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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

September 11, 2001

As I prepared for my journey back to Tamana, I dashed around Tarawa to complete some last-minute shopping. My list was concise but essential: a case of toilet paper, a few cans of Fanta, two packets of cinnamon, shampoo, and a case of AA batteries. 


I approached the stores with a clear plan in mind, mindful of how much canned cheese I would consume over the next three months and how many packets of crackers would satisfy my cravings. Despite the temptation to splurge on overpriced imported M&Ms, I exercised restraint, determined to stick to my budget and prioritize the necessities for my time on the island.


On the day of my departure from Kiribati, I found myself with a packed schedule. Not only did I need to finish my shopping in the northernmost village, but I also had to make it to the southernmost village by 11 a.m. to bid farewell to two fellow volunteers who were also leaving the country.


As per the island's farewell tradition, all Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in Tarawa stayed up the entire night with those departing. This custom, while initially bewildering to me, held deep significance for the I-Kiribati community. As my host family explained, the practice symbolized the uncertainty of when or if they would see each other again. While I had previously prioritized getting a good night's rest before a journey, I came to understand that for the I-Kiribati, staying up all night was about forging a meaningful and memorable connection with those leaving.


Though unconventional to my prior habits, this tradition underscored the importance of human connection and the bonds formed during our time in Kiribati. As I embraced this practice alongside my fellow volunteers, I realized the value of cherishing moments with others, even in the face of imminent goodbyes.


Christine was one of the volunteers who was finally heading home, ready to leave behind the challenges of her service in Abaiang. Preema, on the other hand, was returning home to marry her fiancé, marking the beginning of a new chapter in her life.


To celebrate their departures, we organized a bachelorette/going away party the night before. It was a bittersweet occasion, filled with laughter, reminiscing, and well-wishes for the future.

As the day of departure arrived, we gathered at the airport to bid farewell to Christine and Preema. However, to our surprise, Sarah, our training coordinator, emerged from the plane's door. It was a remarkable coincidence that she was returning on the same flight that would take two of our volunteers away.


Despite the sadness of saying goodbye to Christine and Preema, there was an underlying sense of excitement at seeing Sarah again. She warmly greeted the departing volunteers, offering them words of encouragement and wishing them a safe journey back to their respective homes. As we watched them board the plane, we knew they were embarking on new adventures, and we wished them nothing but the best.


The rest of the day passed uneventfully as I completed my shopping and prepared for the early morning transport to the airport. While many volunteers had planned to go out that night, I and a few others opted to hit the dorm bunks early.


Navigating the cramped space of the dormitory, I maneuvered carefully to climb into the top bunk. I had to slide beneath the 4-foot-long fluorescent light bulb to avoid hitting my head and risking damage to the room's only light fixture. Exhausted from the day's activities, I fell into a deep sleep as soon as I settled into the bunk.


Sometime later, I was roused from my slumber by the sound of footsteps ascending the stairwell. Faint voices accompanied the footsteps, growing louder and closer with each passing moment. Anxious thoughts raced through my mind as I hoped fervently that they wouldn't turn on the light. I assumed it was just fellow volunteers returning from a late night out on the island, and the last thing I wanted was to be awakened by the sudden brightness of the room.


As the ends of the bulb sparked to life, casting a sudden brightness in the room, the door swung open, and to my astonishment, a voice boomed, "EVERYONE DOWN NOW, WE ARE BEING ATTACKED!" It was the voice of our Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO).


Confusion gripped me as I struggled to comprehend what was happening. With a sense of urgency, I stumbled out of the bunk and joined the rest of the volunteers and Peace Corps staff who had gathered downstairs. As I bumbled down the stairwell, my mind raced with questions. Who could possibly be attacking us, and how did they even know where Kiribati was located? The unexpectedness of the situation left me bewildered and anxious for answers.

As we entered the standard room, our country director stood with a shortwave radio pressed to his ear, his expression grave. Without saying a word, he conveyed the shocking news: the United States was under attack. Immediately, he instructed us to gather our belongings and make our way to the New Zealand Embassy for safety.


