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Whispers in the Dark, Garissa

Hotel massacres in Mogadishu. Museum terror in Tunisia. War across the water in Yemen and refugees heading into Djibouti.

I joked the other day that perhaps the refugee boats going out of the Horn of Africa pass the refugee boats coming into the Horn of Africa, each group urging the other to turn back, each group determined and pressing on.

It wasn’t a funny joke.

whispers in the dark

And then there was Thursday. I checked the news and there had been a shooting at a university in northern Kenya, Garissa. 17 dead. 17 is awful.

It wasn’t over.

I checked the news again later.

147 dead.

One hundred and forty-seven.

Boqol iyo afartan iyo todoba.

Maybe if I keep writing it down it will stop being true. Maybe if I keep writing it down it will stop happening. False. The delusion of thinking writing it down will change anything. Words that get sucked away by grief, letters on a computer that do nothing but disappear into the black hole of hate and violence.

A room of students at prayer. Dormitories. Classrooms where students prepared to take exams. Muslims separated from non-Muslims and the non-Muslims shot in the back of the head. Shot in the back of the head by men who shoot Muslims when they are across the border in Somalia. In the aftermath, a photo of a student in hijab wailing, her arms wrapped tight around the bodies of two non-Muslim survivors. Students crumpled to the ground in pools of blood. Hiding in closets for two days. Hiding beneath dead bodies. Hospitals and mortuaries overwhelmed. The only university in the entire, rural, massive region.

And I don’t know what to say. I want to scream, ‘how can this seem right to anyone?’ How can people do this to each other? When did life lose its sacredness? When did it become so easy to slaughter people who disagree with you? And I struggle against anger and sorrow and yes, fear.

Why? What do they want? What can be gained? Why?

I read the news and then I had to run out the door, I was late for a Good Friday luncheon. I shouted to my husband, “What do they want?” and then I drove away. As I drove I could only whisper, “Jesus.” And, “mercy.” And, “Help me love them.” These are the only words that matter.

I’m finding it hard to breathe.

Jesus. Mercy. Help me love them. These are the words that will help me breathe.

(this post is titled after the post I wrote following the Westgate Mall attack)

*image credit: Oxfam East Africa – A mass grave for children in Dadaab” by Oxfam East Africa

Chronology of a Terror Attack

It started like every other story like this starts. On an ordinary day…

Saturday May 24, 2014 5:00 p.m. End of the year Girl Scouts bridging ceremony at Camp Lemonier.

The ceremony took place outside the Green Bean café at the US military camp where there is a short bridge-like wooden platform. Two Daisies, one Brownie, one Junior, and one Cub Scout, each graduating to the next level, walked across the bridge.

5:30 p.m. Scouts hand out miniature flags to the service men and women.

The kids say thank you for serving and happy Memorial Day. Lucy asks me what Memorial Day is, not a normal holiday in Djibouti. The kids are a little shy but no soldier can refuse a cute kid in Scout uniform delivering American flags.

6:00 p.m. Buffet dinner in the galley.

This is a huge treat for we lowly civilians. Salmon, barbecue ribs, steak, asparagus, kiwi, corn on the cob, root beer, Breyers ice cream. The best part, though, was when Lucy said my homemade bread and mac and cheese tasted much, much better.

7:00 p.m. The long walk out of the military camp, through security, back to our car.

Lucy and I talk about Memorial Day, the American flag, how the camp has changed over the years, and all the goodies we have in our plastic sacks, purchased at the NEX. Lifesavers, a set of headphones, Scotch tape.

8:00 p.m. Lucy goes to bed.

She is excited about school on Sunday. She has an early morning meeting, her group is making a small sail boat out of materials found at home. She packed an empty plastic water bottle, a battery-operated fan, and a scrap of cloth before bed.

8:10 p.m. (or somewhere around there) There is an explosion on this block downtown.

la chaumiere

I don’t know this yet. I am still untouched. What if I went to bed early? What if I didn’t check my phone? What if I read a book instead of checking email? Would life have changed? Would my host country still be at rest?

8:20 p.m. I notice six missed phone calls and three missed, vague, texts on my phone from while I was putting Lucy to bed.

8:25 p.m. The landline rings.

The landline never rings. I answer it, surprised. It is my good American friend. She speaks quiet and quick. “Did you hear about the bomb? Call your coworkers.”

8:27 p.m. I get another text.

