Burkina Faso’s Revolution. Or the day mama jumped in the pool fully clothed.

— Domani Spero
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One of our readers pointed us to this MamaCongo blogpost (thanks A!).  We’ve requested and was granted permission by the author to excerpt it here. She is the country representative of the Mennonite Central Committee,  a nongovernment organization operating in Burkina Faso, and a marvelous storyteller. In the post below, she tells us a slice of life amidst a crisis in a foreign land. Reminds us of Four Globetrotters’ blogpost about what an FSO and her colleagues went through during the attack of the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 (see Attack here).

The following post from MamaCongo is a first person account of an American expat during the recent  revolution in Burkina Faso, a land-locked country in the center of West Africa with one of the highest poverty rates in the world.  According to Diplomatic Security’s Crime and Safety Report, Burkina Faso was also rocked by several months of protests, civil unrest, and lawlessness in 2011. In the event of lawlessness or protests by armed groups, including such incidents perpetrated by soldiers and police, the official advice is to seek a safe location, remain indoors, and shelter in place.  The shelter in place advice, of course, that does not work, if the house you’re in is a target for burning, and looting,, as was the case here.

 

There is a shoutout in the blogpost for Kristin, an FSO at our embassy in Ouagadougou.  For all the consular officers and duty officers out there who seldom get a mention for their work, this one’s for you. And those French, by heavens, they remain cool and collected with smokes and drinks even in a crisis?

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Burkina Faso’s Revolution. Or the day mama jumped in the pool fully clothed.

by Sarah Sensamaust
excerpted
from MamaCongo

It’s taken us a bit of time to process Burkina Faso’s recent uprising, or revolution, or coup, or junta, or whatever you want to call it. Granted we’re not Burkinabé nor were we anywhere near the front lines, but our expat lives were a bit shaken up. I mean, we’re not in Congo anymore so life should be easy peasy for goodness sake.

In short, Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s longtime president of 27 years, decided he wanted to change the constitution to extend term limits. But folks had another idea. As in, on the day of the vote thousands of people mobilized to stop it.

On that morning, we planned to introduce the director of our organization (who was visiting from the States – perfect timing) to participants we work with at the prison. No big deal, Adam would take him in the morning before the vote results were announced. I’d stay back in the office and hold down the fort. Of course no one else was dumb enough to come to work that day. So there I sat alone while they headed off to the prison.

About the time they arrived at the prison, the city exploded. Tens of thousands of people protested and then attacked the parliament building setting it on fire. There was gunfire, then helicopters dropped tear gas. I spent the morning pacing up and down the office hallway. Convincing myself my eyes were burning from really intense dust and not tear gas. I also sent messages to Jill because how can this be happening and I have no one to talk to?!

I won’t mention how many paces it took me to remember my children playing outside a few blocks away. But I did eventually call Anastasie and ask her to take the girls inside and close the windows. Clearly she had already done this. Because tear gas.

Meanwhile at the prison, a mob had gathered outside and began banging on the doors, so needless to say, Adam and our director were stuck inside. I’ll keep this exciting part about Adam short due to his issue with reading long posts and all: Prison guards quickly change into military uniforms. Everyone running. Adam stuck inside. Me thinking it’s slightly funny he’s got himself and our director trapped in a prison during a coup. Me waiting a long time, not thinking it’s so funny anymore. Crowds getting bigger. Me making lots of phone calls and driving back and forth through protestors to attempt to free them from prison. They eventually escape with zero help from me. 30 minutes later factory across from the prison is looted and burned. Revolt later that day in the prison and 3 people killed. Us breathing sigh of relief.

The stuck in prison situation is the kind of experience I’m happy to have had when it’s over. It was equal parts tense and exciting and it makes for a good story. All’s well that ends well. We are safe and sound at home. Boy was that crazy! So glad this whole revolution thing is over. I put up a semi-clever post on Facebook with a synopsis of the day. We’re proud of ourselves for distracting our children from the gunfire. They didn’t even notice! We’re so cool. Goodnight.

Compaoré resigned the next morning and left the country in a heavily armored motorcade. A general in the military was then named interim leader. Turns out this guy was not so popular and the city erupted once again. Oh wait, this revolution thing isn’t over yet?

A tactic that proved quite effective the day before was the burning and looting of former Compaoré government official’s houses along with those of his relatives and friends. A house a few blocks in front of our’s was burned as well as another house behind us. We got word that our next door neighbor’s house, with whom we share a wall, was next on the loot and burn list. A mob was on its way. Our neighbor on the other side yelled for us to quick get out of our house.