The atmosphere was one of disbelief as we hurriedly complied with the directive. Arriving at the embassy, we found ourselves huddled in front of the television, anxiously watching satellite BBC news coverage of the unfolding events. The gravity of the situation weighed heavily on us all.


Amidst the chaos, our thoughts turned to our fellow volunteers from the New York area. Their connection to the affected region added a layer of personal concern to an already distressing situation.


In a gesture of kindness and support, Tioni, the New Zealand Ambassador, opened his home to us, allowing us to use his facilities to email our loved ones and assure them of our safety. Grateful for his generosity, we took solace in the opportunity to reach out to our families during this uncertain time. This was my email:


Hey, Dad and Everyone,

We’ve just been woken by PC staff.  We are waiting for news on this terrorist attack from the Washington Peace Corps and whoever else can let us know what is going on.  We are all at the New Zealand embassy watching CNN coverage. I hope you all are well and hope to talk to you soon. 

Love,

Me


The aftermath of the events of September 11th left all of us Peace Corps volunteers in Tarawa in a state of shock, prompting us to stay an extra week before resuming our regular activities. Concern for our fellow volunteers from New York was particularly high until we received confirmation that they had been able to contact their families and were safe.


A few days later, we were invited to a memorial service for the victims of the 9/11 attacks by the President of Kiribati. The solemn occasion was attended by national and international government representatives, underscoring the global impact of the tragedy.


For me, as an American volunteer in Kiribati, it was surreal to receive such reverence and sympathy for an event that I felt disconnected from. Unlike in Kiribati, where everyone seemed to know and be connected to each other in some way, Americans often live in social environments where neighborly relationships are distant or nonexistent. This contrast highlighted the profound differences in cultural values and social structures between the two places.


Yet, despite the geographical and cultural divide, I couldn't shake the feeling that the people of Kiribati were projecting their strong sense of connectedness and cultural values onto the tragedy, even though it occurred thousands of miles away. It served as a poignant reminder of the power of empathy and solidarity in times of crisis, transcending boundaries and bringing people together in shared grief and compassion.


The memorial service, while incredibly kind and thoughtful, left us Peace Corps volunteers grappling with conflicting emotions as we tried to reconcile I-Kiribati perceptions with our own lived realities. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, it became evident to us all that we needed a respite from the weight of recent events.


As we emerged from the ceremony, our thoughts turned to finding a way to distract ourselves and lift our spirits. It was then that we noticed advertisements for the upcoming two-day visit to the Magic Circus of Samoa, prominently displayed in the island's main square. Instantly, we knew that attending the circus was exactly what we needed.


The prospect of experiencing the spectacle and wonder of the circus offered a welcome escape from the somber mood that had enveloped us. Without hesitation, we made plans to attend, eager for the opportunity to temporarily set aside our worries and immerse ourselves in the magic and excitement of the circus.


Entering the circus tents, we were greeted with a sight that left us utterly stunned. The array of foods laid out before us—popcorn, cotton candy, snow cones—seemed like something out of a dream, a tantalizing feast for the senses that I had only imagined during my time in Kiribati. Alongside the delectable treats, there were also games and rides, adding to the carnival atmosphere that surrounded us.


While I opted not to partake in the rides, I couldn't resist the allure of the games. With a sense of excitement, I tried my luck at the ring toss and was rewarded with a rubber chicken keychain as my prize—a quirky memento of the unforgettable experience.


As the circus performers-turned-ride attendants swung into action, the bustling energy of the event reached a crescendo. With each passing moment, the games and rides came to life, adding to the vibrant spectacle that filled the air. Despite the fleeting nature of the moment, the memories of that magical evening would stay with me for years to come.


As the circus spectacle unfolded before us, the ringmaster singled out Marissa from the crowd to participate in a magic act. With grace and poise, she dazzled the audience with her performance, seemingly piecing together the magic before our very eyes. It was a moment of pure enchantment, leaving us all in awe of her talent.


