When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I learned the meaning of true danger -Winner SOYB 8/09
In The Face Of Danger
~ A True Story ~
When I joined the Peace Corps in 1994, I was a naïve twenty-eight year old woman with no concept of danger. It was a word on my hair dryer's tag advising me not to operate the device and bathe at the same time, so I didn’t. Danger averted. It appeared on orange stickers next to words like “flammable” and “explosive” and posted on the sides of tankers transporting volatile liquids. What did that have to do with me? It seemed obvious to me that if I avoided hazards, I’d get along just fine. But in 1996, near the end of my Peace Corps service in the Central African Republic, I was confronted with true danger for the first time in my life. It tasted like copper in my mouth. Its pungent stench burned my nostrils and its roar filled my head until I couldn’t hear my own heartbeat. That day, I realized avoiding danger wasn’t always possible; in fact, real peril exists in those moments when a crisis can’t be averted.
Smoke no longer hung in the air, and the smell of boiling coffee over open fires had given way to the odors of the morning market. It teemed with farmers in tattered clothes selling their daily produce, village women wrapped in colorful fabrics searching out their provisions for the day, and roaming goats and chickens, rummaging for food. I sat across the road from the market chatting with Jon, one of two Peace Corps volunteers living in the same city as me. Jon was a few years younger than me and had entered the Peace Corps right after college graduation the year before. He created a program targeting children orphaned by AIDS. I was also a Community Health Extensionist, though my primary project focused on midwifery training and the reduction of child mortality. Jon had asked me to attend a meeting this morning with his new collaborator, whom I had already worked with. He hoped my presence might expedite the balance of power and trust in their budding partnership. His Central African counterpart was late, but we weren’t in a rush. Jon’s meeting was the only thing either of us had planned all day.
A bright red moped, one of the fleet from the French Catholic Mission up on the hill, skidded to a stop in front of us. The driver motioned to Jon, who walked over to him. I scanned the market across the way, noting the sprinkling of empty stalls in the once full place. Political tensions of late had forced wedges between long time friends, and now vendors refused to sell their goods side-by-side with members of opposed ethnic groups. A woman with a wide, metal basin on her head, stacked high with cut firewood, caught my attention. She swayed with each graceful step like a wildflower dancing in a breeze as she made her way toward the market, but her skin, glistening with sweat, betrayed her effort. I wondered how heavy that load must be, and how far she’d walked with it. Jon’s voice startled me.
“Go home and pack,” Jon shouted as he strode toward me at a brisk pace I’d grown unaccustomed to seeing since leaving the States. “We’re being pulled out.”
I stared at him with my chin jutted forward, like an old woman hard of hearing. I squinted against the equatorial sun that glared with fierce intensity despite the early morning hour. Though my brain hadn’t decoded his words, my heart hammered in my chest. By the time Jon crossed the short distance between the messenger and the shade tree where I sat rooted to a three-legged stool, I’d found my voice.
Nonetheless, all I could say was, “What?”
“The fighting has escalated in ,” Jon shouted over the rattling ruckus of the moped speeding away. “The Peace Corps is evacuating us.” He handed me a crumpled piece of paper on which the message had been hastily scrawled. I recognized Pѐre Luis’ handwriting; he with his three-way radio was the communication liaison between Peace Corps headquarters and volunteers in our quadrant. The note was brief: “Advise PCVs: Emergency Evacuation Plan is in immediate effect. Go to Area Safe House and wait further instructions. NOT a drill.”
I looked up into Jon’s tear-filled eyes. “Oh my God,” I said. “Is this really happening?”
With one hand, Jon lifted his baseball cap and ran the heel of his palm across his forehead before replacing the hat on his head. The gesture garnered his composure. “Remember, we’re each allowed only one bag weighing no more than fifteen kilos,” he said in a steady voice. “I’m going to the Mission to be sure everyone in our area has been radioed; you get a message to Lee. I’ll see you guys back at my house.”
My mind reeled as I watched him stalk away. In a daze, I made my way up the dusty road toward my house. I hadn’t believed the rumors trickling upcountry from the capital city were true. After all, peace had been the status quo in the two years I’d been in the Central African Republic. Yet for the past three weeks, talk of a revolution had gone from simmer to boil and the tension was undeniable. Handheld radios blasted a call-to-arms on the national station, shouted slogans that people must stand up for their rights and fight the establishment. I hadn’t lent my voice to the heated conversations heard in the marketplace and along the roads; it wasn’t my place. However, I quietly supported the Central African friends I’d grown most close to, for I believed the disgraceful inequities at the root of the rising conflicts had to end for the country to move forward toward prosperity.
