“We’ll be safe when we get to the embassy …”
I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been out of sorts the past few days, aside from the obvious. Something was banging around in my brain, just below my line of conscious thought, but I could not figure out what it was. So much has gone ass over tea kettle, it was hard to know where to start …
First, there was the heinous attack on our Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed four of our own. Then it was like watching a landslide–anti-American protests at our embassies all over the Middle East, in North Africa, India, Indonesia, on and on. Every day there were more, still they continue. I knew I was very upset because of the deaths, that was something beyond articulation; I knew I was upset because of our flags being ripped down and destroyed, because members of our State Department family (both American and local staff) were/are in harm’s way, because it’s unsettling to watch angry mobs chant hateful things about a country you love. But, honestly, I’d seen much of that before and, while it upset me, I could tell there was something else getting to me, something concrete I couldn’t put my finger on. Then I had my moment of clarity, after my thoughts and feelings had been given time to bubble around in my brain, and I knew what was eating at me.
In our nearly eight years with the Department we’ve experienced a whole lot of changes, but one of the things that always stays the same is how I feel when I walk into an embassy, safe and at home. When my son, our driver, and I found ourselves tripping into a clash between protesters and police during the civil unrest in Guinea I knew if we could just get to the embassy we would be safe. We weren’t supposed to leave our house but our son, then six, was sick and needed to see the embassy nurse, so I’d made an executive decision to take a chance. We were five minutes from the embassy when Ousman slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing having our car pummeled by a large rock that pounded the road in front of us. Then came the gun shots. I reached into the back, where our son sat buckled into his car seat, and tried to push his head down between his knees while Ousman threw the car into reverse, driving like a bat out of hell, away from the flying rocks and gunfire. As we tore through bumpy side streets I radioed the Marine on duty at the embassy and told him what was happening, the calm with which he conducted himself helped ease my nerves and I reassured our son, “we’ll be safe when we get to the embassy.” We wound our way along dirt roads and, somehow (thanks to Ousman) found our way around the violence and to the embassy. I walked our son past the local guards, up to the Marine I’d spoken with, he was visibly relieved to see us, he greeted me with a smile and “It’s good to see you, ma’am.” I breathed a sign of relief, we were safe in the embassy.
Now I watch as our embassies around the world are under attack and, while we are very safe and sound where we are, something about witnessing all of this, even from halfway across the world, rocks my sense of personal safety. While dropping our kids off at school this morning I was talking to a friend, another mother whose husband is also an FSO. There was a loud bang inside the building and she startled, “what was that?” It was just someone moving a set of flags inside but I saw, then, that I was not the only one on edge. We laughed a little, we know it’s irrational, we know we’re safe here, but still …Today my husband is attending the well publicized docking of a US Naval ship and, because of what he does here, he is always very visible when he goes to those sorts of things. This morning I was seized by a fear that he wouldn’t be safe, I felt a little frantic, the docking was too public, too easy of a target. “Geez, Heather, he made it through a year in Iraq, you’re being totally irrational, you’re in Costa Rica for cripes sake,” but still …
My point in all this rambling is this, our embassies overseas are safe havens, we bring our children there, we gather with our fellow Americans there. I can walk through the doors of any embassy and be greeted by Marines, I can wander the halls and be surrounded by photos not just of our host country but also of home. It may sound kind of silly and sentimental but, despite the fact that our embassies are there for international diplomacy, they’ve always kind of been like a slice of home for me–safe, secure, nothing much changes from one to the next, it’s comforting. Of course they’re still all of that, embassies have been attacked, guard posts have been heavily damaged, entire motor pools have been burnt to the ground, but at each of our embassy compounds the main buildings, the chanceries, have been safe. I know this in the thinking part of my brain, but the primal part is panicking a bit.
This morning I learned that there were anti-American protests scheduled for Guinea, which I found shocking because we’d never seen even a shred of anti-American sentiment there, getting caught in the rock throwing was just a wrong time, wrong place event for us. Thankfully it appears to have ended up being a non-event, which is more in line with what I know about the Guinean people. But still … something had been planned and that felt like one more shard of glass in the armor I build around my family. “We’ll be safe when we get to the embassy,” that’s what I told my child, my child, the day of the rock throwing and gun shots. And we were, then. The uncertainty of tomorrow is what has me worried.