Realities of Diplomatic Life
Reality #1: Going to lunch could cost an arm or a leg, or one snuffed light bulb, seriously.
I woke up last Sunday to news of another bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. The initial reports indicate that some U.S. Embassy staffers were also wounded in the attack. The Luna Caprese restaurant where the bombing occurred is a well-known haunt for expatriates, notably diplomats, journalists, and aid agency officials according to reports.
I felt like I was holding my breath for hours until I heard later reports specifying a total of 12 people wounded - none life-threatening (the wounded included four FBI agents and an embassy staffer). This is one thing that folks back home do not always understand about life in the Foreign Service – that one could lose a limb or one’s life by simply going out to lunch or dinner while overseas. Sure, the same thing could happen in the U.S. just by driving a car but really - no one has yet been blown away while eating a Vegetable and Swiss Frittata.
In the Foreign Service, this is a dark cloud that is never too far away from our thoughts. I go through my normal day like a normal person back home, of course – go to work, send the kids to school, go grocery shopping, meet our contacts and friends, but all the while with fingers crossed - that today would be a good day, and our loved ones would return home, safe from harm. A bit dramatic you think? Perhaps, but no matter how you hash it, official Americans are moving targets whether they are in Prague or Amman. Lawrence Foley was shot as he walked to his car outside his home in Jordan. In 2006, David Foy died in a suicide car bomb attack outside the US consulate in Karachi.
I held my breath too...I have a good friend serving there. Thankfully, she is safe and thankfully none of the wounds to our folks weren't life-threatening. But these attacks are a reality of our lives even as Americans forget them within days. Foley and Foy were killed only because they were there serving. Foley was shot because he was an "easy" American target, not because of anything he in particular had done. He just represented us. And Foy had the misfortune of pulling into the parking lot at the consulate at the same time as the suicide bomber. Again, he wasn't a specific target...Americans serving our country in the Foreign Service were the target.
Each of us carries these people with us. Each bombing at an embassy or consulate is personal, and every person killed there, whether American or Foreign Service National (locally hired staff) is the loss of a family member. We join knowing these are the risks, but we join anyway because we love our country and feel strongly the call to serve. I don't think most Americans here at home know that.
Reality #2: Paranoia can grow like a weed – you learn to tend it
I can get paranoid at times, true, but it pays to have a healthy sense of paranoia when there are people who are trying to get us wherever and whenever they can. Most folks I know in the FS take their security seriously but we also learn to make adjustments to balance the security needs with living a “normal” life overseas; because I know that if I don’t, this weed can quickly grow wild. The Green Zone can be as real as the one in Iraq, or as real as any fortified house in the mind.
A little paranoia is a good thing...especially overseas. We all know at the very least that our host government is likely watching us. I have a co-worker who served in Vietnam. They knew their apartments were bugged, and each year a birthday gift or cake would show up in the apartment at the appropriate time. On his second year, no birthday cake. So he said loudly, "I can't believe the apartment forgot my birthday. It remembers everyone else's birthday!" And within five minutes, there was a knock at the door and a Vietnamese man with a birthday cake, smiling and apologizing for being late.
But in all seriousness, you are forced overseas to adjust to things Americans back home never consider. I came to accept that random gunfire was likely coming from Palestinians celebrating a wedding...unless it came from the checkpoint near my house, in which case it likely came from an Israeli soldier. And he wasn't celebrating. My take-away from there is a discomfort when helicopters fly overhead. In Jerusalem, that meant that the Israelis were looking for a suicide bomber. Groups of young men unnerve me too, a leftover from being robbed at knife point there, but that could happen anywhere. The difference is having to deal with a law enforcement system that does not share your language, and may not share your laws and values. Thank God for our Foreign Service Nationals, or it would have been unbearable.Reality #3: We’d like to think we’re in the driver’s seat, we’re not
The Associated Press reported yesterday that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry had summoned U.S. Charge d'Affaires Jonathan Moore to convey a "strong advice of the Belarusian side to cut the number of the U.S. Embassy personnel."
...I hope this is nothing more than posturing (after all the U.S. Ambassador has already gone back to DC for consultations) but if the Belarusian Government insists on this personnel cut, this could spiral into a tit for tat, with a reduction of the Belarusian Embassy presence in Washington, D.C. And caught in the midst of this are diplomatic families on both sides that could get separated, children pulled out of schools, jobs left at short notices, etc. etc. An unpopular policy, a slight, a row – it could be as huge an issue as an elephant or as tiny as an ant, we can still become pawns in a diplomatic game – such is life in the diplomatic corp ... I'm not looking for sympathy, I'm just saying ...
And I agree, one thousand percent.