The problem wasn’t new. In 1994 when I arrived, I learned that Ange-Felix Patasse, the democratically elected president of Central African Republic, had created a presidential guard consisting of members of his ethnic group, the Sara. Except for Patasse’s highest ranking cabinet members, presidential guard members were the only government employees to be paid a salary in close to three years. Soldiers in the regular, national army were amongst those promised their pay, but month after month, no one received his salary. The ethnic issue became impossible to ignore. Since the Sara represented only ten percent of the CAR’s total population, and the army was primarily made up of Baya and Banda which, combined, represented sixty percent of the population, tension between the groups developed. The ethnic divide widened as the Mandja, M’Boum, M’baka and Yakoma tribes chose sides, and increasing skirmishes rapidly became violent.
The palm fronds flanking the road rustled in reaction to a sudden, hot breeze. I passed a group of market-bound women, each carrying a large, empty basin atop her head.
“ ,” they greeted me. This was followed by the predictable “Where are you going?” which is the Sango equivalent for How are you?
Despite the heat, my answer sent goose bumps up my arms. In Sango, I said I was going back to my house, which was the identical sentence one would use to say ‘I’m going back to my country.’ I was going home. I wasn’t ready; I still had two months of service left. What would happen to my project? Would the Central Africans I left behind be safe? My pace quickened as the questions swirled with increasing panic in my mind. Then, a crushing thought stopped me in my tracks: What if I didn’t see Christian again?
The question was pushed aside in my mind as the bamboo gate to my yard swung open and the willowy form of the daytime guard, Gilbert, admitted me. Missing was his wide, toothy smile, and I knew he’d already heard. For a country with no telephone, television, or Internet, news traveled fast.
He wrung his bony hands as I turned the rusted key in the padlock and opened the door to the modest house. I scribbled a note to Lee, the volunteer who lived five minutes away, and asked Gilbert to take it to him. He left at a run.
Alone, I looked around the small mud brick house that had been my sanctuary. It was dark and stifling inside, despite the daylight seeping through the wide spaces where the galvanized tin roof didn’t meet the top of the whitewashed walls. I unlatched the window shutters and swung them wide. Dust danced in the beams of light crisscrossing the main room, and as I stared at it my mind drifted to Christian.
I’d fallen in love with Christian the day I met him. He was French, employed by an international construction company contracted by a World Bank-funded project to resurface the country’s road system that washed away every rainy season. A stretch of road he improved passed through the small village where I worked, ten kilometers outside Bambari where I lived. He’d pulled his Land Cruiser alongside my PC issued mountain bike and offered me a ride into town, and I’d felt myself come alive. Three months later, on the night before he brought me with him on an incredible vacation to France, he’d proposed to me.
Included in the long list of things I had to get used to in the CAR was the lack of telephone service; it also contributed to one of the most romantic aspects of my relationship with Christian. Since we didn’t live in the same village, we stayed in contact by passing handwritten notes by messenger. I looked forward to the sporadic arrival of those notes with the same anticipation of a child on the eve of her birthday. Each was a little gift that I’ve kept to this day.
Three days earlier, I’d received a note delivered by one of Christian’s employees. In it, he explained he would be upcountry for a week and would contact me upon his return. As I pulled my duffle bag from under the bed to pack, I resolved to get word to him, somehow, that we were being sent home. I stuffed a couple changes of clothes into the bag and was deciding which ebony statuettes to take when Gilbert returned. Twenty minutes later, Lee arrived.
I was in tears when Lee and I bid Gilbert farewell. I knew his baby was sick, and I agonized over what would happen to her and the rest of Gilbert’s family now that he was suddenly out of a job. I opened the coarsely woven sack where I kept my cash and handed everything I had to him. His accepted it with both hands, eyes trained on the ground. The colors of the yard swam together as I walked out onto the road for the last time.
Lee was a quiet young man by nature, and we walked in silence to Jon’s house. I turned my attention to retaining every colorful image in my mind. I breathed deep, memorizing the odor of palm oil heating on smoky fires where the noontime meals would soon be cooked; I tuned my ears to the snippets of Sango I heard as we passed villagers in conversation, marveling at the lilting rise and fall of the language. I wanted to take as much as possible of this place home with me in my mind and heart.
Jon’s house was the designated Safe House, and over the next twenty-four hours five more volunteers from neighboring villages arrived. The emergency procedures were explicit: once you arrived at the Safe House you stayed hidden inside and awaited further instructions. I gave coins to neighborhood children to carry notes to the Catholic Mission, asking the priest to radio Christian’s company and get news to him of my departure. So far, I’d heard nothing back.
