For Americans (and many others), “where were you on 9/11?” is in the same category as an earlier generation’s “where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?” There are some events that are etched in the common memory, and a few that then stay there as their longer term impact becomes apparent. Here is a brief personal retrospective on that day 15 years ago, and its immediate aftermath in Niger, where I was at the time.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in the weekly meeting of the senior Peace Corps/Niger staff in Niamey. In those days, senior staff meetings were held in the office of the Country Director, Jim Bullington. a third-floor suite along one side of the Peace Corps building that accommodated his desk at one end overlooking the busy Route de Ouallam, and a conference table at the other end, close to the door.
Partway through the meeting, Jim got a call from the US embassy. Routine calls would not go through to his phone during staff meetings, only calls from the embassy – under whose authority the Peace Corps country operation functioned – or calls of an emergency nature. Jim returned to the table, looking rather grim, and told us that the office would close for the day, saying somebody had flown a plane into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers.
There was no further information, and no context. I remember my first thought was of something along the lines of a small plane. We retreated to our offices to check online, and then the dimensions of what had happened – and what was still unfolding – became clear. I remember seeing a photo on the New York Times site of one of the towers gone and the other standing, then of that one gone too. Then even that far away, a torrent of news – the Pentagon, flight 98, air traffic shut down, and much speculation about what, who, why, and whether anything else might be in the offing. Watching from afar the immediacy of the infamy and tragedy seemed somewhat buffered, but the perspective from a distance also amplified concerns about what was happening.
As Peace Corps staff, our primary concern was about the volunteers posted in several regions of the country – their safety, as always, but in this case getting in touch to make sure everyone had the news and was handling it. As I recall, we reasoned that there was no need to bring volunteers back to Niamey, and may have advised against travel for the time being.
There was one volunteer however who somehow had not heard and called me to ask what happened. Apparently neighbors had told her something terrible had transpired in the US before other volunteers in the network reached her. When I explained, she was particularly distressed, as she was originally from one of the communities near the WTC. I spoke with Steve Peterson, the Admin Officer at the time, and a vehicle was sent to pick her up and bring her in. As I recall it turned out she did not know anyone who was in the WTC at the time.
The embassy for its part, was extremely concerned about possible local ramifications of the events of 9/11. I wasn’t privy to their discussions, but we were at one point told that Peace Corps staff such as myself who traveled outcountry to visit volunteers would have to go with armed escorts. Some number of the American staff of the embassy in Niamey had been directly or indirectly affected by the 1998 terrorist bombings of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies, and that may have been the lens through which they saw the risks after the 9/11 attack. In any event, Jim, who had been a career foreign service officer and ambassador, had dealt with crises before, and was able to argue (as I recall) that this order would be problematic and counterproductive for Peace Corps volunteers.
Ultimately it was decided to revisit the issue of volunteer safety and security with Nigerien government partners in the regions where we had volunteers – namely visiting the regional governors and their staffs. The embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, Stuart Symington IV, led this mission on which I was the Peace Corps representative, in my capacity as one of the associate directors. This did have an armed escort of Nigerien troops – a first in my experience – but we did not go to volunteer posts.
Eventually things settled into a new normal. Mostly the day to day operations of Peace Corps were the same in Niger – life and work there has its rewards and challenges that are the main story (see for example a personal take on the situation the year after I left Niger). And through it all, our Nigerien friends, colleagues, and counterparts were very supportive and sympathetic.
But there was greater attention to safety and security, and a higher level of the usual concern overseas about potential impacts of US actions elsewhere – such as the invasion of Afghanistan – on life where you are. It was a transition period about which more could be written. I have not yet read Jim’s 2007 book Adventures in Service with Peace Corps in Niger, but perhaps he has some mention of 9/11.
For me personally, I did not return to the U.S. again for two years. Many Americans recounting their experience witnessing 9/11 abroad write of returning home to a different country. That was to some extent true for me too, but by 2003 when my family and I were again in the U.S., that change was not unexpected.
One other note: The first, and for long the only, bridge over the Niger River in Niamey, is named after John F. Kennedy.