Be careful what you ask for
Be careful what you ask for, they say, because you might get it. Wish to lose 30 pounds and you might wind up needing a limb amputated. I wished for a vacation in Senegal because I had lived in neighboring Guinea for more than three years without visiting other West African countries. I wound up relaxing in Dakar for a week – not on a planned vacation with my husband, but alone, after fleeing violence in Guinea.
I had come to Labe, Guinea in 2003 with a volunteer teaching organization. I stayed to marry an Ivorian man who had lived in Guinea for 15 years (Ivory Coast borders Guinea to the southeast), piecing together teaching and development contracts. Labe is the regional capital of the Fouta Djallon, a beautiful highland region full of rolling hills and waterfalls. (Note that the word “beautiful” refers to the countryside, not central Labe).
During my stay in Guinea, I was registered with the U.S. embassy. For a week in 2005, I tried hundreds of times to phone the embassy to ask about paperwork for my upcoming wedding. Phone lines were always busy or unanswered (perhaps as a result of the huge number of Guineans who would like U.S. visas). I finally had to take the 12-hour trip to the capital to sort out the issues. Not surprisingly, this gave me a defeatist attitude about reaching the embassy.
The U.S. embassy then moved into a massive fortress across the road from Guinea’s national television office. How convenient, I thought. If Al Quaida attacks, the television cameras will be right there to cover it.
National Strikes – Common since 2005
Since 2005, Guinea has faced national strikes every few months, as trade unions protest the workers’ increasing difficulty to survive on their generally low wages (the inflation rate was more that 30 percent in 2005). These had become increasingly dangerous. For example, the strikes of November 2005 did not result in violence. In June 2006, however, several high school students in larger towns were shot while protesting that they could not take their graduation exams.
Another Strike – January, 2007
In January 2007, I heard that another strike was coming. As usual, we stocked up on supplies for the unknown duration. My household (my husband, two stepchildren, one cat, one dog, three goats, one sheep, eight rabbits and about 50 ducks) was better equipped than most to survive the coming lean time. We raise animals and have a three-hectare vegetable farm. During a general strike, all offices and stores are closed. Even those people who want to work or sell, risk harassment, violence if they are caught. Only small roadside stands or women carrying homegrown produce on their heads sell basic supplies. This lack of supplies and income causes many problems for poor urban Guineans who live from day to day.
Although our physical health didn’t suffer, it was hard on our mental health, to be stuck in the compound all the time. I kept up my morale partly by planning vacations in Senegal and Ghana with my Lonely Planet West Africa Guidebook.
What's The Anger About
Perhaps it was boredom – certainly anger at the government – that motivated protesters in most major towns to attack, loot, burn public buildings, destroying records of their own births, marriages and property in the process. Soldiers fired on the mobs, not surprisingly, killing a few.
The strike was suspended after President Lansana Conte agreed to name a new prime minister (the post had been vacant since April 2006, when a power play ousted former Prime Minister, Cellou Dallein Diallo). For the most part, life returned to normal, except that it took a week for fuel to reach the interior. By the time trucks arrived with gasoline and diesel, cars were lined up around the block, while swarms of motorcyclists and speculators with gas cans fought for their turn at the pump. (During strikes, fuel was being sold at two to five times the official price on the black market). The stations were dry within two days, by the time new fuel trucks arrived, people were already anxious to fuel up before the strike resumed. My husband got so frustrated waiting in line, he had to visit a Cuban doctor friend (who, luckily, lived near the service station) because his blood pressure had shot up to a dangerous level.
When the president named a prime minister that the population generally viewed as a puppet, Guineans started rioting again within hours. The president declared a state of martial law on February 12, reportedly letting soldiers help themselves to stores of weapons. Just to be on the safe side, the president reportedly brought in three truckloads of Liberian mercenaries to serve as his bodyguards, should his own military turn against him.
I had asked my mother to send me $500.00 via Western Union to prepare for the rumored resumption of the strike. However, my preoccupation getting the code numbers for the transaction and reaching the bank as soon as possible, distracted me from copying down the phone numbers sent out in messages from the embassy. When I returned to the internet club the next day to check my email again, there was no diesel to run the generator. (Electricity is frequently out in Guinea, often too weak to run computer, in any case). I lost my chance to make sure I had the most up-to-date contact information for the embassy.
