Surviving Terror in the Ivory Coast

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20160330_124131[1]By: RANDALL MOSSMAN
Staff Writer

Sometimes, it’s difficult to grasp why events occur as they do. It’s strange how some random sequence of events can become life altering. IU South Bend’s Connie Peterson-Miller found herself in this exact situation recently, as she survived a terrorist attack while in the African country, Ivory Coast.

Peterson-Miller, who is the director of admissions and the director of international student services at IUSB, was wrapping up a recruitment trip in Africa, where she was part of a large delegation representing 25 different universities. The delegation was in Africa as part of an educational trade mission for the US Department of Commerce to recruit international students to their respective universities.

The group had already made stops in South Africa and Ghana, and was at its stop in Grand Bassam, a resort town in the Ivory Coast.

“We first went to the International University of Grand Bassam and we met officials there,” Peterson-Miller said. “That was of great interest to me, because we have so many students from the Ivory Coast that completed part of their undergraduate work there.” Peterson-Miller also said that her delegation was offered the key to the city in a ceremony.

On March 13, which was the last day of the official delegation visit, the group planned to attend a luncheon at a beachside hotel in Grand Bassam. They were scheduled to arrive at noon, but had been running late all morning. “It was our last day. People got a little behind schedule. We worked so hard, couldn’t we take it a little bit easy? Eventually, we’ll make it down there,” Peterson-Miller said.

In addition to the lethargic start to their morning, the delegation was also invited to tour a museum before heading to their luncheon. While they were at the museum, the attack began.

“As we’re standing there, you could feel that something was happening on the beach,” Peterson-Miller said. “And suddenly, we could hear shots being fired. People were running towards us and screaming.”

Peterson-Miller said that the group hurried to the back of the museum, and eventually made its way to a courtyard, and then to a cellar-like area of the building. She estimates that the delegation was hidden in the museum for roughly two hours, all while hearing the sounds of gunfire.

“We have embassy officials with us, and they’re making phone calls. They don’t know what’s happening,” Peterson-Miller said. At first, officials believed that is was just a commotion from people drinking and firing off guns.

“You can hear things that sound like gunshots, but as it continues, and people run and scream, you’re pretty sure that that’s what you’re hearing,” Peterson-Miller continued. “When the shooting won’t stop, you realize, okay, this is something beyond a dispute.”

During the terrifying first few hours, the delegation was unaware of the scale of the attack that was occurring near to them. Gunmen from an al-Qaeda affiliate had been drinking at a bar in the Hotel Etoile du Sud, the same hotel where the delegation was supposed to meet for their luncheon. At around noon, the gunmen opened fire.

Soon after, gunmen arrived on boats and opened fire at people on the beach. The gunmen also moved towards two other hotels on the beach. Peterson-Miller estimates that her group were about 100 metres from the third hotel that was fired upon.

Peterson-Miller described the scene at the museum as one of relative calm, considering the circumstances. “I sat with a woman who was from the embassy, and we just held each other’s hands and she prayed,” Peterson-Miller said. We were hearing prayers in African languages, in French, in English.”

“It was a scene of calm but also resilient hope,” she said. People were hopeful that we’d emerge from this experience. I know from my perspective, and from talking to others that there was immense fear that that might not happen.”

With the constant barrage of gunshots and little communication to the outside, the unknown factor of what was happening was tough. “We don’t know who [the gunmen] are looking for, or what they want,” Peterson-Miller said. “Why has that person come? With whom is that person angry? Who will he direct his violence against? You just don’t know.”

After having taken shelter at the museum, the group were led away by security forces to the house of the mayor of Grand Bassam. The group still needed to get back to Abidjan, which is where the US embassy was. After spending a couple more hours at the mayor’s house, the group began the trip to Abidjan.

“Eventually, they get us into a bus, put a guy with a machine gun in the front, five SUVs with armor. They drove quickly towards the embassy,” Peterson-Miller said. “At one point, we move into oncoming traffic. The front car has a head on collision. The convoy moves around them.”

Once the delegation arrived at the embassy, they were debriefed on what was happening. But even then, it was still a lot to grasp. “It wasn’t until the very next day when the newspapers and various media sources began to carry the coverage that we understood more fully who they were and, perhaps, why they came,” Peterson-Miller said.

While it was the last day of the official delegation visit, Peterson-Miller had planned to stay another week in order to further interact with the students and their families. “Eventually my family called for me to return, and the university was very anxious,” Peterson-Miller said.

The experience has not changed how Peterson-Miller plans to travel in the future. She said that she typically keeps a very low profile during her international trips, but that this one was different.

“This was kind of an exception, because I don’t usually go with large delegations of Americans,” Peterson-Miller said. “But I was so proud and delighted to be a part of this delegation because of the opportunities that they afforded me as a representative of IUSB.”

“There’s no reason not to go back to Africa, because in the same way you wouldn’t avoid Paris for the rest of your life, nor Brussels, nor Boston,” she said. “It’s filled with wonderful people, many of whom I hope come study with us.”

While her travel plans aren’t much impacted, what was impacted was her perspective. “It has transformed my life in that it’s given me a greater sense of urgency to insure that the bonds of my relationships are solid,” Peterson-Miller said. “I have made an effort to express my love and affection to my family, to my friends, to my colleagues, to the students that I take care of.”

IUSB currently has 25 students from the Ivory Coast enrolled. None of them, or their families, is known to have been injured in the attack.

Peterson-Miller cited her love for the students and education as a major factor in her life. “[The attack] gave me renewed purpose for the job that I do in higher education. It was like this validation that, yes, education is important,” she said.

Peterson-Miller credits the locals and the security forces of the Ivory Coast for saving her delegation. “People showed immense kindness, immense courage,” she said. “I read stories in some of the French newspapers that, […] because of the courage of certain individuals, we were able to remain in hiding.”

Surviving an attack like the one in the Ivory Coast is not only a traumatic experience, but one that evokes thoughts of what an individual is destined to do in their life. “I don’t know why we were spared this,” Peterson-Miller said. “And because I was spared that fate, you can’t help but wonder whether you were meant to accomplish something more.”

One cannot help but ponder how seemingly irrelevant, random events can drastically alter one’s life, or even save it.

“We were lucky we were late.”

CORRECTION: In the April 6, 2016, print edition of The Preface, Connie Peterson-Miller was referred to as Connie Miller-Peterson. We regret this mistake.

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