Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ranya Kargbo (CSP '95)Ranya Kargbo was a Caux Scholar in 1995

We cannot be deterred - however we celebrate, we endure and remain vigilant in our work as a United Nations International Civil Servant.
Like any other Friday, the day had started very early for me, followed by an 8 am meeting and several consultations with staff. I was thirsty and decided to get a quick break prior to the 10.30 section meeting I had scheduled for all human resources staff in Abuja. It was a bit after 10 am. I was having a brief chat with colleagues in the hallway, as we waited for an elevator to go downstairs for some coffee, when the phone rang shortly after and it was my dad calling from Sierra Leone. As he does not call often, I knew it was important, so I walked into the bathroom to have some privacy for the call. I was insistent on getting on with the day, but my father kept talking - this was weird. The last thing I remembered was him saying on the phone "May God bless you.... may you never see shame... I clicked off my cell phone and immediately there was this loud bang! My phone flew and remains buried in the debris to date; the bathroom shook and the wall behind me fell on my head. I screamed as I guessed we had been bombed as nothing else could rattle the building that way. Was I going to die that day? It was 10.20 am!
It was now pitch black, the entry to the bathroom was blocked by fallen pillars and the water sprinklers had come on. I rushed out begging God to spare my life as the day before was my only son's birthday (25 Aug) and I was to have a party for him the next day (Sat 27 Aug). I emerged out of the bathroom and saw a ball of fire. The staircase was on fire and I reflected on Sept 11 when the building caved in and all met their death presumably due to the heat. I was so scared.. afraid to die! I was bruised from falling debris and in shock.  It was important for us all to get out - so we found each other and the stairs and began the check-in of who was outside and therefore alive and who was inside wounded or dead.  I will never forget the moans and screams. I jumped out of the window, rushed to the front of the building and could not believe my eyes. The scene was horrible and there was utter chaos. I immediately grabbed the phone from a colleague, phoned my dad and thanked him for saving my life. Duty called immediately!
Imagine my horror to discover that individuals in the elevator did not survive as when the door opened at the lobby level, they met their death. It was surreal to see colleagues that smiled a few minutes and hours ago, lying dead - victims of such an atrocious, selfish act. I would have been one of the dead, had I ventured into that elevator and proceeded down to the reception area.

Twenty-three people died, over 161 wounded - however the emotional wounds remain with all staff in the building and those who came shortly after to help. We speculated that if the reception desk had not been made of cement and therefore became a barrier, the car would have made it to the heart of the building and the whole building could have crumbled, killing a lot more.

So what is an HR person to do?  The doctor and I stood outside and realized that we would have to go back in to find people. Other colleagues were at hand to assist and went in selflessly, not afraid to die in pursuit of the living. So we did. It's something you have to do in spite of the fact that you do not really know how safe the building is - would the structure hold? Would there be another bomb? It was tense to say the least. And what we witnessed in the way of carnage can hardly be imagined. We organized staff according to Agencies, worked with emergency personnel to evacuate the dead and dying and wounded to morgues and hospitals... in other words, I had a very small window of time to account for all staff.
We set in place rules, so everyone would be accounted for and the wounded quickly found and taken to hospital. I saw every corpse as I opened body bags to account for staff; visited every morgue and hospital and organized staff counselling and briefings of the survivors, deceased and wounded. I was undeterred. But the worst was not yet over.  As an HR person, some relatives turned to me - one woman asking where was her husband?  Because of protocol, I could not tell her he was dead, but she knew. Later, I spoke with families of the maimed and deceased to help them think through their future, how they would live, educate children with the compensation they would receive. In some ways assisting the grieving families has helped me with my own grief. I had to be strong for others, which increased my inner determination to be strong for my family too.

After this experience I am not the same person. I refused to grieve but celebrate life. From the highly pressured challenge of giving 100 percent at work and at home and having little left in energy for friends and my far-flung family, I was deeply impacted with how important relationships are and how much I need and want to maintain them. I've always wanted justice and peace to flourish, that is why I work in the United Nations and continue to do so. More and more people are needed to work to meet the needs of humanity and move us to a future where all children would have a voice and where the most vulnerable are reached.

As we celebrate the Christmas holiday, I reflect on what a year it has been! I still have a terrible limp from the fall that day. We have laughed and cried in Nigeria, but most important of all, we have all endured. I wished all my colleagues a special Merry Christmas and a rewarding 2012, as they have been part of my strength, growth and transformation, especially since the 26 August incident. We continue to celebrate life, survival and hope; knowing that we remain undeterred as we work tirelessly for the women and children in Nigeria.