It’s safe to say this was not my calmest moment in motherhood. I went into full panic mode and ushered my children next door – to the safe neighbor’s house. We’ve been down this leave-the-house-and-all-of-your-belongings road before in Congo, so I grabbed their growth chart off the wall, the baby quilt and the princess dresses. Because I can hide from our children the fact that our house has been burned to the ground, but they’re definitely going to notice if their princess dresses are missing.

We took shelter next door. And again the pacing sets in. At this point we crossed a line we had never crossed before. Our children were scared and crying and asking what was going on. Guards were gathered in the road. And everyone was just waiting for the inevitable to happen. It didn’t ease our minds that a document had been looted from the president’s brother’s house, photocopied in mass and distributed throughout the city listing the addresses of houses that the president had bought for his friends. Our neighbor’s house number was #2 on the list.

I kind of just wanted the looters and burners to show up so it could just happen and be over. Someone suggested I call the embassy. After 6 years in Congo, I have their emergency number on speed dial. I don’t know how many times in Kinshasa I had to call an annoyed 18-year-old Marine and explain how we got our car booted in the middle of the road again.

Here in Ouagadougou it’s a kind woman named Kristin, who bless her heart, must have been a 911 operator or worked at a suicide prevention hotline in a previous life. She was so sweet and encouraging and for the first time since this whole ordeal began, I was talking with someone to whom I didn’t need to show a brave face. I started to tear up, so I took myself into my neighbor’s garage and had a good cry with dear, sweet Kristin. (Kristin, I hope you never read this. I would like to remain the anonymous, unstable expat caller.)

For whatever reason the mob had yet to come and it’s clear that pacing at our neighbor’s house all day was not a good plan for anyone. So we scurried across the street to distract our children and let them swim at the pool of our neighborhood French compound.

And folks, I kid you not. Those Frenchies were smoking and drinking and having a grand old time behind their wall, not 20 feet away from our panic attack across the street.

Our girls soon forgot their trauma and swam and joined in the carefree French time. Meanwhile, Adam and I were poolside sending emails and making hurried phone calls to our organization’s headquarters in the States, all the while keeping an ear out for approaching angry mobs.

At this point, as if our world had not stopped already, I glanced in the pool and Ani was bobbing and gasping for air in the deep end. So naturally, I jump in the pool, in front of all those relaxed French folk – fully clothed, leather clogs and all – to pull that poor girl out.

I swear to you, at this moment another military plane buzzed overhead and after the near-burning of our house and the near-drowning of my child, I took a moment to tread water and have a mini breakdown right there in the pool. I’ll never forget Adam and our director looking down at me, offering hands to help me out. But I just stayed. And treaded water. And cried.

And then my loving husband said, “That was crazy. It was kind of embarrassing that you had to jump in the pool like that to save her, but none of these French people even noticed. No one turned their heads. How are they so cool about everything?!”

I spent the rest of the day sitting by the pool. Sopping wet. You know, because of no spare clothes due to being evacuated from my house and all. Then after the curfew set in (which is announced in the curious way of police going through the streets and shooting in the air) our house was still standing and it was deemed safe to go home.

Our neighbors in question had rallied their burliest male relatives to set up camp outside their house to protect it. We managed to fall asleep that night, but it’s practically impossible to distinguish between the noises of a mob of men guarding a house and a mob of men attacking a house.

We debriefed with the girls and asked them how they felt when we had to leave our house and run next door. Because afterall, they were upset and scared and I don’t want that coming back at us in adolescence.

They didn’t really seem to remember it, so we didn’t press it. They were too distracted and confused about why mama jumped and cried in the pool. “No really, why were you crying in the pool?” they asked, “And why didn’t you put on your bathing suit first?” A full month later, they are still talking about this. “Hey! Remember that time mama jumped in the pool with her clothes on?!”

Thank the lord they’re not asking, “Remember that time we ran screaming from our house because we thought it was going to burn down?”

There’s more.  Read the entire blogpost here via MamaCongo.

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Behind the Scenes as Angry Mob Attacks an Embassy and Host Country Takes Power Nap

So it’s been a month since the latest rounds of protests in the Middle East broke.  One of my favorite bloggers, 4G of Four Globetrotters who was in one of the embassies attacked finally came back online this week. Hers is a harrowing tale shared by many more public servants and family members spread across the globe. Here is an excerpt from her post, “Attack” (used with permission):

1430:  Police use tear gas to try to disperse crowds.  Protesters have now surrounded the Embassy on all sides.  Security forces were only set up on one side.  This is bad.  Over the radio we hear reports coming in. They’re on the walls.

