The Battles of Bangui

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by June Carter Perry

Sitting at my desk in March 1996, with a large picture window behind me, in my role as deputy chief of mission in Bangui—the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR)—it seemed a normal lunch hour. Several people had left the chancery, including the ambassador and the consular officer.

The silence of the moment was suddenly broken when the country’s then president, Ange-Felix Patasse, called.  In French, he asked first for the ambassador, but since she was away, he spoke to me and uttered one line: “Madame, the soldiers are on the move,” and hung up. Seconds later I heard the crack of gunshots and fell to the floor, far from the picture window.  I knew the shots were close.  Grabbing my cellphone, I called the State Department’s operations center to give a quick brief.  The officer who answered was a woman who had been in my entering Foreign Service class. “Vonda,” I said, “I’m calling you from the floor of my office.  The military here is beginning to attack the government and we have shots in the embassy area.”  She responded that she’d write up a brief for the secretary of state immediately and told me to call back as soon as safe to do so.  My first reaction was not one of fright, but to go into reporting mode: “start a log if there’s a crisis.”  I did so on yellow legal paper, aiming to capture every shot or movement.

About five minutes later, the consular office ran into my office, hair askew, his normally placid, serious demeanor mutated into one of fear.  He couldn’t get home to his wife and children.  Manned barricades of soldiers with AK-47’s barred access to the diplomatic residential section located along the winding Bangui River Road separating the CAR from the Congo.   I instructed him to grab the list of all American citizens registered with the embassy so they could be told of the dangerous situation and advised to stay in place until further notified.  All this happened like clockwork; I don’t remember feeling anything except the need to get the job done.  That is, I must notify Washington (check), start the log (check), and find the ambassador (check).  Fortunately, she too came running into the secured area.  Her chauffeur caught wind of the fighting as soon as they had begun traveling.

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