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What is it like as a Foreign Service dependent to be caught at a capital city torn by revolt and civil strife? And then to be evacuated in the middle of the night, not to see one's father, the Foreign Service employee, for a matter of months? The author knows well what it's like, as the reader will see from the following account. — Ed.

Firecrackers by Rebekkah Laeuchli

Whenever I hear a firecracker I always have a vague fear it's a gunshot. Logically, I know that in the safe area of Budapest I now live in, it's not likely to be that. But at the same time, in the back of my head I hear a gun firing and I see my friend diving to the ground, even though she's too far from the window to be hit by a stray bullet. We lived in the Central African Republic and I was ten. The firecracker gunshots came in both the first and second mutiny, but the machine gun fire only in the second. The first mutiny wasn't serious enough to warrant our leaving the country. In the second one, many people lost every thing they owned.

You remember silly details sometimes. For instance, I know that the morning the second mutiny started was a Saturday, and we had crepes with strawberries and whipped cream for breakfast. I think Daddy was called to the embassy shortly afterwards. He's a diplomat. We didn't see him again for six weeks.

At first we didn't hear any gunshots. And we didn't know just how much more serious than the last one this coup was going to be. During the first mutiny we were moved to the American embassy for a few days and went home when things quieted down. We didn't have much to do at the embassy and were very bored. We could play outside in the walled compound, and I remember spanking my friend's little brother when he misbehaved. I think he ran away or something when we were supposed to go in. He cried and Mimi had to comfort him. I was vaguely repentant. The second mutiny came about a month after the first; the unpaid army rebelled against the president's bodyguard. When I think back to the first afternoon and evening, I have an impression of a tension-edged calm. Last time hadn't been too bad, and I was nervous, not scared.

By Sunday we'd heard more gunfire than we'd heard throughout the entire first mutiny. It was suggested we might have to evacuate, an idea I recorded excitedly in my diary. This diary was a recent acquisition, as I was a big Anne Frank fan at the time. I kept the journal fairly faithfully, in a self-important tone. On the first outbreak of violence I wrote grandly, "Sarah and Naomi [my younger sisters] are scared." The best thing about the diary is its smell. When I sniff the paper I feel I am back in Africa, I can hear the black night with machine gun fire echoing through it, and I can sense again in my mouth the peculiar way the air tastes when it's dangerous to be out of doors. I dream that taste sometimes.

When the second mutiny broke out, we didn't go to the Embassy, the Embassy came to us. Our house was by the river and surrounded by tall walls topped with barbed wire, and patrolled by several guards. It had been the Marine residence before the Marines left when the country was deemed stable. This meant that our house was very secure, although it also meant there were no Marines. So all the spouses and children from embassy families moved in. We had five bedrooms, as well as a study and large living room. Each family was assigned a room. We got our parents' room, and I resented heartily that another family was staying in mine. My brother, sister, and I slept on the floor; Naomi, the youngest, shared the bed with Mama. At night I could hear Mama talking on the radio as reports came in.

During the day most of the kids crowded into the study to play video games or watch movies. Mimi's older sister, home from college, kept an eye on us. The chaos level was high. I classified a generous amount of the children as brats, although from rereading my diary I get the impression I was fairly bratty myself, if not downright arrogant. Most of what I recall is from the extremely egotistical view of a child.

I don't remember what day we left. A French military truck came and picked us up. I do remember the night before; Daddy called and told us to pack. Mama said that after we left our house would probably be looted, and Sarah (who was almost eight) started to cry. I decided this was a cue to be a bright ray of sunshine and hazarded, "Maybe they won't loot our house."

Mama shook her head. "Daddy says to think of all this stuff as gone."

So we went into our separate rooms to pick out the things we wanted to take. Clothing was the least important. My favorite stuffed pig, my diary, the Bible that was Mama's when she was little, these were coming with me. I picked up my blue bunny to say goodbye to him, and to apologize to him and all the other stuffed animals because they couldn't come too. We slit open Sarah's enormous toy horse and took all his stuffing out to make him fit in a suitcase. Mama packed the birthday presents that had been ordered from the States months in advance to make sure they arrived in time.

We left the next day. For some reason I remember drinking coconut milk through a straw straight out of a coconut before going. I don't know why. I do know that it left me with an impression that coconut milk was delicious, which was only dispelled many years later when our family was posted to another African country. Riding through the city of Bangui was surreal. The streets were deserted of any normal people. Instead French soldiers camped by the roads and in the ditches. We passed Mimi's school, the hotel, thatched mud huts, large foreign residences, the prison. Everything seemed skewed.

There were lots of missionary families at the military base, both from the city and from out in the bush. My friend Melissa and her family had been evacuated from their house at the start of the violence. Rebels promptly broke in and looted, stealing everything they'd left behind. Melissa carefully packed all her doll clothes and accessories, and then in the rush and stress left the doll behind. Each family was assigned a cot at the base and handed out water and rations. We were told not to waste. In the afternoon we boarded an airplane but got off again. At the time I just thought there was something wrong with the plane, but later found out that fighting near the runway had prevented take-off. It was nighttime before we lined up to board again. A disturbance broke out a little way behind where I was waiting with my mother, brother, and sisters.

"Where's the doctor?"

"Doctor George!"

"Hey doc!"

A man was lying on the ground, jerking and twitching. His loss of control struck me as extremely horrible.

"What's wrong with him?" asked one of the kids.

"Shh." It was Mimi's older sister who answered. "He's having a seizure."

The doctor said he would be all right after he had fluid pumped into him; he hadn't had enough water. I promptly felt thirsty and dizzy and asked for a drink, which Mama gave me. I don't know what happened to the man. We boarded the plane about eleven, I think. It was very loud and very uncomfortable. About an hour later we landed in Cameroon. A bus with lights that glared white took us to the hotel. I don't remember the hotel too well. Mostly I remember the swimming pool. It was very large and curved beautifully. We spent a lot of time there. I wrote irately in my diary that our piano was back in Bangui along with all our music and my fingers would get weak from not practicing. We didn't stay at the hotel too long. Mimi, her sister, and brother had to wait there after we left, because their mother was still in the C.A.R., at the embassy where Daddy was too. We traveled with Melissa and her family, flying to the States by way of Switzerland. When we got to Washington we went to a hotel for a little while, and then to stay with our grandparents.

The French eventually put down the rebellion, and Daddy came home the beginning of July. The mutiny had started May 18th. Daddy was a lot thinner than when we last saw him and I kept calling him 'Granddad' by accident, since it had been so long since I called anyone 'Daddy'.

This all happened around nine years ago. Our house wasn't looted after all. Eventually our stuff was packed up and shipped to us. The movers stole a few things, but only a few. Houses all around ours were broken into and everything stolen, sometimes including the roof. We didn't lose very much and I got my blue bunny again. Now I hardly ever think about the mutiny. Only when I hear firecrackers. They still make me a little nervous.



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