Friday, October 31, 2008

48 Hours in Jeddah

I'm going to split this up into a number of posts, because there's too many disparate stories to fit into one. A party at the Ethiopian consulate, an underground Saudi rave, snorkling in the Red Sea at an incognito beach open only to expats, and the bizarrely unforgettable experience of flying on Saudia Airlines. We can get to the fun later on, but first I want to open with one of the most heartwrenching stories of my life.

When I was doing research during A-100 on the places I might go, the case files for Jeddah and Riyadh all dealt heavily with the 2004 consulate attack in Jeddah. I don't remember it happening; it's a sad truth that we're so inured to bombings and violence around the world that we don't really pay attention to many of them, unless we have a personal stake or interest in them. In 2004, joining the Foreign Service was far from my mind - those of you who have followed my writing for years may remember my (thankfully) failed attempts to get a job at the NSA around that time - so it's probably not surprising that the attack didn't then catch my eye. However, my trip to Jeddah made the reality of the attack painfully clear.

I have links here and here, news reports about the attack. These articles are long on background information and short on details about the attack. Note that in the first link, the analyst focuses on the fact that no Americans died - "They didn't destroy the building or kill any Americans." So many news stories, including the coverage of the attack in Yemen last month, simply note that no Americans died while ignoring the fact that Americans make up a tiny percentage of any embassy community. Some of my closest friends and colleagues at the embassy are Somali, Sudanese, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, Syrian, and Jordanian - and that's just in my section. I give you this as the background for what was so moving about my visit to the consulate.

When I got there on Wednesday afternoon, I had an hour or so to kill while my friend Joe finished up his work for the week, so he introduced me to Ty, one of our security officers there, who gave me a tour of the compound. It's the old embassy from the 1950s, so it's somewhat rundown and located on an enormous lot - we had to tour on fourwheelers, because it would have taken an hour or more to walk it all. We ended our tour at the memorials to the five people killed in the 2004 attack, between the front gate and the main consulate building. The granite blocks are placed haphazardly on the lawn, where the victims fell. Ty told me that the attackers chased one of the embassy cars, carrying an American woman, towards the gates. One of the guards grabbed the American, tossed her into the safe haven right at the entrance, and ran the other way to distract the attackers. He was killed almost instantly. The other four victims, who just happened to be outside at the time, knew where she was hiding, and they were executed over a ninety-minute period because they refused to give up her location and her life. The Saudi government gave their families permanent legal status in the Kingdom for their sacrifices. The US government gave them plaques of commemoration.

My security every day depends on the hundreds of non-Americans working for us in the Kingdom. Many of them would be willing to give their lives for us, and some of them have or will do so. The next time a US installation is attacked somewhere - and I have no doubt that it will happen again - take a moment to think about the people who die in the most brutal ways with little hope of reward so that we Americans can be safe in places where we are hated.

4 comments:

  1. That is a humbling story. I'll think harder about those "non-American" casualty statistics next time I read a story like that.

    We know that the news focuses too little on non-American lives in foreign conflicts, but it's still amazing to me that there was no real mention of that kind of sacrifice.

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  2. Very moving,hannah. With all the xenophobic hysteria one so often hears from Americans, its humbling to think that there are people who've never set foot on our shores who would give their lives for Americans and for the U.S. government.

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  3. Your final line hits like a Mac truck, but it is so true. I think about attacks here in the EP, and the men who gave their lives to protect others, every time I pass one of our security guards. It's a reality I never take for granted.

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  4. Yeah, there are multiple levels of coming to terms with the possibility of facing violence in your life... the knowledge of it, knowing that it happened to someone you know, and seeing it happen before your very eyes. I've only hit stage 2, thankfully, but many of my coworkers in Riyadh were in Jeddah previously and knew the people who were killed there. It was almost more moving for me than, say, a large battlefield precisely because so few other people ever get to see it, or have ever heard of it.

    When I was staying in the EP last year, I was in the compound that had been attacked a few years earlier. That was all kinds of a head trip.

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