03 Feb 08
The phones begin to ring, again, finally. Since last night around 10pm there has been no one who could reach us. We received several emails from people letting us know they were trying to get through to us. “Cent sept, 107!” First in French; then again in English.“Here, we are here.”
News from the State Department reaches us, the French are mobilizing a convoy, and we are part of the group that will be evacuated. Gather your things and be ready to go within five minutes when they call. I glance at my watch, 1pm. We’ve been ready for four days with our three backpacks of essentials. The wonderful staff who hasn’t stopped smiling brings out plates of food, silverware and napkins fanned out as if serving a formal buffet. Tables are moved back inside from the veranda into the area that had been cleared the night before for sleeping. The heavy curtains still drawn, the overhead emergency light provides the only light.
We go back to our room one more time and glance over the nonessentials we have left. Gabriel tells me to grab the “Humanity for Politics” t-shirt that I was planning on leaving behind. I wore it the very first day in Chad on the way to UNHCR. The picture of me in our friend’s car reminds me of the excitement and determination I had to meet Fatna upon landing in N’Djamena on January 13th. I know we will be back in March, so I am not concerned about leaving most of my belongings behind. We head down to see room 102, which took heavy fire and where a new friend and UN aid worker had been taking a nap when the fire unfolded the previous day. Bullet holes, one the size of a small watermelon, went clear through to the wall and into the shower on the other side. We are lucky no one in the hotel was hurt.
I approach the plates of tomatoes and cucumbers, chicken and mushrooms and rice for one last plate, I hope, before leaving Le Meridien for now. I eat barely anything.
“Cinq Minutes. Cinq minutes.” With relieved hurriedness people begin to gather their luggage. We grab the bgan which has been our primary source of internet and contact with the outside world for the past five days, and the last item we needed to pack. We gather donations for the staff, who have continue to serve us through this all. I hope they are rewarded, as their resiliency is unmatched. I hope Yves, Achta, and Abakar make it home soon and that their families are safe.
Glass crunches under my feet as I walk through the front doors for the first time since before the attack on the hotel. French soldiers have created a line of protection, and have moved the vehicles that had been placed in front of the gate. We pass through and towards the convoy of 10 or so tanks which have lined the street.
Once inside, I am in the front and can get clear footage through the front window of where we are going. My peripheral vision is limited and one of the many soldiers aboard obstructs most of the view with his legs as he rides up top. The streets are deserted. As we turn around and head down the street where two days earlier I had seen a tank, two of the men from the hotel ride off on the motorcycles, using the convoy as protection. I hope they make it home okay. The General Manager of the hotel rides with us and we are grateful for the time we spent at Le Meridien. Ashis’ neighbor has joined us. He describes the hole which has replaced Ashis’ apartment and his business by a rocket. Again, we are lucky that no one we know was hurt.
The nine of us begin to sweat as our ride turns from 10 minutes to 20 until we arrive to pick up others from the Novetell. Beyond a few stops, we arrive safely at what appears to be the French Military Base that others have also been evacuated to. Passports, paperwork, luggage search, medical check, chocolate bar. They don’t tell us much but we hear that we will be flown to Liberia first then either to France or the US after that. Although we can still hear a few gunshots now and then, the pit in my stomach is almost gone and my antsy energy has left me. We are going to be home soon enough.
I want to say thank you to our team, friends and family who have worked tirelessly over the last five days, and also during our entire trip out here to the camps in Eastern Chad. Without your support and notes of love and encouragement, I would have felt alone and forgotten. But I never felt this way through any of the last three weeks, and especially not the last five days. Everything from contacting media to 1:00am conference calls to little notes about coffee and soy milk from my mother have been more than appreciated, more than I can describe in words. I love and thank you.