Our mid-service conference went from September 5th to September 12th. We had our annual physicals, programming meetings, and social gatherings with fellow volunteers. First on everyone’s list was replenishing supplies unavailable on outer islands. I looked forward to conferences, for this reason, the most.
It was September 11th and I was preparing for my trip back to Tamana. Completing last-minute shopping, I desperately needed a case of toilet paper and a case of AA batteries. Fully cognizant of my needs, I fought the temptation to buy the store’s entire stock. Two volunteers were also leaving Kiribati that day. I had no time to window shop, I had to be at the airport by 11 a.m. to see them off.
Following Kiribati traditions, all of us stayed up the entire night with them. Before Kiribati, I would get a good night’s rest before trips. Kiribati changed me. I-Kiribati liked to stay up all night with those leaving because, as my host family told me, they didn’t know when or if they would see each other again. To someone concerned with rest, this was ludicrous. This made perfect sense for those looking to create lasting memories. One of the volunteers was finally choosing to leave Abaiang’s problems behind. The other was going home to get married. We held a combined bachelorette/going away party that night.
Gathered at the airport for the sendoff, all of us were surprised to see Janeen, our training director, deplane. She returned to start the training of the trainers for K-28. Janeen was equally surprised to see us there with two departing volunteers but wished both well and safe travels home. With that, we went our separate ways to continue our day.
In the evening, volunteers left the dorm to celebrate the end of the conference. Because of my 6 am flight, I decided to stay. Taking the bunk closest to the stairs for a quiet escape, I slid under the 4-foot fluorescent ceiling light and knocked out as soon as I closed my eyes. Late in the night, I heard footsteps running upstairs. Please don’t turn on the lights, I begged in silence. The ends of the bulb sparked to life, the door swung open, and a voice shouted, EVERYONE DOWN NOW, WE ARE BEING ATTACKED!
Confused, the few of us in bunks made our way to the common room. Bumbling down the stairs, I wondered two things. Who was attacking us, and how did they know where Kiribati was?
In the common room, our country director stood silently holding a shortwave radio to his ear. He said nothing other than the United States was under attack and we were being taken to the New Zealand Embassy for safety. In disbelief, we loaded into the transports awaiting our departure. The sun had not yet risen, as we traveled under the cover of darkness. When we arrived, we were seated in front of the ambassador’s television watching a satellite feed of BBC coverage. Two volunteers were from New York City. One by one, we sent an e-mail to our families from his office.
Hey Dad and Everyone,
We’ve just been woken by PC staff. We are waiting for news on this terrorist attack from Peace Corps Headquarters and whoever else can let us know what is going on. We are all at the New Zealand embassy watching BBC coverage. I hope you all are well and hope to talk to you soon.
Shock, fear, and concern for home ran through our veins. The greatest concern was for the two volunteers from New York City. They were the first invited to contact their families. We remained in Tarawa for one more week. No one else was getting on a plane. The two volunteers who left the prior day were returned to Fiji mid-flight.
A day later, we received an invitation to President Teburoro Tito’s statehouse for a memorial service. All high-level ministers and international government representatives gathered for us. It was weird receiving such reverence for something so tragic and so far away. Nonetheless, all wanted to show their support for us, I was speechless.
In Kiribati, the family was everything and everyone was family. Under these conditions the outpouring of support made sense, but we were so different from them. We are distant. Many of us don’t even know our next-door neighbors. Everyone in Kiribati seemed to know everyone else through chains of relations which created a very different and kinder society.
The memorial service was amazingly kind and thoughtful, but at the same time, it created conflict in all of us as we tried to balance perceptions with lived realities. Yes, we were sad it happened, but all our families were ok. After the ceremony, it was clear we needed to take our minds off everything somehow. Advertisements for a two-day visiting Magic Circus from Samoa were posted all over the main square. This somehow, was exactly what we needed.