LIBYA (September 17, 2012 – Editor’s note: Leslie Wingender, daughter of Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Gary and Mary Lou Sander, recently returned from Libya after completing a summer internship as part of her work towards a master’s degree in reconciliation and peacemaking through Georgetown University. She worked with a development firm implementing the USAID Libya Transition Initiative, which focuses on promoting political processes, good governance and reconciliation. Last Thursday, she wrote on her blog about meeting with the late U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his sense of humor, and deep love for the people of Libya. Her post is printed in its entirety below.
By Leslie Wingender
Today news about Libya hit home. I have been back in the States for just over a month. And what a month is has been. I felt a bit removed from Libya and my friends and colleagues. But today, I was called by a friend here to tell me that Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
The news is tragic. When I was there, the British ambassador was attacked but unharmed, although two security personnel were severely injured. There had been an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi before, but the attack was at night and no one was hurt . . . it seemed like that was the point. But attacks have increased since August, mostly in the East (Benghazi). However, the day before I left, the first car bomb went off in Tripoli, an attack that had not been seen since the day Qadhafi fell in October 2011.
But yesterday, the U.S. Consulate was attacked in Benghazi. It was a complex attack that left the four Americans dead. It is weird reading the news and wanting to know more details, not because I am interested in the story, but because I know the people there: the Americans working at the embassy or international organizations, and the Libyans working for stability and peace in their country.
I can’t say that I knew Ambassador Stevens well, but I feel compelled to share about him. He came to Libya in May – I was responsible for drafting a comprehensive summary for him on what our project was doing in Libya. I had yet to meet him, but his reputation preceded him. He was the U.S. Special Envoy to Libya before and during the revolution. He was known for his genuine interest in the Libyan people, the revolutionaries and the youth. He came to our project’s assessment week and met our staff personally.
Later that week I was at the embassy with colleagues for a get-together and the ambassador joined. One colleague encouraged me to talk to him and told me he was very approachable. As I made my way over to him, I had a mini-crisis identity: where is it I am from again? Colombia? U.S.? California? D.C.? Why I am in Libya? This existential crisis didn’t come out of nowhere. When I first met him earlier that week, he asked me where I was from and I said Colombia. There was a pause because it took a second to remember that we were in Libya and there was no real connection between the two countries. Ever since then I felt like I had a lot of explaining to do: my life story for the ambassador. Maybe I could think of how to communicate that in ‘briefing format – U.S. Government style.
But there I was, still making my way over to Stevens and I had not sorted out my answer. It didn’t matter. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but somehow it did and before I knew it I was engaged in a great conversation with this man. We had a lot in common. We talked about UC Berkeley – Go Bears! – and Oakland and Piedmont. We discussed Fenton’s ice cream and Zachary’s pizza. He wanted to know more about Colombia and I told about it. He then explained there was a rumor about Colombian snipers aiding Qadhafi in Misrata. We laughed at this. I assured him they were Venezuelan. We compared hiking routes: Swiss Alps (me) versus Moroccan Mountains (Stevens). He convinced me it was worth a trip there. I told I would go. We shared horrors of speaking Arabic and trying to conjugate on the fly while in an interview. We compared the Egyptian humor (something we both experienced while living there and making Egyptians friends) and the stoic dignified personality of Libyans.
Overall, our conversation was special and so, so normal – even though I was in Libya. With the ambassador. And I was . . . just an intern who happened to be at the embassy that night. It encouraged me because even though Stevens was well advanced in his career, I felt like I met a colleague (and I mean that in the most respectful way). Stevens was humble, intelligent, observant, open and driven. He did great work and promoted partnership between Americans and Libyans.
The reason the news hit home is not only because I knew Stevens, but because I also have Libyan friends, and events like this just highlight the tragic effects of violence and extremism. The events of Tuesday’s attack are still coming out. But I do want to say that at this point it looks like an extremist group planned the attack and it was not a mob that killed the Americans. I think reading and viewing pictures of the Libyans who brought Stevens to the hospital got me the most. I think of all of my Libyan colleagues and friends – the people who are working to build their country. I spoke to two friends today and they expressed sympathy and sadness for the American families of the four. My friends are still working for peace. They are still striving to create a new country for themselves and their children.
Over the summer, a Libyan colleague told me that he asked himself every day if he was going to put on ‘the brave jacket’. When he thought about facing the day – the risk, the uncertainty, the difficulty, the stress and pressure of his environment in Libya – he wondered about just putting the jacket aside and walking through his day unnoticed.
But in the end he would put the jacket on.
All my Libyans colleagues put on ‘the brave jacket’, as did Stevens and the three Americans. As do the other foreigners still there. The faces of these brave people and the ones who are there right now, both American and Libyan working together, fill my mind. They are amazing people. Good people. Strong people that choose daily to keep going.