Monday, March 24, 2008

Life in a Suitcase in an Unstable World

During the past six weeks, we have seen the military evacuation of the American Embassy in N’Djamena (Chad) due to civil unrest, the ordered departure of staff from the American Embassy in Belgrade (Serbia) due to Kosovo-related riots, the possible reduction of staff from the American Embassy in Minsk (Belarus) due to a diplomatic row and the authorized departure of non-essential personnel and family members from the American Embassy Sana’a in Yemen due to terrorism.

The Government Accountability Office reports that during 2006 and 2007, the State Department evacuated 11 posts for various reasons, including civil unrest, elections that could lead to civil unrest, a coup attempt, a U.S. embassy bombing, a hurricane, and war. I had to pause when I read that. It’s only March and we already have four of these; aren’t these “departures” coming at a faster pace these days?

By law, an evacuation cannot last longer than 180 days, but whether it’s for six weeks or six months, it bears repeating what it means to the people impacted by it. Evacuation is a time of tremendous stress for Foreign Service employees and their families; it means interrupted schooling for kids, separation from loved ones and friends, anxiety for those left behind, grief and sense of loss over what was a familiar way of life, reverse culture shock and an emotional toll that I can only begin to imagine.

Although I have assisted in an evacuation a couple of times, I was anchored in one place then and did not have to leave (plus things did not get worse); and that is a different feeling than when you are leaving or when you don't know if you're coming back at all. Having been in for quite a while now, I know that it's not even a matter of being in a "low threat" or a "high threat" post anymore because these days -- things can change in a minute. Twenty years ago, except for the evacuations of Rangoon and Panama City for civil unrest, the rest of the world seemed like a Sunday park on a summer's day. Today, evacuations have become part and parcel of the "wear and tear" of this lifestyle that it's hard to think of any place as 100% evacuation-proof; I don't think that assignment exists anymore. But if there is such a place, I would love to know.

Solomon Atayi, a Foreign Service Officer evacuated out of Chad recently writes:

“Yes, I lost absolutely everything. Everything. And I am not the only one. We all lost everything except our life. …. When the rebels stopped the fight on Sunday to regroup, that's when the French troops came to the compound in armored trucks that looked like tanks and took us to their military base. The French sent a helicopter to the embassy to airlift our Ambassador, the marines and others who were at the embassy.”

Katherine McGifford, a DCM OMS recalling an evacuation from Addis Ababa for the Foreign Service Journal, writes about the emotional toll during evacuation:

"Despite our efforts to keep the children informed of the situation, yet mindful of not scaring them, our 6-year-old son somehow didn’t get the message that Daddy, the information program officer and an “essential” employee, was not going. “Hey, come on, Dad!” he called as we walked through Customs. I will never forget the look of shock and sadness that came over his face when it hit him that Daddy wasn’t coming. I believe now that he went into a state of shock, because our usually talkative and happy little boy literally didn’t speak for five days after we landed in Seattle."

Bruce K. Byers, recalling a prior evacuation from Kabul for the Foreign Service Journal writes:

"Meanwhile, kids in a new, strange school. Their Kabul friends scattered all around the country and at other overseas missions. No continuity. Local people can’t relate to what has happened to us. Have to explain to school principals and teachers children’s experiences and needs. Some empathy forthcoming. Search for a place to live while buying new clothing, household equipment, used car. Three months later the dog arrives; six months later, the car and some household goods. Much has been lost. Submit claims to private insurance company and wait for response. Meanwhile, spend more money to replace lost items."

You can read their full stories and similar more like these from the Foreign Service Journal archives here and here (both of these are pdf files). To learn more about evacuations, read Evacuations 101 (pdf file) by Mikkela Thompson; you can also check out the extensive collection of evacuation-related resources online here. To friends from our embassies in N'Djamena, Belgrade, Minsk and Sana'a - those left behind, and those gone to D.C. or elsewhere - our thoughts and prayers are with you. Take care and Godspeed!


C.C. said...

I found your blog through Life After Jerusalem. We've been fortunate to never have been far. Two of our host countries (Zimbabwe and Chad) seemed to hit very hard times right after we left. Our thoughts and prayers are also with those families dealing with leaving everything behind. (Thanks for linking to my blog!)
--C.C. at Six Months of Settled

DS said...

Thanks for your comment C.C. This is a new blog as you can tell, and Digger has helped me find new readers; I appreciate that. Thanks for visiting!