After the show, as we discussed our plans for the evening, we were pleasantly surprised to find the New Zealand Ambassador joining our group. With his gracious hospitality, he arranged for his drivers to transport us back to the dormitory, ensuring our safety and comfort.


Reflecting on the evening's events, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the cheesy yet captivating experience the circus had provided. It was exactly what we needed to lift our spirits after the turmoil of the past few days. In that moment, New Zealand, with its warmth and kindness, carved out a special place in my heart, reminding me of the power of resilience and community in times of adversity.


Flying back to Tamana just two days after the circus, I found myself contemplating the notion of safety and security. Living on one of the most remote islands in one of the most isolated countries in the vast expanse of the world's largest ocean, I couldn't help but feel a sense of reassurance amidst the tranquility of my surroundings. In my mind, the distance from the turmoil of the outside world seemed to offer a measure of safety that eluded those living within the borders of the United States at that time.


However, this perspective appeared irrational to friends and family back home, who often expressed feeling safer within the familiar confines of their own country. The contrast in perception highlighted the subjective nature of safety and security, influenced by factors such as geographical distance, cultural context, and personal experiences.


As I settled back into life on Tamana, I couldn't shake the lingering sense of gratitude for the peace and serenity that enveloped the island—a refuge from the uncertainties and anxieties that pervaded the world beyond its shores.

Upon our return to Tamana, Zenida and I were met with an outpouring of sympathy and concern from everyone in the village. News of the tragic events had spread swiftly, reaching our host family and village friends almost as quickly as it had reached us through the radio waves.


The collective sentiment among the islanders was one of intense anger and hatred towards Osama bin Laden for his role in the attacks. They made sure to express their disdain for him, ensuring that I understood the depth of their loathing. In a display of their feelings, one of my host relatives even went so far as to rename a dog he disliked as "Osama."


Unaware of the cultural significance behind such an act, and the potential implications for an American, I did my best to show appreciation for the gesture, albeit somewhat awkwardly. When the dog came bounding towards me, now bearing the name of the infamous terrorist, I greeted him as politely as I could, attempting to navigate the delicate balance between cultural understanding and personal sentiments.

  


***


Receiving a copy of Newsweek Magazine from the Peace Corps months later, I was surprised to find an article detailing the plight of Afghan refugees protesting against possible relocation to Kiribati by jumping off boats. It was a surreal moment, witnessing the connection between the events of 9/11 and the remote island nation of Kiribati. In ways I had never imagined, Kiribati had become entangled in the complexities of the aftermath of the attacks, highlighting the far-reaching implications of such global events.


The article, titled "Australia’s Refugee Archipelago," further underscored this interconnectedness, shedding light on Australia's proposal to resettle Afghan refugees in several Pacific Island nations instead of accommodating them within its own borders. This proposal placed Kiribati and other Pacific Island nations at the center of a contentious debate surrounding refugee resettlement, illustrating the profound impact of geopolitical decisions on remote communities far removed from the centers of power and influence.


The scores of Afghan Refugees who landed on Nauru in mid-September were dazed for good reason.  They had spent a month at sea and expected their journey to end on the vast shores of Australia.  Instead, they found themselves dumped onto a flyspeck Pacific atoll and herded into a hastily built detention camp called Topside.

Australia's historical stance against immigration from Pacific Island Nations had set the stage for the development of the "Pacific Solution" in response to the influx of refugees. This controversial plan aimed to address the issue by establishing a network of refuge centers across the South Pacific, effectively creating a refugee archipelago.


As part of this initiative, Australia sought assistance from other countries in the region to accommodate refugees. In exchange for accepting refugees, financial incentives were offered. For instance, Nauru was promised AUD 9 million in exchange for hosting 1,000 refugees. Similar offers were extended to Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Palau, and Kiribati.


Kiribati, facing its own economic challenges, was open to the idea of helping to relocate refugees in exchange for Australian aid money. However, the asylum seekers' reaction to the proposed arrangement proved to be a significant obstacle. Their dramatic protests, including jumping off boats in protest, underscored the complexities and challenges of the situation, raising doubts about the feasibility of the proposed solution and its acceptance by all parties involved.

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