Around September 29th 2002. I sat about 30 rows up in the soccer stadium of Bouake, which has been conveniently renamed The Stadium of Peace…. The last few days had been rainy and several people around me had hung their clothes on the railings and fences to dry. As I looked around I counted at least a hundred or more people. Upon arrival we were asked our nationality and divided into small groups. Most of the groups had a dozen or so people, the group I was in consisted of myself. I had arrived with three other missionaries that I was living with, a Togolais, a Congolais, and an Ivoirian. They were not assigned to a group so they joined me. Looking around it was evident that some of the groups looked nervous and uncertain, others had an air of confidence and relief, while one or two were proud and glad to be who they were. As for me I knew that it was the end.
(I didn’t take this picture, but it is the stadium in 2007 during reconstruction)
We were among the last people to arrive and it wasn’t long before a middle aged French man stood at the bottom of the stands and began to yell instructions to us. He said that time was running short and that they would only be able to take two transport trucks out before nightfall and that all those that were not selected to board a truck would have to leave and find other accommodations. It was the last day of their agreement and tomorrow they would not be allowed to bring anyone out of the city. Upon these words the nervous groups began to panic, people that were somewhat confident before began to show worry and others continued to show confidence and relief.
Just after he began talking a large covered truck pulled up behind him. A few french soldiers got out a placed a small stool at the back of the truck. The French man barked, “L’Americain.” It was my instruction to descend the bleachers and board the truck. Once I reached the truck and I was about to board a soldier stopped me and told me to wait next to him. My french skills at the time were still a little shady, especially since I had only been in the country for six weeks. I could hold my own talking with the Ivoirians, I was used to their accent and grammar. However, I didn’t stand a chance speaking with a Frenchman. Realizing that our conversation was going nowhere he waived another soldier over towards us. The soldier looked about the same age as me, nineteen. We were both a far way from home, in a situation that neither would have preferred, and our reasons for being there were both eerily similar. We were both there to save the city, although having a slight difference between physical and spiritual salvation. His English was much better than my French and we managed a slight conversation, talking as if we were meeting for the first time under much more normal circumstances. What’s your name, where are you from, o I’ve heard of that place are you mormon? and so on.
While we talked the man in charged continued to yell out different nationalities and people filed down and were boarding the truck. After the truck was about half full, or about a dozen people, he walked over to me, pointed up towards where I was earlier sitting, and asked if the three other people up there were with me. I said oui, to which he turned away and and called them down next. As they walked past me and boarded the truck you could see the relief in their eyes.
The young French soldier and I continued our small conversation while watching more people come down the bleachers and board the truck. It seemed as though those that had layed their clothes out to dry did so almost knowing that they weren’t going anywhere. As the truck reached its capacity the man in charge returned and told me to get in. I was the last one in and had a spot saved for me. The man in charge speaking more softly said that I would have more air sitting there and that’s why they had me wait. After I sat down they lowered the canvas door down over the back of the truck and tied it down. Only small slivers of light made it through the cracks around the edges. It was obvious that they didn’t want people outside the stadium knowing what was in the truck. Minutes later the truck was put into gear and we were on our way.
There wasn’t much talking between the thirty plus of us in the truck. I couldn’t see where the other missionaries were, but I knew that they were somewhere in the middle packed in like sardines. At least they were there. The truck moved quickly down the deserted streets of Bouake, although I couldn’t see outside I knew they were deserted. They had been deserted for the last ten days, the only vehicles that I had seen from our house were the occassional trucks loaded with armed men in the back. They would drive past our house once a day and fire shots into the air, probably to let everyone know that they were still around.
A man sitting next to me decided that he wanted to know where we were so he peeled the canvas door back a little to catch a glimpse. Sunlight tore into the compartment illuminated it and all of us inside. The man seeing someone outside started waving and a mocking smile spread across his face. Immediately everyone in the truck made it clear that we wanted the door closed and wanted that smile off of his face. The door was quickly released and and the light fleeted out of the quickly closing gap in the door.
The next forty-five minutes were spent in near silence. Occassionaly I would hear small whisper, but other than that the only noise was of the truck’s engine and its tires pounding on the worn road beneath it. The truck slowed down and it felt like it was being driven off of the road. Once off the road it came to a stop and the canvas door was pulled up to reveal what it was hiding. Being that I was the last one on I was the first one to get off. Immediately upon exiting the truck bed I was greeted by a foreign, but yet at the same time familiar face. I had never seen the lady before. She was a representative from the embassy and quickly began to assess my situation, asking if I needed water or food. I accepted a bottled water, but did not have much of an appetite for food. Once she determined that I was not sick or injured she started asking moreimportant questions.
“Are you going to Abidjan or do you want to be flown to Ghana?”
“Are there other Americans that you know about that may still be in Bouake”
I answered that I was not sure where I was going, but that I should probably go down to Abidjan and that I expected to be met in Yamoussoukro. I let her know of the three other Americans that I knew of that were in Bouake, it turns out that one arrived at the stadium just after our truck left and arrived on the next truck and that the other two were flown out on a helicopter the day before. Once her questions were answered she pointed at a nearby bus and said that they would start boarding it soon. The bus was extremely nice and looked almost brand new, it even sported a french license plate. The bus next to it was in a much more dilapidated state, as is typical in that part of the world. It had dents all over and the seats inside looked like they were hanging together by a thread.
By this time the other missionaries had exited the truck bed and were waiting for me. No one was there to greet them and no one had offered them any food or water. I walked over and offered them some of my water, and let them know that we would be boarding the nice bus soon.
All of this was took place in a small clearing on the side of the road. There were a couple dozen french soldiers walking around fully armed, and their jeeps close by. The main road was blocked off by two American Hummers. Each Hummer had a large fully automatic gun mounted in the back and were aimed down the road from which we had just traveled. A large American flag was hung from the back of one of the Hummers and a handful of American soldiers were walking around. One of the other missionaries make a comment about how much better the American army was than the French, vehicles are larger, guns are bigger, and soldiers more ripped.
After ten minutes or so we boarded the buses. A cool blast of cool air hit my face as I boarded the bus, something I had not felt since my arrival in Bouake. I sat down in a plush seat by a window in the back, one of the other missionaries sat next to me, the other two just in front of us. We pulled up onto the road on the other side of the Hummers and began travelling again towards Yamoussoukro, still escorted by French military jeeps.