First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
All diplomatic families periodically must leave one posting and move to a new one.
These moves usually involve returning to one’s own capital city for consultations before heading to the new post, or for debriefings about the place you have just left.
There are medical appointments to sort out health issues; but there is also time to take care of personal matters, including a vacation break before charging into a new job. That also becomes time to catch up with friends and relatives – especially ageing parents or adult children living on their own.
In our case, we had just finished nearly five years in Tokyo – our second time in Japan.
It was a great place to live and we had stayed an extra year to ensure both daughters could graduate from the same high school, but it was now time to leave.
Our original plan was a posting in Jakarta, Indonesia, for another challenging job at a tricky time in the life of that nation, but family health issues had derailed that plan.
We resigned ourselves to an assignment in Washington (a great city to live in, but who really wants to be deep in a bureaucracy if one’s goal has been to explore the world), until, quite suddenly, a position in South Africa beckoned instead.
For us, the quality of the medical care and the proximity to my wife’s family became the deciding factors and so we returned to South Africa for the third time.
Accordingly, our younger daughter, my wife and I left Japan and worked our way across the US, dragging an intimidating pile of luggage, plus two cats in their carriers, and a bulging file of the documents needed to import those animals into the US, then through Germany and on to South Africa.
By early September, the medical issues were resolved successfully and we were poised to leave the US.
For the next-to-last piece of our particular puzzle, I drove to the US Animal Plant Health Inspection Station (APHIS) in Annapolis, Maryland – 50km from Washington – to get our veterinary documents certified.
There was just one last task: to pick up the full medical clearance letter from the doctor (to hand over to the State Department’s medical office) so we could depart without further difficulties. As we waited in his office for the doctor to sign that medical release, a stranger came rushing into the office and she screamed to everyone in the waiting room, “They’ve bombed the Pentagon!” and then ran out, presumably to terrorise yet more people.
After that revelation, we took our precious letter and immediately drove to the nearest supermarket and grabbed two grocery carts and my wife and I raced through the aisles, filling those carts with supplies because, well, who knew what was coming next?
At the checkout counter, however, it became stunningly clear we had collected items for leisurely al fresco lunches – handmade pastas and various sauces, artisanal dips, exotic fruits and exorbitantly priced specialty cheeses, chips and crackers, gourmet sliced meats and smoked fish.
No survival mode foods; no post-apocalypse hard rations like tinned tuna, beans, dried beef, peanut butter, bottled water or powdered milk. Not yet.
We rushed back to the house we were staying in temporarily to contemplate next steps.
Long-time friends had offered us their house as they had just departed for a multi-week trip to Morocco and the Middle East, and they said we could stay as long as needed. (It turned out their trip, like our Washington stopover, would become much longer, once all the international flights were grounded.)
Our thoughts then turned to our children – where were they and were they safe?
Our younger daughter was with American school friends she had kept in touch with and they were shopping and going around museums downtown.
Our older daughter, a university student, had gone to her classes in a building across the street from the White House on that early autumn morning. She usually used the subway to get to class, but, almost immediately, the authorities were locking down the city – closing much of the subway system and routing traffic out of the downtown streets away from the Capitol Building, the many Smithsonian Institution buildings and various cabinet department headquarters buildings, and past the White House as well.
Nobody knew if additional targets were on the agenda of whomever it was, doing whatever it was they were planning.
In our temporary quarters, we could see on television as the hijacked aircraft struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center – images repeated over and over, even as increasingly dire updates kept coming.
The massive buildings had been hit by aircraft and then collapsed and, at street level, thousands of people were now covered by that powdery dust as they walked, dazed, away from the disaster – even as police, fire, rescue vehicles and personnel streamed into harm’s way. The television stayed on permanently.
Later, we learned of friends in New York City who were among the thousands doggedly fleeing the disaster on foot – like so many others, unable to fully grasp what had occurred.
We finally located our two daughters by phone (although our calls to cellphones took hours to connect as millions of other anxious callers around the nation overloaded the national cellphone grid). Thankfully, our older daughter had left downtown Washington as soon as possible, especially as it was unclear whether more hijacked airplanes would fall out of the sky and crash into other national landmarks.
She fled, at first on foot, until she reached a still-open subway station.
Our younger daughter had spontaneously joined in an outpouring of empathy for those who had lost their lives in an impromptu candlelight vigil. Later that evening, she finally returned safely to her friend’s house where she had been staying. Meanwhile, I was trying to get some clarity about our onward flight reservations. Information was virtually impossible because the entire nation’s civilian air fleet had been grounded in a continent-sized no-fly zone – except for Air Force fighter jets and Airforce One.
When I finally reached an airline reservations clerk, it was obvious they had no more information than I did and it took us nearly two weeks to lock in new reservations for our onward travel.
And those cats! By now we had almost forgotten about them. They were at the vet, awaiting our departure, and we had to keep booking them in for extra time, and to return to that APHIS office twice more since those permits expired after a week.
Once commercial flights resumed, the people at APHIS took pity on us and gave us our final certificat gratis, a gift from one government officer to another in a stressful time. Meanwhile, the two extended families of our traveller hosts kept calling to ask where our friends were, if they were safe, and if the government would help them return. Not surprisingly, nobody we talked to at the State Department could give us more information than we were getting from the all-news TV channels.
As the days wore on, I called the office where I was already supposed to be at work in South Africa, to reassure colleagues-to-be that everything would be okay, even if it was clear everything was not okay – and that no one knew what might come next.
Drawing on that gourmet haul, we hosted a farewell party for ourselves with some friends (with a touch of mordant humour we called it our “end of the world” party). It was a pretty sombre evening since there was really only one topic on everybody’s mind: What’s next?
Eventually we confirmed airline reservations; retrieved our cats from their boarding place; double-checked on the equanimity of our older daughter; rounded up our younger daughter; and boarded our flight to Frankfurt. There, we met friends for a short reunion, and then boarded our flight to South Africa. As we passed through Frankfurt airport, every few metres, standing with weapons at port arms, was a German soldier or policeman, eyeballing everyone as potential terrorists or would-be hijackers.
Although no one knew what would come next, one thing we knew now, like so many others, the world we understood of a post-Cold War, triumphal, era of American hyper-powerdom, was over.
There would be retribution against al-Qaeda, the “war on terror”, the rise of a new right in America, a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, the deadly muddle of the Iraqi invasion – all of that and so much else would come along during the next 20 years. But it was definitively not a safer world.
As a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released last week found: “The sense among Americans that the Sept. 11 attacks permanently changed life in the U.S.A. has grown, not faded – as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches and a new peril threatens the nation.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
"Five exclamation marks - the sure sign of an insane mind." ~ Terry Pratchett
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved