When life in a war zone tests US families

Even under the best of circumstances, holding a family together involves challenges. Imagine how much harder it is for families stationed overseas when civil and international strife breaks out, as has happened in the Middle East.

Surely the job of comforting and dealing with children means that family discussions take on complicated new dimensions.

To better understand what American aid workers and US diplomats have been through during recent evacuations from Pakistan, the Monitor talked with three families who once found themselves in similar situations to find out how they dealt with living in war-torn foreign countries.

Managing in Mogadishu

Even with guard dogs, a high-walled compound, and a watchman (unarmed), Marge Tsitouris had a hard time sleeping at night while stationed in Somalia in the late 1980s.

Brutal heat, chaotic streets, and lack of electricity made it particularly trying for the country director of CARE, the humanitarian organization.

But when a family in a nearby house had armed intruders break in, that really rattled Mrs. Tsitouris.

"Of course I've been shot at, but somehow that wasn't as disturbing as the house just down the street [being broken into]."

Mogadishu was relatively safe when she, her husband, Doug, and son, Madan, arrived in 1986.

Before the war started, they went to the beach every weekend and her son played with local Somali kids. His American school was a gathering spot for the community.

The fragile peace gave way to war in the late 1980s. Chaos reigned during the early 1990s, when warlords vied for control of the city.

"It's kind of like: Who's got more guns and who can take over?" she says.

Family life - and how to approach parenting in such a tense situation - meant balancing CARE's mission (feeding Ethiopian refugees who had flooded into the country) and the desire to keep her family safe.

She remembers one time when her first-grader was playing in the dirt lane in front of their house. Nearby was another boy, about 10 years old, who was also playing - with a Kalishnakov assault rifle.

As the capital became more unstable, Tsitouris and fellow workers practiced how to respond during an emergency. One of the scenarios was what to do if rebels came into the compound, put a gun to the guard's head, and said "Let us in, or we'll shoot the guard." What are you going to do? The answer? Under no circumstance, she says, were they supposed to open the door.

As tensions grew, she and her husband talked about sending their son back to the US to live with her brother or mother. But her husband was determined not to break up the family.

Once, when they were returning to Somalia via Kenya, they saw passengers who had just arrived from Mogadishu, "who were scared, who were ashen faced, who were in fear of what they had lived through, because Mogadishu had been attacked," she says.

A few months later, as the situation grew worse, they had a family discussion, including Madan, about whether her husband and son should relocate.

"He wouldn't leave me," she says of her husband. "He said, 'We're in this together, I'm not going to break the family up.' "

The Tsitourises could have returned to the US, but they felt that their work in Sudan was too important for them to leave.

"If there was no CARE, if we weren't doing our job, then a lot of people ... would definitely have been affected, if not by famine, than by serious malnutrition," she says. "I had so many friends in government and the international aid community, I could make things happen. And the Somalis really trusted me." But while she always felt secure, she couldn't guarantee safety for her son.

The war Madan lived through doesn't seemed to have profoundly affected him. Even today, as a teenager, when asked what his favorite country is, he still says Somalia.

"Going through those major decisions together and realizing all the things that are important to you, that brought us a whole lot closer [as a family]."

It also made them closer with the people she worked with. In fact, some of the Somalis she worked with still call her once a week to chat.

They formed a bond by working in a war-torn country. "[We] took it on, [we] went outside the lines," she says.

Two countries, two wars

Bob Laprade was in the middle of dinner when the missiles hit.

The country director for CARE in Sudan was eating with members of nongovernmental organizations and Sudanese officials when the US cruise misslies hit a chemical plant in the capital of Khartoum in 1998 in retaliation for the US Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

Mr. Laprade knew he had to get himself and his family out of the country. As Khartoum radio stations started playing Sudanese war songs, Laprade crawled into the back of a friend's car and hid under a blanket, as he was driven to another friend's house.

Mr. Laprade's wife, one-year-old daughter, and second-grade son were waiting there.

"We didn't want to stay in our house," Laprade says. "We had no idea what the reaction would be. We didn't know if we'd be taken hostage. We still didn't know if people were looking for us. It was not clear."

Laprade and other aid workers slept on the floor and dealt with the logistics of getting people evacuated as the US Embassy was being defaced.

The suddeness of the attacks meant Laprade had to delicately explain a situation to his young son that he didn't totally understand himself.

"He was old enough to understand [what was going on]," Laprade says. "He was old enough to be scared.

"We told him what had happened. I think he was looking to us to see whether he should be freaked out or not. We had to be calm about it all and try to be rational."

This wasn't the first time the Laprades had been in an unstable country. While they were stationed in Angola from 1991 to 1993, UNITA rebels were fighting government troops in the city of Huambo.

Laprade was working on a food delivery program with CARE, and local people were "in really horrible shape nutritionally there at that time. It was one of these situations where you were morally compelled to stick it out."

But the dismal housing (they moved 12 times while in Angola) and the complete lawlessness in the streets at night made Laprade question whether a family should really be stationed there.

"We had an armed person come over the wall to our compound one time," Laprade says.

