Today I received a the strange text – “glad you escaped all that horror over there”.
I was in Tunisia last week, in Tunis, when gunmen attacked, killed, and took hostage a large group of tourists at the Bardo museum. But here is the truth: I wasn’t scared. It wasn’t horrifying. It was stressful and it was sad. It was shocking and confusing. But I never felt threatened, or in even in danger.
Here is my experience, as it happened.
As a part of the TechWomen delegation trip, I traveled to Tunisia. This trip was hard for me to make, there were so many personal and professional balls in the air that I arrived in the country exhausted beyond the exhaustion of jet-lag. Saturday a small group of us visited Sidi Bou Said, a popular tourist town that overlooks a beautiful harbor. Sunday, as a full delegation group, we traveled by tour bus to all the “must-see” sites of Tunis. I was surprised to see the North African American Cemetery and deeply touched that Tunisia has dedicated such a big, beautiful, space to American service men and women who fought in North Africa during World War II. The cemetery was actually closed on that day, but they opened it up for us and gave us the background of the war there in Northern Africa.
It was a full day – we visited two sites in Carthage and had lunch. Then we visited the Bardo Museum. By this time, I was flagging hard and I regret I wasn’t fully able to appreciate the museum. It was near closing time and there were not many visitors. We had a chance to learn about the process of mosaic creation – it takes an incredible amount of time and skill – and learned about the history of the building. It was once a palace for an Ottoman Prince and as such, there was indeed an area dedicated to the harem. We heard the story about the secret tunnels. We posed for a photo in front of a huge mosaic – the very same mosaic that would be seen all over Twitter on Wednesday. Then we headed to the Medina for a very quick tour.
Monday and Tuesday were our first official meetings. Wednesday was a day I was really excited about – we were visiting high school girls who were full of energy and thrilled to talk about their experiences in the US and their goals in technology. Sadly, my energy didn’t match theirs – I was not feeling well and had our tour guide help me get a cab back to the hotel. A bit later, I was IM-ing with another mentor who had come back early and we saw a post on Facebook “Are you ladies alright?”.
A quick search revealed what was happening – hostages taken at the Bardo, 8 people dead. The police were responding and had the area surrounded.
What did I feel in that moment? Shock. Surprise. Concern for the other mentors who were still out and about – though I knew they were in the opposite direction of the museum. It was still very early in my home timezone, but I sent my husband an instant message telling him I was OK. I quickly packed, just in case. Joining another mentor in her hotel room, we watched the Twitter feed and waited to hear from the rest of the delegation team as they made their way back to the hotel.
We didn’t expect the news to hit the mainstream American news – let’s face it, our media tends to focus more on Justin Bieber’s DUI than it does on global news. I made the decision to not post anything to Facebook or Twitter to avoid sending my family and friends into a panic. Then, in less than an hour, the news had hit the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I felt sick to my stomach when my friend told me this – my immediate concern was people thinking I was near the attack or somehow there when it happened. It was about 7am PDT and the west coast was waking up, I had to post something so everyone knew I was okay and I did, keeping it very short and brief. I was humbled, deeply touched, and often overwhelmed with the flow of notes, messages, and responses I received. I am deeply grateful to all those who were positive and upbeat.
Once the full delegation was together in the hotel lobby, the waiting began. At that time, the hostages were still being held and we were advised to not leave the hotel. Several of the Tunisian TechWomen were with us and we broke into groups – some playing cards, some online watching the news reports, and some ordering wine and cheese and talking amongst ourselves. And so we waited… then the good news came in: the hostages had been freed. It was followed with more sad news as the reported deaths rose to 18.
Shortly after, we were briefed by the State Department – the official TechWomen program was cancelled for the rest of the week. The Embassy was not evacuating, and it was our decision if we stayed in country or went – but the advice was to avoid tourist locations and to not travel in groups. It was a sad moment when we all realized it was over – the reason we had all traveled to Tunisia was cut short by senseless violence.
And so I booked a flight out for the next day – my family wanted me home. And without the structure of the program, coupled with the advice to avoid tourist locations, I came home.
Those last 24 hours were heartbreaking. The Tunisian women were clearly deeply saddened that this happened in their country while we were visiting. The founder of Tunisia Digital Day lost half of her guest speakers for the inaugural TDD event. The hotel staff who had become known faces and friends during the week showed concern. Our tour guide and bus driver became our bodyguards and made sure we got to the airport safely – all the while knowing the tourism industry just took a huge hit for Tunisia. Each cruise ship that docks in Tunisia bring $500,000 into the local economy – funds needed to provide jobs and help the fledgling democracy reach success.
And there lies the viciousness behind the attack and the real reason I cried myself to sleep in Dubai as I made my long journey home: all those people who touched my life would be impacted by the attack. Of the over 20 people who died that day, all but 2 were tourists. In response, cruise ships immediately canceled their routes to Tunisia. And this is where I say I have Hope for Tunisia: the people are smart, energetic, worldly, and kind. They are proud, as they should be, of their young democracy and that they built it themselves. And I have Faith in the world to do the right thing, to trust in the young democracy and the people and visit them. See for yourself what Tunisia really is and can be.