Six years ago today I was in the Dining Hall helping to get things ready for lunch when the French military rolled onto campus. Six years ago today it was a bizarre but happy sight to see tanks roaming our campus. Six years ago today there was a French medical unit parked on the basketball court outside my window. Six years ago today the balconies of my friends’ townhouses were turned into snipers’ nests. Six years ago we were relieved that someone on “our” side had shown up.
Six years ago today we were told we’d probably be leaving the next day. Six years ago today I volunteered to answer the outside phone line so one of my colleagues could go to his house and pack a few things and try to hide a few other things. Six years ago today I was more than a little miffed that he could do that and I couldn’t. Six years ago today I finally decided it didn’t matter. Six years ago today I got relieved from answering phones because I needed to make sure my bag was ready to go. Six years ago today we were told plans had changed and we were leaving that afternoon.
Six years ago today I was told I would NOT drive out, but would ride in another vehicle. Six years ago today I had to come to terms with leaving my car behind with the rest of my possessions. Six years ago today I finally got my mind wrapped around that and was then told I needed to drive after all. Six years ago today we lined up all the cars around campus for everyone to find the car they were assigned to. Six years ago today we were allowed to put one carry-on sized bag in the car.
Six years ago today I made sure I had a water bottle with me. Six years ago today my friend Jessica was assigned to my car along with three junior high kids I didn’t know. Six years ago today we were given a box of food for all of us in the car. Six years ago today our box contained a piece of pita per person, a small amount of raisins, an equal amount of peanuts, two pieces of triangle (Vache Qui Rit) cheese per person, another small baggie with some chocolate chips, and a package of cream crackers that had expired exactly a year before. Six years ago today the car in front of me used those crackers as a punishment for annoying behavior.
Six years ago today we got in our cars and drove off campus. Six years ago today we drove past a white van with its doors open and no people inside. Six years ago today I started to look down the road towards my apartment and tried not to cry. Six years ago today I waved to our national workers who stood at the gate waving good-bye. Six years ago today I choked back the sobs like I’m doing right now. Six years ago today we drove down the road toward the East in a military convoy—civilian cars and military vehicles interspersed.
Six years ago today after we got to the Goat Village there were trees felled all over the road. Six years ago today I had to navigate the car carefully through the purposefully felled and placed trees. Six years ago as I was turning the wheel, straightening the wheel, and turning the wheel over and over again, the junior high boy in my back seat said, “Hey! There are guys with guns in those trees!” Six years ago today I responded, “Ummmmm . . . whose side do you think they’re on?” as I caught a glimpse of an automatic weapon in the trees beside me. Six years ago today he answered, “I think they’re French; they’re white.” Six years ago today I breathed a little easier.
Six years ago today after we cleared the fallen trees we encountered the international press corps along the side of the road. Six years ago today that felt slightly amusing but also like an ambush. Six years ago today I gave the deicision to talk to the press to the kids. Six years ago today they decided to roll up the windows, spend some of our limited fuel on air conditioning and not talk to the reporters. Six years ago today as we slowly rolled through the press corps, they rapped on our windows. Six years ago today we shook our heads from side to side and looked straight ahead. Six years later I’m still not sure what the right response was, but I think letting the kids make the call was good.
Six years ago today we stopped outside the next major town for a “bush run.” Six years ago today as we exited the cars to stretch our legs and make good use of the bushes on the side of the road we saw French military guys with machine guns lying in the grass on the other side of the road and surveying the landscape. Six years ago today that was a sober reminder that the threat wasn’t over.
Six years ago today we drove and drove and drove and drove. Six years ago today we had no clue where we were going. Six years ago today there was great discussion in my car about where we might be headed. Six years ago today the conversation went something like this: “Maybe we’re going to Abidjan.” “Then why are we headed East and not South?” “Oh.” “Maybe we’re headed to Daoukro—there’s that really nice hotel there. It would have room for all of us and food and they have a great swimming pool. And besides what’s there to fight over in Daoukro besides the old presidential estate and the hotel?” “I didn’t pack my bathing suit.” “My Mom says no matter what, you should always pack your bathing suit—you never know when you’re going to need it.” (That was me.) “Maybe we’re headed for the Ghana border. That’s where I heard the American troops are.” “That makes sense, the French can take us to Ghana and turn us over to the Americans.” “I don’t have a visa for Ghana.” “Hmmmmmm—I have a feeling they’d make an exception this one time to their visa requirements.” “Oh.” Except six years ago when the road forked and Daoukro and Ghana were on the left side of the fork, we went right.
Six years ago today we drove and we drove and we drove and some cars started to run out of gas. Six years ago we stopped by the side of the road for another bush run while we waited for the French army to bring more fuel. Six years ago today we could hear the helicopter with gas coming through the night. Six years ago today the military started shouting for us to get in our cars and go, go, go! Six years ago today we drove another 5 or 6 kilometres down the road before we stopped again. Six years ago the helicopter landed, cars got fuel, and we found out the helicopter had seen people with guns walking down the road toward us.
Six years ago today we drove into government controlled territory in the capital city, Yamoussoukro. Six years ago today as we were breezing through the checkpoints we usually approached with prayers of not being pulled over, one of the kids in the back seat said, “That guy has a funny hat on.” Six years ago today as I glanced out the window, I saw American military personnel and thier turtle shaped helmets. Six years ago today I joyfully said, “He’s an American!”
Six years ago today the convoy led us to the New Tribes school in Yamoussoukro. Six years ago today as we waited to drive onto that campus American Special Forces members came to the car to see if we were OK and if we were in dire need of anything or if we could wait till we got on campus. Six years ago today, “Hello Ma’am.” were some of the best words I’d heard in a long time. Six years ago today we drove 10 hours to get what to what was usually no more than 90 minutes away from our school in Bouake.
Six years ago today the embassy checked us in. Six years ago today we were welcomed by a much smaller school that really didn’t have the resources to accomodate us. Six years ago today God not only multiplied the bread and the cheese they had to feed us, but he also multiplied the pillows and the sheets they found for us. Six years ago today I knew I couldn’t sleep on the cement floor even if I had a pillow and a sheet. Six years ago today I wasn’t allowed to sleep in my car because it was outside the compound walls. Six years ago today I slept in my friends’ SUV. Six years ago today I was too exhausted not to sleep once I finally got rid of the mosquito buzzing around my ears.
Photo courtesy of Tomonari Sakurai