Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Heartbroken

One week on, and I'm still a bit in shock about the attack on our office in Benghazi.  I don't really want to hash through the details that took four of my colleagues from me.  Instead I want to share a few stories about the two I knew, and share links to sites raising funds for their families and in their memories.

I never met Sean Smith, but he and I are both members of an online community called Something Awful.  The members of SA (Goons) have a vibrant sub-community of people working at State, and we all kept an eye on where we were each stationed.  We also shared career advice to new arrivals in our midst, advice on how to prepare for entrance exams, and stories about the foibles and hilarity of serving in a large bureaucracy overseas.  When he told me that he was coming to Benghazi for a temporary stint, he asked what he could bring to us out here in Libya.  My immediate response (as I always tell TDYers) was a bottle of whiskey, but apparently his security colleagues told him that was a bad idea.  Sean was frustrated with the slow pace of the Libyan visa bureaucracy, but I worked with our local staff to convince him that he'd be able to arrive on time for his thirty-day stint in Benghazi.  We were planning a meet-up in Tripoli one weekend, or that I might come out for a short trip to Benghazi during his time here - it would be my first Goon Meet, and possibly the very first one ever to occur in Libya.  Cool!

As we all know, that didn't happen.  Just a few days before I left for the States, I talked to Sean on our inter-office communicator one Saturday afternoon, commiserating about shitty cafeteria food  and the long working hours.  He was so excited to be there, and clearly such a good guy.  I've heard stories now from across the world about how many people whose lives he touched, including people I went to high school with.  Some of his friends from SA have created a fundraiser to support his family, his wife and two children who are left to pick up the pieces after his death.

Ambassador Stevens was amazing.  What else can I say?  I wanted to stay in Tripoli a second year to keep working there, and I only spent three months with him.  He was so funny, so thoughtful, so kind, and so damned good at his job.  On my third day in Tripoli, I was thrown into the car with him and told to go take notes in a meeting with the Prime Minister - eep!  On the way back to the office, Chris asked me what I thought were the most important parts of the meeting.  I listed points X, Y, and Z, nervously avoiding making any commentary or analysis of the meeting.  He listened to me avidly, nodding, and then said, "That's great, definitely.  What about G, H, and I too?  I thought that was really important too, maybe we should include those points too in the reporting on this meeting."  I felt valued, because he listened to my points.  When I started writing the cable after the meeting, I realized that my points were secondarily important to the very crucial things he mentioned, but that he wasn't going to crush a new arrival at post for not being as in-tune with local politics as he was.

Once I got to know him better and became more comfortable with Libya and with the Ambassador himself, things got more fun.  We'd run out of meetings and frantically take notes on napkins so we wouldn't forget what we'd been told in a situation where we couldn't take notes obviously.  We piled into vehicles five-deep when we left the office at the end of the day, squeezed in to the only vehicles with space for his lanky frame.  He shared meals with the rest of us in the chow hall, speculating about what exactly was being served each night and hoping that the next day would provide something more palatable.

Libyans loved him.  I don't know how to state it any more clearly, but everyone loved him.  Small kids, young politicians, journalists, and little old ladies would swarm him for photos.  He knew everyone in the country - if he hadn't met them in his first period in Tripoli, from 2006-2009, he knew them from the time he spent on the ground in Benghazi during the revolution.  He lost friends during the revolution, as did almost every Libyan, and he respected their losses.  He supported the revolution, but his real passion was rebuilding free Libya.  At every crisis that emerged (and there were plenty), he was calm, collected, and had the right Libyan authorities on the phone to find out what was going on or what we could do to mitigate the problem.  He was the person everyone wanted to see at any big event in Tripoli, but he never wanted to take the focus away from the real heroes, the Libyan people who are working every day to make their country better and stronger.

The Ambassador would wander from office to office during the work day, on a hunt for candy and a friendly smile.  In almost every meeting, he borrowed one of my pens and chewed on it absent-mindedly while he contemplated his next move.  Chagrined, he'd always apologize after he realized that he'd taken another of my pens.  I stocked my bag with cheap Bic pens and ordered several packages of my preferred pens from Amazon.  His desk probably still has a cup filled with my half-chewed pens.  He had a great sense of humor - one time, he asked me if I could find a press briefing transcript for him on whitehouse.com.  Seeing the look on my face (at the mention of a notorious pornographic site, not the Presidential web page), he quickly corrected himself and said, "No, no, don't look there, they'll shut down our computer network access if you download that, and I have to have my Facebook."

Chris relied on text messages to communicate with us, so it was nothing to get a message from him at 2 in the morning informing you that you were going to a meeting with him the next morning at 8 AM, or that he was having a party in his residence for some new arrival at post.  The last time I saw him was the night I left Tripoli on vacation, when we had a farewell party for a colleague who was known for his particularly well styled hair.  I inherited a tub of hair gel from someone who had left post previously (don't ask), and word got around that I had product for offer.  I got a text from the Ambassador that simply said, "Gel?"  When I delivered the gel to him, he proudly dug in the tub and slathered his hair up into what can only be called a hot mess of hilarity.  Before I left Tripoli, I hugged my departing colleague and laughed with Chris about his close approximation of my colleague's habitual outfits.  And now he's gone.

Ambassador Stevens' family has created a website to collect treasured memories and tales about the lives he touched.  They are also collecting funds for an as-yet undetermined charity to honor his memory.  Nothing says more about Chris than the photo his family selected for the top of the page - seated on a very diminutive donkey with an extremely goofy smile.  

8 comments:

  1. Hannah, this is a beautiful post. Thank you for continuing to paint in the details of these coworkers/friends that you were fortunate to know and work with. Big hugs to you in mourning their loss and in processing what the next step are for you. I imagine your world was turned upside down a bit too. I know you will carry their memory on and be stronger and better at your job for knowing them. God's peace.

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  2. Very nice post and tribute to Ambassador Stevens. Sorry for the loss to your colleague. God bless.

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  3. What a powerful post. You have captured these two people so eloquently and made them more than just names or photos - something the mainstream media often fails to do. My sympathies as you grieve your fallen colleagues.

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  4. A truly touching tribute to Ambassador Stevens and a beautiful way to be remembered!!!

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  5. Oh Hannah, thanks for sharing these stories and insights. They are a fitting tribute to men who sound like they were really something. Take care

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  6. This is a beautiful post, Hannah. Thank you for sharing it.

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  7. Great post. It's nice to hear first-hand what everyone says about Amb. Stevens; that he was a really good guy.

    Stay safe.

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