On the second morning in the Safe House, one of Christian’s employees appeared at the door. I crossed the bedroll-strewn floor in one stride. He handed me a note which I tore open, though my shoulders dropped with each word I read. Its sender, not Christian but his Belgian associate by the name of Monsieur Mischau, requested I come to his house. My heartbeat quickened at the last words: No radio contact with Christian. Driving to his base at 0800 hour, come if you want to.
Monsieur Mischau was in his late fifties, with a salt and pepper goatee and sloppy gait. He would probably have been a competent man had he not drank Jack Daniels the way the rest of us drank water. I glanced at my watch; it was 7:45 am. I’d seen Mischau open a second bottle of Jack before noon, but it was early yet even for him, and besides, he traveled with a chauffeur. “Jon,” I said across the room, “I’m going with Mischau to see Christian, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Jon’s eyes grew round and he stared at me as if I’d just sprouted tusks. He strode over. “We’re not allowed to leave the Safe House, Nicole,” he said in a parental tone.
“I know, but I’ll be fine.” I read the hesitancy in his eyes. “I’ve got to try and see Christian before we leave,” I pleaded. “What if you couldn’t say good-bye to Christophe?”
Jon looked over at his suntanned companion, the son of French veterinarians, who’d arrived to visit his parents six months ago, met Jon, and never left. Christophe winked back at him.
“Okay,” Jon said to me, “but you better get your ass back here pronto. I’m serious. Be careful.” He kissed me on the forehead.
I hugged him and walked out the door. The messenger and I walked at a brisk pace fifty yards up the road to the gate in the large white wall that surrounded the villa where Monsieur Mischau lived. He met me in the yard and greeted me with a kiss on each cheek.
He told me, in French, that Christian had been expected back to his base camp the morning before, but repeated attempts to reach him by radio had been futile. Reports were coming in that a rebel army had formed consisting of national army soldiers, and men from all corners of the country were making their way to Bangui to join the fight against Patasse’s presidential guard. I raised my eyebrows as he explained that the French Embassy had issued an evacuation plan to airlift the European expatriates and the American Peace Corps volunteers from our quadrant the following morning. Either this wasn’t true, or the Peace Corps hadn’t shared these plans with us yet, but at that moment I didn’t care. Monsieur Mischau was driving out to collect Christian; hardly any other words registered. His driver was already in the car. I scrambled into the backseat after Mischau, and we headed out.
Christian’s construction base was located ten kilometers outside Bambari. Our car lurched and bounced along the deeply rutted dirt road, leaving a turbid cloud of red clay dust in its wake. I clutched the armrest in a futile attempt to steady myself and stared out the window, unable to discern anything in the blurred scenery but layers of cobalt, green and brick red. Within a half hour, I would see Christian. The jolting movement of the car stirred the butterflies flitting frantically in the pit of my stomach. We needed to make plans where to meet up, whether I would go to France or he would come to the United States. But mostly, I needed to feel his kiss on my lips and be reassured that he was safe.
As we neared the rain barrier at three kilometers outside Bambari, the driver shouted, “Patron!” Up ahead, coming in our direction, were three vehicles bearing the company’s logo. The middle vehicle was Christian’s red Land Cruiser.
“ " I shouted.
The words were still on my lips when I felt the air leave my lungs. As the small convoy rounded a curve up ahead, we could clearly see that all three vehicles were full of Central African rebel soldiers. One man stood in the bed of the pick-up at the rear, with a machine gun mounted on a tripod perched on the hood of the cab, aiming at our car. Deep trenches lined both sides of the one-lane dirt road. Turning around was not an option. We came to a stop, nose-to-nose with the rebels.
The doors of all three vehicles opened at once and like ants from a disturbed mound, the soldiers swarmed toward our car. They wore camouflage fatigues with no shirts and had strips of black fabric tied around their heads. Each wore two ammunition link belts, Rambo-style, that crisscrossed their bare chests. One of them aimed his machine gun at us and shouted for us to get out of the car.
Another soldier yanked my door open and pointed his machine gun at me. I froze, staring at the barrel’s cruel eye, before the soldier motioned with the gun, indicating where he wanted us to stand. I felt Monsieur Mischau push me with his body, nudging me out the car, whispering that it was going to be okay as long as we did what they said. We slipped down the embankment and stood in the grass at the side of the road.
My lungs felt collapsed; I couldn’t draw in enough air. I repeated, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” over and over under my breath as thoughts collided in my brain. I realized I’d never been in danger before this moment in my life. I was at the mercy of these excited, armed men. Whatever they said I had to do, I would have no choice but to obey. And that terrified me.