Since rioters had already burned most of the public buildings, those who were bent on destruction started attacking private property. A Lebanese-French couple’s popular restaurant was looted and burned; that day most of the expats in Labe decided to flee Guinea.
I made the difficult decision to join the other expats. This meant leaving my husband and stepchildren behind (we only had enough money to fly one person out of the country, driving out was too dangerous, plus we couldn’t get enough gasoline). My family would be safe at the farm, away from the city’s violence, a dozen Ivorian bus drivers – stranded in the village by the strikes – served as an imposing bodyguard. Guinea’s instability and changes in agricultural policy meant I needed to seek money in another country. Also, my family in the United States would worry if I disappeared into the Guinean countryside where it would be impossible to reach me by phone.
On February 12, the president declared a state of martial law, imposing a 20-hour-a-day curfew. Even within hours that one was allowed out, travel by car was extremely dangerous. The French Embassy was considering sending a plane to evacuate foreign citizens stranded in Labe. By now, I had left my family. I was staying in the headquarters of a German well-digging project with two of its employees – Max, a German hydrologist and Anne-Marie, a French sociologist.
Trying To Leave
Ironically, this same building had housed the bilingual school for expat children where I had worked two years ago, when I was trying to arrange my wedding. Now, the building served as the ad hoc Labe evacuation plan headquarters, three cell phones and the landline were constantly in use. Conversations in French, English and German were going on as we were trying to coordinate with French volunteers, German missionaries and the French Embassy. During the crisis, we had incredible luck. Guinea’s normally erratic phone service was working amazingly well. Once again, I was trying to get through to the U.S. embassy, no one was answering. This didn’t particularly surprise me after my past experience. The word on the street was that the U.S. Embassy's personnel had evacuated. (I wanted to let them know I was in the country to see if they had any plans for evacuation).
At this point, both Max and my husband were worried about whether I had a mattress to sleep on. Here I was, facing months without seeing my husband, hearing gunshots 100 meters away and they were concerned about a mattress! I was too upset to eat or sleep, anyway. My only problem with my room, the project head’s office and the school’s former nursery, was the lingering scent of the cologne the director regularly drenched himself with.
Shortly before 6:00 a,m., the sounds of a semi-automatic weapon firing rousted me. I felt my stomach curl up in cramps as the gun fired again and again. Later, I found that this was one of our security guards. He felt it was part of his job to intimidate would-be criminals by firing off a few rounds several times a day. The other armed guards in the neighborhood had responded, in the same way roosters respond to a crowing rival.
After two days of constant phone calls among people in Labe and Conakry, the French Embassy agreed to send a plane that would evacuate 20 people to the capital. We would stay in a secure hotel until we could arrange commercial flights out of the country. I wanted to go to Dakar, Senegal, where I could use my Royal Air Maroc ticket to return to the United States.
I took one of the most pleasant flights of my life. First, the project’s chauffeurs drove us in a convoy to the airport, with a guard literally riding “shotgun” in the first car. Such caution may not have been necessary, it was a 10-minute drive on backroads. Since it was a special flight, we had no security checks or tickets to worry about. The only difficulty was climbing a ladder into the plane, not so easy for the people with babies and small children. We were assisted, though, and welcomed by friendly young men in “Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres” T-shirts. So what if there were no refreshments served? These were the friendliest and most welcoming flight attendants I’d ever met.
Second Armed Escort
When we arrived in Conakry, we again traveled with an armed escort. This time, a truck packed with soldiers and a large gun, led the way to our hotel bus. I sensed, however, that the situation was fairly normal, although I saw a few places had been vandalized. One passenger thought that someone had destroyed the walls of houses facing the road, erosion had destroyed those walls years ago. To the uninitiated, Conakry looks like a seething hotbed of crime because of its poverty and high population density. In fact, it is usually a benevolent anarchy, with very little violent crime. We had heard about dangers in the suburbs during the crisis, though. According to foreign news reports, young bandits had taken over some neighborhoods, driving out the police and other people in authority. So it was surprising the next day to find that during the non-curfew hours (now expanded from 12 noon to 6:00 p.m.), it was safe to venture out in Kaloum, the peninsula comprising Conakry’s downtown.