1500 – ?:  All employees are ordered to the safe haven.  Everyone dutifully files in, deposits their cell phones since the safe haven is a phone-free zone.  Reports continue to come in.  The motor pool is on fire.  The rec center is on fire.  The employee parking lot is on fire.  Protesters are on the roof of the Chancery.  We immediately begin to do what we know to do.  Destroy classified.  I hear the sound of sledge hammers pounding away, comforted to know that my colleagues are destroying the classified material.  The sound of the hammers echo through the Embassy, making the walls vibrate.  Find out that sound isn’t coming from within.  The protesters are at our windows and are intent on getting in.  They are attempting to set fire to the Chancery, dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire.  My mind flashes back to the images from Benghazi, just a few days prior.  I visualize the caskets of my dead colleagues on board the C-130 in Tripoli.

A faint smell of smoke begins to waft through the safe haven, where I’m sitting with 103 of my colleagues, some of whom are panicking and crying.  I’m trying very hard to project calm and confidence.  The fire alarm goes off.  Someone decides to go get everyone’s cell phones so we can start calling our loved ones.  I sent three quick emails from my blackberry — to my ex-husband:  “In safehaven.  People are on the compound, on roof.  Tell the kids I love them so much. If the worst happens don’t let them forget me.”, one to my parents and my sisters, and one to my very special person.  I’m worried sick about my motor pool team, stuck in an outside building.

1630:  I decide to leave the safe haven and along with a friend from A-100 start up a task force in the Front Office, set up a log and let the training kick in.  Keeping busy helps.  Repeated phone calls with Washington, host government officials, the White House, the Secretary.  On the TV we see the President and the Secretary at Dover Air Force base receiving the caskets of our colleagues.  Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.  It’s evident that the host government cannot or will not protect our Embassy.

1730?:  My motor pool team makes its way into the Chancery.  They’re covered in soot, traumatized and out of breath.  They report that the protesters attempted to set the gas pump on fire but failed because we had turned it off that morning.  The motor pool team reports that they chose to leave the safety of their building and try to save whatever vehicles they could, confronting protesters along the way.  Rather than saving their own cars they hopped into any official vehicle they could find that wasn’t on fire and drove through protesters to get the vehicles off the compound and into a safe area.  Were it not for that we would have lost our entire motor pool.

Saturday, September 15:  I get to see the damage for the first time in the light of day.  It breaks my heart, but motivates me like you wouldn’t believe.  First order of business, get the flag back up.

Via US Embassy FB

 

Isn’t this something you just loooong to read in State’s DipNote? Here is one unvarnished look about the work of the Foreign Service, and what happens beyond the picture perfect moments overseas.  But they’re busy over there on how “Sports Show We Have Power.” About —More Travel, More Tourists, More Jobs.  And something about Eating – individuals and leaders.

Read the entire post here.

I will miss 4G’s posts about her Things who have since been evacuated from post; she won’t see them again for months.  But I’m looking forward to more 4G posts.  You know, some diplomatic nightingale told me that the ABAs (also known as Angry Bearded Assholes, the  mob not the band) got really frustrated and all when the fire retardant carpets wouldn’t light. If anyone can write funny over this, that would be 4G.

The ABAs apparently also broke the flag pole in the compound so the only choice the responsible officer had at post was the gigantic flag previously used during the Fourth of July. That’s what you see in the photo above the very next day after the attack; don’t think vehicle in the picture is there by accident.

A quick screen capture of the aftermath of the attack below. Click on the image below to see more before and after photos of the embassy compound. Breaks your heart.

Before/after photos of US Embassy Tunis

In a previous post, I threw a fit about those “It’s not our job to stop people from taking things” gardeners  in Benghazi. I should have noted that those are the exceptions. The motor pool employees who saved the mission’s USG vehicles here are all local employees. They saved the official vehicles rather than try and save their personal vehicles. Some 68 personal vehicles were reportedly torched. Imagine that.  (I don’t know that car insurance companies cover the total loss from a mob attack).  These local employees are the familiar ones you all know from post to post, loyal and heroic; the same ones who stay behind when our American employees are evacuated, the same ones who sometimes become targets as well.

As I write this, I’m thinking of the family left behind by Qassim M. Aklan, a local employee at the US Embassy in Sanaa who was shot dead last Thursday.  Yemeni officials said the killing bore the hallmarks of an attack by the al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen.

And so — under siege, our Foreign Service people called/texted their loved ones not knowing if they were ever going to see them again. Then they kept working as they’ve been trained to do.

Meanwhile, back home, our Angry Beardless Politicians continue to bicker and play the game of Who’s More Angry Than a Toddler.