The May issue of State Magazine contains an account of a two-day siege in February that Chad (N’Djamena) endured as rebels battled government forces in an attempt to topple President Idriss Deby Itno. In February 2, U.S. Embassy family members and non-essential personnel were evacuated by the military but the ambassador and essential embassy staff remained. Below is an excerpt from Lucy Tamlyn's piece "Heat of Battle." You can read the entire piece here.
"An estimated 1,000 bullets rained on the compound every hour. An RPG exploded in a nearby tree, sending the Americans reeling and loosening the house’s corrugated tin roof. Soon, the first wave of rebels surged around the embassy compound. In addition to Ambassador Louis Nigro and 19 embassy employees, the chancery sheltered 20 local guards, a private American citizen and a Chadian-American child and his Chadian mother. As the battle advanced and retreated, looters swarmed behind the rebels. Embassy guards looked on helplessly as looters seized their treasured bicycles and motorcycles from the parking lot. The destruction of classified material picked up speed with embassy staff from all sections wielding sledgehammers and doing shredder duty. Elsewhere in the city, as security permitted, French forces ferried private American citizens and other expatriates from hotels and residences to the French base for onward passage to Libreville, Gabon.
A day later, the battle around the embassy became more fierce. An RPG round went through a second-story wall near the ambassador’s office, where an employee had been minutes before. The order came to abandon the embassy. At 3:15 p.m., Marine Detachment Commander Robert Sutton and Sgt. Patrick Shaw lowered the American flag, folded it and gave it and the embassy keys to the Ambassador. The last e-mail was sent to American citizens, urging them to seek shelter at the French base. A French helicopter landed on an improvised landing area behind the embassy to pick up the ambassador and his group during a lull in the fighting. They were joined at the French base by the Americans from the housing compound, who had endured another excruciating day in the crossfire before being picked up by French forces in armored personnel carriers. Government forces were slowly beating back the rebels. But the streets were filled with corpses. The stench of charred and burning vehicles filled the air.
The U.S. Embassy in N’Djamena never closed, however. The ambassador and key staff maintained a U.S. presence at the French base for the next two weeks, one of many French services that were greatly appreciated. On February 14, the chancery reopened and the flag was raised. The damage toll included six embassy houses that had been completely looted. Fortunately, there were no fatalities among the Chadian employees, but many experienced terror, lost household goods and were separated from their families. Employees can help them by contributing to the FSN Emergency Relief Fund."
If you are with State, please consider making a contribution to the FSN Emergency Relief Fund (check with your HRO or Management Office on how to do this). Our local employees help us overseas in so many ways, and are often caught in the middle because of their employment with the USG. I'm relieved that no embassy employees were injured during this crisis but vivid accounts like this also help bring to the "front page" the fact that hardship assignments exist outside of Iraq. I mean, of course, the people in the FS knew this but the general public is not really aware of what is life out there in the trenches for the Foreign Service people. Seventy percent of our embassy assignments worldwide are indeed considered "hardships." And yes, they were shooting bullets at our people and this was not Iraq. Here, our remaining embassy personnel were rescued by an allied military force but I hate to imagine what would happen if there was no one to call. This also made me start wondering -- in an "expeditionary" American Presence Post in the middle of nowhere, is State prepared to send a trained team to "extract" our man or woman on the ground?
I started writing this piece with the working title "Heat of Battle: Not in Baghdad," but I realized that what we really need is for State Magazine to tell the hard stories of the Foreign Service. In fact, I think State Magazine should do away (like bury for good) with its monthly "Post of the Month" page and replaced it with something called "Post Crisis of the Month," or something similar. There is nothing included in the "Post of the Month" entry that one can't possibly find in the official post reports, the Intranet or the web. The "Post of the Month" has tarried beyond its welcome, to put it nicely. To continue to give it such prominence in this day and age is incongruent with the realities of our times. Consider the following facts: 1) unaccompanied posts have more than quadrupled in recent years, 2) it's only April and we already have xx number of posts evacuated. If you think something as harmless as the "Post of the Month" is trivial, you can think again after reading this piece from the Weekly Standard, whose author accused FS people of Living in a Dream World. I'm not advocating this change to make the writer happy and have him become the FS's BFF, mind you, but I do think that the change is necessary to reflect the current realities within the Service and in the world where we are living. If State starts soliciting contribution to the "Post Crisis of the Month" page, I can't imagine it running out of material anytime soon. Please send this post to the Director General through DG Direct (internal channel) or write to statemagazine[at]state[dot]gov and make a personal plea that the "Post Crisis of the Month" page be added to the magazine. Or should I perhaps start an online petition?