A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Meet An Intrepid Diplomat

photo of american diplomatIn our ongoing attempt to demystify the Foreign Service, we’re going to occasionally introduce you to diplomats living in various parts of the world. Amy Tachco is a 36-year-old Foreign Service Officer (FSO) originally from Southern California and Central Ohio who joined the Foreign Service just over ten years ago.

Amy and I joined the Foreign Service at the same time and were part of the same A-100 class, which is essentially a two month long intro to the Foreign Service. As I described in December, at least one of our classmates shed tears over an assignment to Jamaica, but Amy was unfazed when she was sent to Karachi, Pakistan, her 19th choice.

Over the last ten years, she’s also served in Casablanca, Madrid, Beirut and Damascus. She arrived in Karachi just days after a suicide bomber struck the embassy, flew into Beirut on a helicopter during the height of the 2006 conflict and recently had a Bashar Assad thug pelt her with a tomato. She was evacuated from Syria in mid-January as the conflict there intensified and recently returned from a brief stint in Istanbul, where she continued to report on the situation in Syria.

Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I did my junior year overseas as an economics and French major and then went to Geneva for grad school. It’s an international city and I worked at the World Economic Forum for a while. The lifestyle of the Foreign Service appealed to me – you have a job, but you get to move all the time and constantly do something different. After I graduated I worked for a company that did asset management and then I worked for a hedge fund. I was earning more than my initial salary in the Foreign Service.

Your first assignment was Karachi – your 19th choice. But you took it like a champ. Were you disappointed to be sent to Pakistan right out of the gate?

No. I wasn’t upset. Jerusalem was my first choice – it’s been my first choice many times but it’s never happened.

And the day you were set to leave for post the consulate in Karachi was bombed?

It was a car bomb, a suicide bomber. A car pulled up right in front of the building and blew a 30-foot hole in the front wall. Thirteen people were killed. My parents called and said, ‘Turn on CNN, it’s your consulate.’ I made the executive decision not to call anyone at the State Department, because I was afraid they’d tell me not to go.marines with weapons cocked and loadedWhat was it like to arrive at post in the wake of that incident?

We had a Marine expeditionary unit in the consular section. They had their guns pointed out the upstairs windows to keep people from entering the big hole in the wall. There was a bathroom with a shower right next to my office, so these Marines would come by my office just draped in their bath towels. They had been on a ship for the last six months, so they liked to stop by my office to say hi on the way back from their showers. They hadn’t seen women in a really long time.

Did your parents worry about you being in Pakistan?

My mom was worried the entire time I was there. She’s never been a worrywart but she was scared the whole time. I tried to tell her, ‘mom, here’s my day. I get up, I have breakfast and I go to work.’ Granted, I’d get picked up in an armored car with an escort vehicle with guys carrying AK-47’s and we’d take different routes to the consulate every day even though I could see the place from my house. You get used to weirdness.

You were supposed to be there a year but got pulled out after 9 months?

The Ambassador had been trying to reduce staff there for a long time (due to the security situation) and at a certain point I got a call from Washington and they told me I needed to find a new job. That’s how I ended up in Casablanca.

moroccan musicianYou were in Morocco and then Madrid for your next tour. Did you have much time for travel opportunities?

I did. I was a public affairs officer in Morocco so I traveled a lot there. I went to the The Marrakesh Film Festival, The Gnaoua World Music Festival, the Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, and lots of other places too. I also liked visiting this American style university there called Al Akhawayn, it’s in a town called Ifrane. You feel like you’re in Switzerland there, and the same in Spain. I tried to make it to all the provinces. I think I made it to half of them.

Did you find that the best places to visit as a traveler aren’t always the best places to live?

I haven’t had a bad post but there are places I’m not sure of. I just spent a month in Istanbul. Traffic is hideous and if you’re forced to deal with more of the city than just the tourist areas it can be a little unwieldy. Whereas I did my last tour in Damascus and that’s an easy place to live. In Beirut, we had extreme security restrictions but still a great city to live in. Madrid was obviously great. Living in Karachi presented challenges, but going there to work for the U.S. Government is the best deal you’re going to get. I loved it.

So you’ve never been stuck a post you couldn’t wait to leave?

Never.

How was the situation in Beirut when you were there?

The embassy had gone on evacuation status during the 2006 war, and then in May 2008, before I arrived in Beirut, there was street fighting in the city and clashes in the mountains, which made people think war was once again not far off. I got there a couple months later and it was relatively quiet for my two years there. But I had been there during the 2006 war as well. I traveled there with the Assistant Secretary who was trying to mediate the conflict with the Israelis.


What was that like?