The final straw, however, was when his son was diagnosed with malaria. The local hospital was of no help, driving out of town wasn't an option, and because of rebel activity, supply planes refused to fly in.

"That's probably the worst situation I've ever been in in my entire life. It's a parent's worst nightmare," he recalls.

Laprade wondered if he made the right choice when he brought his family to a remote corner of Angola. "When you know that I didn't have to come here to begin with, you really wonder...," he says, trailing off, a tinge of pain still in his voice.

His experience made him compassionate toward refugees.

"[From] experiences like we had ... you realize, what people go through and understand their emotion," he says. "What we went through, it's not different than [what's experienced by] the millions of refugees around the world."

Evacuation from Pakistan

Betty Lou Hummel was writing a letter to her college roommate in 1979 when a rowdy group of men went by her residence in Islamabad, Pakistan. She thought it was a soccer team.

Mrs. Hummel, wife of then-US ambassador to Pakistan Arthur Hummel, didn't realize they were a Pakistani mob on their way to torch the US Embassy.

But at that moment, Mr. Hummel was on his way home for lunch. He had heard on the radio that there had been a seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and there was speculation (which turned out to be false) that the US was involved. He phoned the chancellery at the embassy and alerted them.

The attack touched off evacuations of diplomats from around the country. American families at US facilities in Peshawar and Lahore started arriving at the Hummel's residence.

"It was the day before Thanksgiving. We had a turkey, so I just had the cook go ahead and prepare the food," Hummel says.

Even without knowing how locals were going to react, she continued to go out after the attack.

"I went up to the bakery and got bread," she says. "I suppose I was in a state of shock, but things had to be done."

Before and after the attack, she continued to wear the salwar kameez, the long tunic that Pakistanis wear. "I didn't want to stand out," Hummel says. "We'd been in the Foreign Service long enough [that] it was my feeling that we were guests in these countries, and we do what is appropriate to their country, according to the custom."

The burning of the embassy brought the families together, and showed how US employees and their families rely on one another for support when abroad.

"Everyone was in a state of shock. I think everyone was handling things the best he or she could, including the children," Hummel says.

The State Deptartment flew all of the diplomatic families back to Virginia, where they stayed together in an apartment complex. They could then decide if they wanted to stay there or return to their US homes. To build a sense of community, the workers set up a newsletter and secured an office. Diplomats still working in Pakistan sent their families information about life there.

The community feeling the families built had a healing effect. She still feels it years after her husband's retirement from the diplomatic service.

"I think we were being able to be of support and help to one another and move on with our lives," Hummel says. "My feeling at the end of all of this and when we returned is how much stronger we all were - and, as a community, how much more cohesive we were."

Even under the best of circumstances, holding a family together involves challenges. Imagine how much harder it is for families stationed overseas when civil and international strife breaks out, as has happened in the Middle East.

Surely the job of comforting and dealing with children means that family discussions take on complicated new dimensions.

To better understand what American aid workers and US diplomats have been through during recent evacuations from Pakistan, the Monitor talked with three families who once found themselves in similar situations to find out how they dealt with living in war-torn foreign countries.

Managing in Mogadishu

Even with guard dogs, a high-walled compound, and a watchman (unarmed), Marge Tsitouris had a hard time sleeping at night while stationed in Somalia in the late 1980s.

Brutal heat, chaotic streets, and lack of electricity made it particularly trying for the country director of CARE, the humanitarian organization.

But when a family in a nearby house had armed intruders break in, that really rattled Mrs. Tsitouris.

"Of course I've been shot at, but somehow that wasn't as disturbing as the house just down the street [being broken into]."

Mogadishu was relatively safe when she, her husband, Doug, and son, Madan, arrived in 1986.

Before the war started, they went to the beach every weekend and her son played with local Somali kids. His American school was a gathering spot for the community.

The fragile peace gave way to war in the late 1980s. Chaos reigned during the early 1990s, when warlords vied for control of the city.

"It's kind of like: Who's got more guns and who can take over?" she says.

Family life - and how to approach parenting in such a tense situation - meant balancing CARE's mission (feeding Ethiopian refugees who had flooded into the country) and the desire to keep her family safe.

She remembers one time when her first-grader was playing in the dirt lane in front of their house. Nearby was another boy, about 10 years old, who was also playing - with a Kalishnakov assault rifle.

As the capital became more unstable, Tsitouris and fellow workers practiced how to respond during an emergency. One of the scenarios was what to do if rebels came into the compound, put a gun to the guard's head, and said "Let us in, or we'll shoot the guard." What are you going to do? The answer? Under no circumstance, she says, were they supposed to open the door.

As tensions grew, she and her husband talked about sending their son back to the US to live with her brother or mother. But her husband was determined not to break up the family.

Once, when they were returning to Somalia via Kenya, they saw passengers who had just arrived from Mogadishu, "who were scared, who were ashen faced, who were in fear of what they had lived through, because Mogadishu had been attacked," she says.

A few months later, as the situation grew worse, they had a family discussion, including Madan, about whether her husband and son should relocate.

"He wouldn't leave me," she says of her husband. "He said, 'We're in this together, I'm not going to break the family up.' "

The Tsitourises could have returned to the US, but they felt that their work in Sudan was too important for them to leave.