People Employed to Evacuate
Back at the hotel, I met many interesting people. James and Mike were British, employed to evacuate people from the interior. Each had two cell phones and a satellite, constantly talking on at least one. They were evacuating people from Conakry to Freetown, Sierra Leone. A few years earlier during Sierra Leone’s “blood diamond” rebellion, they had evacuated people in the opposite direction.
Still Trying to Leave
I finally reached the American Embassy with help from the French Embassy. Unfortunately, my French contact only had the ambassador’s personal number, he called and left a message for the ambassador to contact me. As a result, the ambassador himself stopped by my hotel, gave me a few working phone numbers. Didn’t I know the embassy had moved? No, embassy staff hadn’t evacuated, only their dependents.
My mother had called my travel agent in New York to verify I could use my plane ticket. The consul had given me a list of airlines flying to Dakar, valuable information since the information for American travel agents was that the airport in Conakry was closed (not true!). Some of my travel agent’s other clients reportedly succeeded in driving across the border into Senegal after being attacked by machete-wielding bandits.
Family and friends were trying to contact the state department for information. They got closer to getting the marines to rescue me than they did to getting a good phone number. During the crisis, the embassy in Conakry was sending out email messages, but I’m not sure who could have received them, all internet cafes were closed, internet service providers weren’t working.
I spent a tense day at the airport, camped out in a small airline’s office fighting to buy a ticket on a flight to Dakar, along with dozens of other expats and wealthy Guineans. Agents denied having tickets, no one knew how many seats were available, or if the plane (coming in from Abidjan, Ivory Coast) could take off before the airport closed for the night. Even if a seat were available, I didn’t want to fly on a plane belonging to such a disorganized airline, I ran next door to Paramount Airlines. To my relief, the agent gave me a ticket on the next day’s flight, even though I didn’t have enough cash (this flight was twice as expensive as the disorganized airline, quite a bargain at that point).
That night I stayed with friends who live near the airport. After buying my ticket, I didn’t have much money. I had to borrow for the airport tax. I had my first good night’s sleep since the day I decided to leave Guinea. The husband and I celebrated by drinking a few beers. He was glad to have someone to drink with, I was relieved to be back in familiar environment.
The following day I got to the airport as early as possible, nervous because of the disorganized mess, the crowds I’d seen the day before. Since it was Sunday, the military flight day, no one was allowed into the airport without a ticket. The atmosphere was peaceful.
By great luck, my beer-drinking buddy, who is an assistant director of a bank convinced his boss to come to the bank that day to read backlogged international cables. Thus, he was able to get some money from my account to pay what I owed for my plane ticket. Just before I checked in at the ticket counter, he came to the window (obviously security standards are quite different than in the west). He handed me my money, I handed him my cell phone, which wouldn’t work outside Guinea.
On the flight, Mr. Sergey (the sympathetic ticket agent) passed around cognac. The flight attendant kept offering more, so I was rather tipsy by the time we reached Dakar. The flight passed over beautiful Casamance region of Senegal – an area crossed by numerous tributaries – and the enormous Gambia River.
After a week of worry, stress, difficult decisions, I arrived in Dakar. “Fleeing Guinea” wasn’t an option on my immigration, so I marked “tourism” as my reason for visiting. After all, I had a week to relax in Dakar before returning home. During that week, President Conte named a new prime minister, Lansana Kouyate. Guinea became relatively peaceful again.
Unofficial Civil War
I know countless people suffered more than I during this two-month period. This wasn’t even an official civil war. Most embassies had not declared it a state of emergency. Yet, more than 100 died directly from the violence and 1,400 were estimated injured in January alone. That’s not counting those who died indirectly from malnutrition, lack of medical care. The number of deaths is only one small part of the huge economic and social cost.
When I returned to the United States, the media considered Anna Nicole Smith’s body to be of utmost importance. It was difficult to find news about Guinea or other countries in similar straits. I was relieved to be out of Guinea, but I remembered why I had left the United States.
You can read more about Guinea at afrol News.
Detailed policy reports can be downloaded from International Crisis Group.