It was creepy. There was no traffic – everyone was inside. The fighting was nearby, but not smack in the middle of Beirut. When the war broke out, Secretary Rice told my boss to get over there and we sort of took off without even knowing how we were going to get there. We went to Rome for a conference and then I had to figure out how to get us a helicopter into Beirut despite the fact that the airport was closed. So I did.

When you live in a place like Karachi, Beirut or Damascus, are you supposed to have a suitcase ready in case of emergency?

We were supposed to in Damascus but I never did. We were lucky though; we got all our stuff out before I left Damascus in January. I know that a lot of FSO’s in Tripoli lost all their stuff when they were evacuated last year. We had a couple of suicide bombings in December and we’d already had a series of evacuations last year, first in April and then again in August and December.

So some people got to leave but you had to stay until January?

Got to leave? No one wanted to leave Syria.

damascus mosqueNo one wanted to get out of Dodge?

No. Syria’s a beautiful place. I knew for probably six weeks or so before we were finally evacuated out that the decision was coming. But strangely enough, when it came, I felt like my whole universe just crashed. I cried big time because I felt like I was abandoning the people.

The local staff and your friends there?

Them but also the opposition. I was responsible for dealing with the Syrian opposition. On my last day there, I sat with one of the leaders in his office for about 2 hours and two weeks later the regime raided their office and arrested them all. It wasn’t because we left, I don’t think, but there was definitely that feeling. That’s why I asked to be sent to Istanbul, so I could continue doing my job from there. When you work in a country where people are fighting for their lives, you get emotionally involved.

Were you concerned for your safety in Syria?

The violence wasn’t in the middle of Damascus. The thing that was weird about Damascus is that you could walk the streets and see people drinking coffee and smoking nargiles in the cafés. Bizarre knowing that three kilometers away people were getting shot.

I took the Ambassador to a few meetings where we were sort of assaulted by regime thugs. On one occasion, we went into a meeting with a member of the opposition and a big group of regime loyalists started chanting at us and they followed us in and were banging on the door. And I got hit with a tomato.

Did it splatter all over you?

It didn’t and I was wearing a red dress anyways. They were trying to pelt us though. We ended up getting trapped in the building for more than two hours. We had to call our RSO’s (Regional Security Officers) to get us out of there in some armored cars. They got attacked with rocks and concrete through their windows.

madridWhat’s the hardest part about life in the Foreign Service, other than occasionally being pelted with tomatoes?

I’m headed to Madrid again now and I’ll be there for three years, which for the Foreign Service, is considered a nice long time. The hardest part of the lifestyle is the transitions between posts. I thought they’d get easier over time but it actually gets harder.

Arriving at a new post and starting fresh is the hardest part?

Both ends. Leaving one place and then having to live out a suitcase when you’re in between posts and then finally arriving at a new place but not having all your stuff. It’s really hard to leave a post and then you might live out of your suitcase for months and months, because you have training and home leave and then your stuff has to be shipped. And if you’re single, like me, it’s particularly hard. If you have your family with you, at least you’re not alone.
Every time I do these transitions, I ask myself why I’m doing this but then a year later I say, ‘wow, I have the best job in the world.’

A lot of people who like to travel consider joining the Foreign Service. What questions should people ask themselves before they decide to pursue this line of work?

It’s hard to say because you can make so many different types of careers in the Foreign Service. I know FSO’s who prefer to serve in more “cushy” locations. When I think about spending a career in places like that, I just can’t imagine it. But there are people who are into that. You wrote an article about this, it is easier for guys in the Foreign Service to move to a Third World country and find a lovely bride. Well, as a woman you can meet a lovely man too, but he’s not likely to follow you around the world.

So it’s harder for single women?

Yeah. For example, I was dating a Lebanese guy in Beirut and he told me before it was time for me to move – I can’t leave. And I could have stayed there, but I would have been miserable. So there’s the relationship element, there’s how you deal with transition.

The career itself, the lifestyle, it’s very much what you make of it. You can find yourself doing things you could never possibly imagine in rural areas of strange countries you never dreamed of going to. I’ve been on yachts of rich Lebanese businessmen or you can find yourself careening across the West Bank to visit settlements or you can be the cultural attaché in a cushy European post. I’ve met Bashar Al-Assad five times (before the conflict started) but that’s not something I’m terribly proud of.

Did you shake his hand?

Of course. You get to meet with presidents and ministers and heads of state – people you’d never expect to meet. I gave visas to the Real Madrid soccer team. The stuff that can happen to you in the Foreign Service is 100 billion times better than what you do in 99% of jobs you’d find. It is really, really cool and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photos by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Ahron de Leeuw, and Man@Che on Flickr.

Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

Syria
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.

The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.

SyriaThe whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.

In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.

Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.

The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.

Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.

In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.

The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.

It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.

So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.