"If there was no CARE, if we weren't doing our job, then a lot of people ... would definitely have been affected, if not by famine, than by serious malnutrition," she says. "I had so many friends in government and the international aid community, I could make things happen. And the Somalis really trusted me." But while she always felt secure, she couldn't guarantee safety for her son.

The war Madan lived through doesn't seemed to have profoundly affected him. Even today, as a teenager, when asked what his favorite country is, he still says Somalia.

"Going through those major decisions together and realizing all the things that are important to you, that brought us a whole lot closer [as a family]."

It also made them closer with the people she worked with. In fact, some of the Somalis she worked with still call her once a week to chat.

They formed a bond by working in a war-torn country. "[We] took it on, [we] went outside the lines," she says.

Two countries, two wars

Bob Laprade was in the middle of dinner when the missiles hit.

The country director for CARE in Sudan was eating with members of nongovernmental organizations and Sudanese officials when the US cruise misslies hit a chemical plant in the capital of Khartoum in 1998 in retaliation for the US Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

Mr. Laprade knew he had to get himself and his family out of the country. As Khartoum radio stations started playing Sudanese war songs, Laprade crawled into the back of a friend's car and hid under a blanket, as he was driven to another friend's house.

Mr. Laprade's wife, one-year-old daughter, and second-grade son were waiting there.

"We didn't want to stay in our house," Laprade says. "We had no idea what the reaction would be. We didn't know if we'd be taken hostage. We still didn't know if people were looking for us. It was not clear."

Laprade and other aid workers slept on the floor and dealt with the logistics of getting people evacuated as the US Embassy was being defaced.

The suddeness of the attacks meant Laprade had to delicately explain a situation to his young son that he didn't totally understand himself.

"He was old enough to understand [what was going on]," Laprade says. "He was old enough to be scared.

"We told him what had happened. I think he was looking to us to see whether he should be freaked out or not. We had to be calm about it all and try to be rational."

This wasn't the first time the Laprades had been in an unstable country. While they were stationed in Angola from 1991 to 1993, UNITA rebels were fighting government troops in the city of Huambo.

Laprade was working on a food delivery program with CARE, and local people were "in really horrible shape nutritionally there at that time. It was one of these situations where you were morally compelled to stick it out."

But the dismal housing (they moved 12 times while in Angola) and the complete lawlessness in the streets at night made Laprade question whether a family should really be stationed there.

"We had an armed person come over the wall to our compound one time," Laprade says.

The final straw, however, was when his son was diagnosed with malaria. The local hospital was of no help, driving out of town wasn't an option, and because of rebel activity, supply planes refused to fly in.

"That's probably the worst situation I've ever been in in my entire life. It's a parent's worst nightmare," he recalls.

Laprade wondered if he made the right choice when he brought his family to a remote corner of Angola. "When you know that I didn't have to come here to begin with, you really wonder...," he says, trailing off, a tinge of pain still in his voice.

His experience made him compassionate toward refugees.

"[From] experiences like we had ... you realize, what people go through and understand their emotion," he says. "What we went through, it's not different than [what's experienced by] the millions of refugees around the world."

Evacuation from Pakistan

Betty Lou Hummel was writing a letter to her college roommate in 1979 when a rowdy group of men went by her residence in Islamabad, Pakistan. She thought it was a soccer team.

Mrs. Hummel, wife of then-US ambassador to Pakistan Arthur Hummel, didn't realize they were a Pakistani mob on their way to torch the US Embassy.

But at that moment, Mr. Hummel was on his way home for lunch. He had heard on the radio that there had been a seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and there was speculation (which turned out to be false) that the US was involved. He phoned the chancellery at the embassy and alerted them.

The attack touched off evacuations of diplomats from around the country. American families at US facilities in Peshawar and Lahore started arriving at the Hummel's residence.

"It was the day before Thanksgiving. We had a turkey, so I just had the cook go ahead and prepare the food," Hummel says.

Even without knowing how locals were going to react, she continued to go out after the attack.

"I went up to the bakery and got bread," she says. "I suppose I was in a state of shock, but things had to be done."

Before and after the attack, she continued to wear the salwar kameez, the long tunic that Pakistanis wear. "I didn't want to stand out," Hummel says. "We'd been in the Foreign Service long enough [that] it was my feeling that we were guests in these countries, and we do what is appropriate to their country, according to the custom."

The burning of the embassy brought the families together, and showed how US employees and their families rely on one another for support when abroad.

"Everyone was in a state of shock. I think everyone was handling things the best he or she could, including the children," Hummel says.

The State Deptartment flew all of the diplomatic families back to Virginia, where they stayed together in an apartment complex. They could then decide if they wanted to stay there or return to their US homes. To build a sense of community, the workers set up a newsletter and secured an office. Diplomats still working in Pakistan sent their families information about life there.

The community feeling the families built had a healing effect. She still feels it years after her husband's retirement from the diplomatic service.

"I think we were being able to be of support and help to one another and move on with our lives," Hummel says. "My feeling at the end of all of this and when we returned is how much stronger we all were - and, as a community, how much more cohesive we were."

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