This text is from my coworker. There has been a bomb downtown. People killed. What do we do?

8:30 p.m. I call a friend at the US embassy.

She confirms the rumor but doesn’t know much else. “Stay home. Pack a go bag, just in case.” Her calmness soothed me since Tom, the usual ballast to my raging emotions, wasn’t home. The last time I packed a go bag I lived in Somalia. It had diapers in it. I used it when we fled.

8:35 p.m. Instead of packing the bag I gather information.

I check Twitter and Facebook and send texts. I hear from French, Argentinian, American, Djiboutian friends. Some of them were downtown when it happened and are scared, crying. I ask our guard and the neighborhood shopkeeper what they know. They are gathered around a radio. Two dead. Three dead. Seven dead? Twenty? Ten injured. Twenty injured. Thirty-three? Who knows? La Chaumiere restaurant. I know it well. Djibouti is small, we all know it well. This is like my backyard. I feel crazy, trapped, exposed. I want to do something, I want to run ten miles, so I flutter around the house doing nothing because I don’t know what to do, there is nothing I can do.

8:45 p.m. I try to call my husband.

He is in Somalia. He doesn’t answer the phone, texts, or emails. I just want to hear his voice. I feel vulnerable without him here and know I would feel less frantic if he were here. But he will be shortly and I just wanted to hear his voice. I’m thankful Lucy is now asleep.

8:55 p.m. School is cancelled.

A French friend calls, school is cancelled on Sunday. Monday was already off for the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. I wasn’t going to send Lucy on Sunday anyway, I had decided that during the very first phone call.  She can make the sail boat at home.

9:00 p.m. I lock everything.

I lock all the windows, every door in the house even the ones to inside rooms like the storage closet and bathrooms.

9:10 p.m. I pack.

I do pack a go bag. A change of clothes, cash, paperwork, passports, water, granola bars, chargers. I hate packing it and want to scream or throw it out the window but Lucy is asleep in the same room. I probably don’t need to pack it. But then again, I have used one in the past. How many people have actually used their go bag? And how many more wish they’d had one packed but it was too late?

9:20 p.m. I change clothes.

I want to be able to hear what is going on outside so open one of the locked windows but it is so hot. I sweat through my clothes. I put on my Love Somalia t-shirt.

9:30 p.m. I zone out.

I watch old episodes of House that I borrowed from a friend. I compulsively check Twitter. I alternate between doing sit-ups and planks and crying and whispering, “Jesus.”

11:00 My husband calls.

I’d had one of those feelings when he left. But when someone is staying in Djibouti and someone is going to Somalia, the one you worry about is the one in Somalia. After he hangs up I read. I never stay up this late.

1:00 a.m. I can’t sleep.

I read This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchet. I read Psalm 91 and Psalm 46 and Psalm 23. I’m glad Lucy climbed into Tom’s empty space on the bed and I curl my fingers around her warm ones. She is breathing. She is breathing. I toss and turn all night, alternating between awake but barely and asleep but with wild dreams. Sometimes I cry. I’m still wearing the Love Somali shirt. I haven’t chosen clothing with such clear intention since my wedding day.


Sunday is quiet. There are rumors and texts and Twitter messages all day. I feel sick and I feel bored and I feel shaken and I feel vulnerable. I wish I knew what happened with verifiable information. Two grenades? One suicide bomber? Two? Grenades and suicide bombers? A man and a woman, wearing a niqaam and jillabiib? From Somalia? al-shabaab? Now women wearing this are searched, are kept off buses, my house helper says she is searched because she wears one. She doesn’t mind, she has nothing to hide.

Djiboutians are angry, heartbroken. They have been proud of their peace, and they should be. I don’t believe they will stand for this. From what I hear, there was a quick response by authorities, a heroic response, even, by taxi drivers who drove the wounded to hospitals even while one of their own lay among the dead.

A police chase of a third suspect? How many killed? Injured? Who? What is being done? When will school start again? Am I ready for that? Are French expatriates really talking about leaving?

This is the first terrorist attack like this to occur in Djibouti. Ever. Djibouti is a small place. There aren’t a ton of people or a ton of restaurants. In many articles I have written about Djibouti and called it a ‘bastion of peace in a tumultuous region.’ I have never been afraid to send my daughter to school here before or to go to the grocery store.

What can I say now?

What can I say?

*update: RTD (Radio Television Djibouti) now has some video and information and a speech by the Minister of the Interior discussing the details.

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