on fire and drive it to safety.  They drove our vehicles through the parking lot as their own vehicles were being torched.  One even stopped to take video of his car being set on fire.

Some of our local guards were trapped in here for over two hours
And I also want to acknowledge our local guard staff.  They bore the brunt of the attack and had much reason to fear for their lives.  They were brave and stood their posts.  Their quick, decisive actions undoubtedly helped save lives that day.  And they continue to show up to work every day, undaunted.

Like I said, truly amazing.  No one wants to go through something like this.  Processing my own emotions post-attack has been challenging.  I masked and numbed it some by staying incredibly busy the first couple weeks.  As we now shift into our new normal and the pace has slowed some, I've had time to think about everything.  I am glad I stayed.  To my colleagues that wanted to stay but couldn't and feel guilt over it, don't.  I know it's easier to say than it is to do, but try.  You've all done amazing work both in Frankfurt (Tunis North) and in D.C.  Our Tunis North colleagues in particular deserve special kudos -- they have been coordinating the entire vehicle claims process remotely.

And now for some pictures of the clean up:


Ambassador confers with security personnel the day after
In the time I have left at post, I look forward to continuing to help with the rebuilding efforts, and to continuing to grow and learn from this experience.  I know I will be a much better officer because of it.  I am lucky to have such great leaders to emulate.  Our Front Office was truly inspirational during this crisis, both in the immediate and in the aftermath.

 I have 100% faith and confidence in our RSO.  I am lucky and proud to work for the Department of State.  From the Secretary to the Under Secretary for Management on down, our needs -- financial, logistical, emotional, security -- are being met.  Everything we've asked for, we've received.  Additional security?  Check!  Cars?  Check and then some!  They flew in a plane with seven armored vehicles!  Money to buy new cars?  Check!  TDY support?  Check!

My employer cares.  How many people can say that about their employer?


  1. thank you for this. love you my friend and hope you are reunited with your kids soon.

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  3. This is an incredible blogspot. Thank you for your first-hand accounts of what has been going on in North Africa; specifically, at the Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. As a Foreign Service Intern, your stories of heroics and dedication to your mission are an inspiration to us all!

    - Gino

  4. If you and your team don't get an SHA for this, there is no justice. Great work, Lucia. Making us proud!

  5. Thank you for the post. I am a lurker on your blog, but we only have 2 or 3 degrees of separation between us. I've been worried about you. Keep posting when you can, please.

  6. I didn't know the GSO/maintanence FSNs stood their ground until you stated it in your first blog on the attack. They are a nice bunch of guys. Their actions speak louder than words ever will.

  7. I've been quietly reading your blog for some time now and always appreciate your humor. When I saw that your last post didn't start with your typical joviality, I knew something was wrong. What's especially sad to me is that this particular attack, having no casualties, was not publicized very much stateside. It's my personal mission to let my friends/family know your experience representing our country abroad. THANK YOU!

  8. I've been quietly reading your blog for some time now and always appreciate your humor. When I saw that your last post didn't start with your typical joviality, I knew something was wrong. What's especially sad to me is that this particular attack, having no casualties, was not publicized very much stateside. It's my personal mission to let my friends/family know your experience representing our country abroad. THANK YOU!

  9. Another great post. Another opportunity to say kudos to you, your local staff, and your colleagues. I've seen many of these pictures several times now, but they never fail to shock me like it's the first time. Thank you for your sacrifices - I'm sorry you're separated from your kids, but I'm mighty glad you're there for us!

  10. Thank you for posting, Lucia. It's fascinating reading and is a story that very much needs to be told.

  11. thank you so much for posting this. It is so good to hear some details about what happened. Your team sounds incredible- thank you to all of them.

  12. Thank you for posting, although it made me cry.

  13. When I read things like this I feel so proud to be a part of the foreign service. Thanks in particular for recognizing the local staff. I have thought about our local staff a lot in Morocco over these past few weeks and everyone who takes the risk of working for us really deserves to be recognized.
    Also, I know this isn't what you were looking for when you posted this, but thanks for being so committed and professional and remarkable during these events. For newbies like me it really helps me understand how things ought to work.

    Take Care

  14. Wow, I had read of the attacks but didn't realize how extensive the damage had been. I am glad you are safe. I am sorry you had to be separated with your children. I know that must have been really hard and I want to thank you for the sacrifice you made in deciding to stay and lend your experience in a crisis situation. I second what someone already said, you make me proud to be and FSO!!!

  15. I hope you are doing well. You are truly an amazing employee representing the United States.

  16. Thinking of you and of your kids. Hoping you are well and that these past months of rebuilding and processing events have given you strength and that your reunion with your family is close by.