I had defied orders and left the safety of the Peace Corps cocoon. I could be killed. I could be raped. I realized my knees where trembling. I thought about my sisters and my parents. The devastation they would face when they learned my fate filled me with a dread so complete it brought my world to a standstill. But another thought broke through: What had happened to Christian? Had these men killed him when they stole his vehicles? My body couldn’t keep still; my hands shook at the ends of my arms, and I shifted from foot to foot because I feared I’d go into full convulsions if I didn’t.
Three men advanced on us, their weapons pointed at our hearts. A whimper escaped my throat when they shouted orders for us to get into Christian’s Land Cruiser. My foot slipped in my haste to climb into the back seat, and I scraped the skin off my shin as I stumbled.
" " a soldier yelled at me as he inched closer with his gun.
Monsieur Mischau reached out his hand and hoisted me into the car, and he pulled his arm around my shoulders as the tears rolled silently down my cheeks. Our chauffeur was ordered into the driver’s seat, and a rebel soldier got in the front passenger seat. The car we had arrived in was backing up to a wider section of road and the soldier driving it was able to turn around. As the vehicle in front of us pulled away, the soldier growled to our chauffeur, " ," and we were off in the direction we had come, back toward Bambari.
Nausea churned my stomach. I tasted the coppery flavor of blood and realized I’d bit my tongue, though I wasn’t sure when. All the windows of the Land Cruiser were open and as the hot breeze blew against my face, I noticed how profusely I was perspiring. As we neared the entrance to town, people walking on the road glanced at us, and I saw their eyes grow large before they broke into a run. I wished I was running away with them.
Our four-vehicle caravan roared into Bambari. Monsieur Mischau’s car rocked to a halt and the others stopped behind it; a huge cloud of dust rose up around us. All the soldiers exited the cars, including the one from our car. They fired their automatic weapons into the sky, and the air was saturated with earsplitting rat-tat-tat-tat. The acrid odor of gun powder assaulted my nostrils. I clapped my hands over my ears and screamed, my voice joining those in the street diving for cover. As suddenly as the gun fire began, it stopped. In its void, the lead soldier stood in the center of the deserted road and shouted to the hidden villagers. He demanded money, food, gasoline, and drinking water. He threatened they’d start shooting people if these things weren’t brought forward immediately. I wondered numbly if by “people” he meant me.
Cowering men skulked forward, heads down, arms full of provisions for the rebels. The soldiers yanked the offered goods from their hands, kicking and throwing rocks at the retreating figures and laughing at their fear.
From where I sat in the backseat, I caught glimpses of people peeking out windows and doorways. I sat there an eternity that lasted, in reality, only fifteen minutes. My breathing had finally slowed down when the lead rebel shouted an order. The soldiers raced to their vehicles whose engines roared to life. The two cars in front of us made sharp u-turns while the pick-up behind us did the same. The rebels raced back out of town, leaving behind the Land Cruiser with Monsieur Mischau, myself and our chauffeur, stunned and alone, in a cloud of choking dust.
I didn’t say good-bye to Monsieur Mischau; I simply opened the car door, dropped to the ground, and ran, on dangerously wobbly legs, to the safety of Jon’s house. I cried the rest of the day, from relief that I’d escaped, from despair of not knowing what had become of Christian, from the residue of fear provoked by my first encounter with true danger.
The ordeal ended the next morning when we were evacuated in a French army plane and transported to the airport in Bangui, which was heavily guarded and secured by the United States Marine Corps. From the tarmac, I looked up to see Christian striding toward me with a grin that outshined the sun. I threw myself into his arms and giggled through my tears as a few onlookers applauded. He then told me his harrowing experience when the rebels had demanded, at gunpoint, all his money and vehicles. He’d warned them the tires on the Land Cruiser were bald and wouldn't last the six-hour trip to Bangui, which explained why they’d abandoned it with us, in exchange for Mischau’s well-functioning vehicle. Once the rebels had left, Christian had set out on foot and eventually made his way to Bangui.
I came home a less naïve woman than I was when I left for Africa. I have a new respect for danger, and understand the implications of being in its grasp. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. I look back on that time and marvel at the people I met and worked with who changed my life. I cherish the memories of encountering every day a smell, a taste, a sound of something I’d never known before. And I share those memories, even the scary ones, with Christian, who I have been happily married to for close to thirteen years.
(WC not including title: 3,903)
Please enjoy these pictures of my time in the Peace Corps!
First Place winner of the August 2009 round of: