A Dangerous Welcome

Charlene Duline

© Copyright 2020 by Charlene Duline

Photo of Charlene.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
- Ambrose Redmoon

As our caravan of three U.S. Embassy cars rolled through the dark, empty streets of Monrovia, I wondered if this would be the last night of my life. Liberia remained under martial law and a curfew had been announced by Head of State Samuel Doe shortly after he and 27 other soldiers disemboweled President Tolbert and took over the country on April 12, 1980. Doe had declared that no one was allowed on the city streets from midnight to 6:00 a.m., and here was our small caravan of cars moving through the capital city of Monrovia at 4:30 a.m.

Two weeks earlier the Chargė d’Affairs Edward J. Perkins, stunned those of us attending a Country Team Meeting (composed of the heads of all the U.S. agencies represented at the embassy) by announcing the arrival of our new ambassador, William Lacy Swing. Perkins said, “He will be arriving in two weeks and all heads of agencies, and any family members who want to go, will meet him at the airport.”

He continued and this is what stunned us, “We should be at the airport by 5: 30 a.m.”

We were shocked at the announcement that we would leave for the airport at 4:30 a.m. since Liberia was under a strict curfew, and a curfew violation meant death. The soldiers were ordered to shoot first. No questions would be asked or answered. No one was to be on the streets during curfew. We would be on the streets of Monrovia and the highway to the airport for over an hour. I shiver now at the thought.

The Chargé continued, “I will get a special pass from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to permit our embassy cars to be on the streets.”

I quickly spoke up, “Most of the soldiers can’t read.”
People chuckled uncomfortably.
The Chargé replied, “The soldiers will know what the passes mean.”
I seriously doubted it.
Somebody else mentioned that once we were safely past the Presidential Mansion, we still had to pass Camp Schieffelin, the military barracks where the road would be blocked. Our military attaches who were actively advising the fledgling government, piped up and said that would be no problem because their “friend,” Major Somebody, would be waiting there to allow us to pass immediately. Yeah, right, I thought.

After the meeting some officers expressed doubts as to the safety of a caravan of American embassy cars breaking curfew to go to the airport. There was no question but that we would go. An ambassador is the ruling force at every embassy. He represents the President of the United States. When he walks into a room, we all stand as a sign of respect. I used to chuckle when I was in Washington because whenever the USIA Director walked into a conference room, we Foreign Service Officers sprang to our feet while the Civil Service staffers looked at us in amazement as they continued sitting. There was no question but that we would be at the airport to welcome our new ambassador, maybe with bullet holes and all, but we would do our damnedest to be there.

Some thought the ambassador would tell us not to travel to the airport until curfew was lifted, that he would just tool around the airport like an ordinary man until we felt it was safe enough to get on the road, i.e., when the curfew lifted at 6 a.m. Alas, that was not going to happen. The only question that I had, which I mostly kept to myself, but which was probably glaringly obvious to the Chargé was: Will we make it to the airport? I sensed nervousness among those of us who were obliged to go to the airport, but only I had the audacity to say anything to the Chargé. During the next two weeks I kept reminding him about the risks we were taking in breaking the curfew. He appeared to dismiss my concerns, yet something I said must have gotten through to him because a few days before the ambassador’s arrival he announced that female dependents would not go to the airport, but female officers would. I felt sick. Well, I thought, at least he recognized the danger. We Foreign Service officers had taken an oath to “protect and defend….” Sounds kind of lame when we weren’t going to war, doesn’t it?

As the Acting Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Information Agency I was to be in the welcoming party. Against my will and better judgment, I now found myself in the second car of the caravan praying that that I would live long enough to see the next African dawn.
It was my job to have a photographer at the airport to photograph the arrival of the second most important person in the country, the U.S. Ambassador. I got the best photographer in town, Sando Moore, son of the Minister of Culture, Bai T. Moore, who spent the night at my residence in order to leave with us at 4:30 a.m. He apparently felt that he would be safe with American diplomats because there was no hesitation on his part. In the dark that morning, he and I drove the two blocks to the embassy and joined the other officers in official embassy cars. We were in the second car of the three-car caravan. In the lead car were Chargé Perkins, the Embassy Counselor, Al Jazynka, and their driver. In my car were the Political Officer, the Special Assistant to the Ambassador, the photographer, our driver, and me, Acting Director of USIA. In the third car were the Acting Director of USAID, Edward Anderson; the Acting Director of the Peace Corps, Beverlee Bruce, other Acting agency heads and their driver.

I thought to myself, most of us are Acting Heads of our agencies, so if we are killed, they will still have the Heads of agencies. We are the unwilling collateral in case anything goes wrong. Such thoughts are not good ones to have before attempting a dangerous venture of breaking curfew. Why does one think of such things when one is scared? It’s like being on a plane for several hours and suddenly wondering what is keeping the plane up in the air. That is not the time to ponder such questions.

The military attaches were to join the caravan after we passed the Presidential Mansion since they lived on the outskirts of Monrovia. It was their job to get us beyond the military barracks where good ole Major Somebody would be popping his toes awaiting our arrival to see us safely through.

As we drove through the deserted city, I thought of all the problems we could encounter. The lead car was a long, black American automobile with American flags flying from the front fenders, flags that could easily be mistaken for Liberian flags. The Liberian flag is modeled on the American flag. I was concerned that the soldiers at the Presidential Mansion would at first think it was a Liberian official’s car, and then realizing that it was not, might think we were pretending to be Doe officials, and they might open fire with their semi-automatic weapons. Plus, most of the soldiers could not read. I could only close my eyes and pray as we drove through the empty streets. When the caravan reached the Presidential Mansion, we stopped. Liberian soldiers quickly surrounded each car, weapons aimed at us. The soldier standing next to our driver’s door rapped sharply on the window for the driver to roll it down. The driver was petrified and didn’t move. Again, the soldier rapped on the window with his gun. The driver was paralyzed with fear. I could see the soldier becoming more agitated. I was seated behind the driver, and I leaned forward and ordered him to lower the window. He did so and handed the soldier the pass that he only glanced at. I was still leaning forward and my eyes wandered to the pass. To my horror the soldier held it upside down. He could not read it.   My mind shrieked, “I knew it! I knew it!” I prayed that a bit of sanity would prevail in the midst of controlled chaos. Our soldiers and those at the third car kept their eyes on the soldiers at the lead car. We knew if anything went wrong at the lead car, we were all as good as gone.

Liberian soldiers are quick on the trigger. Everything and everybody is suspect. Whenever I visited the Presidential Mansion, I was painfully aware of armed soldiers every few feet. I always felt that if somebody let loose a loud fart, bullets would be flying all around the place. Finally, the soldiers at the lead car stepped back and motioned for all three cars to continue. There was a huge collective sigh of relief. As the sun made its rise into the sky, our spirits also soared.

And then, oh then, we arrived at Camp Schieffelin the barracks where Major Somebody was to meet us. Major Somebody was fast asleep in his bed and we sat and sat while someone went to wake him. I could just picture what was going on. Who was going to wake up a soldier who was no doubt a member of those who had disemboweled the country’s president and shot the other heads of government on the beach for all to see? He probably slept with a gun under his pillow or at least nearby and being rudely awakened he was liable to grab that gun and shoot whoever was trying to wake him. I know that little Private shook in his boots. He would have knocked at the door and stood to the side of the door remembering that bullets can and do go through doors. Once the Major was awake and alert, the Private then could open the door and tell him that an entourage from the U.S. Embassy awaited. After about 15 minutes the Major arrived to clear us to continue to the airport. There was much hilarity as our military guys got out of their car to greet the major. I wanted to thump their heads! Now we were free to continue our journey unimpeded. We arrived at the airport in time to collect ourselves before the plane landed.

Ambassador William Lacy Swing was the first one off the plane and he fairly danced down the metal steps. He was handsome, elegant, and unlike the waiting party of embassy officials, looked as if he had had a good night’s sleep on the long flight over the Atlantic.

We might have looked neat, but every one of us felt as disheveled as if we had been tossed about in a cement mixer. But we kept smiling as the ambassador worked his way down the receiving line, beaming at each member of his Country Team. Little did he know that we were all smiling with relief because we had survived the night drive to the airport in the midst of curfew. It was a trip none of us would ever want to make again, but, of course, we would if need be. After all, we serve at the pleasure of the ambassador and the President of the United States.

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