Although I know that many people will immediately run to recollect how they dealt with the tragedy of the bombing of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, on September 11, 2001, it’s always a strange day for me to remember.
I was working in Nouackchott, Mauritania, at the time, and had just ended morning meetings and heading to lunch with members of the IMF team, negotiating the fourth review of the program supported under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and the main parameters of the 2002 budget.
Mauritania is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and dealing with sand is an integral part of living there. It’s flat and when sand storms blow it’s about what you can touch not what you can see. Sand in everything is standard, and my suitcases after trips there were always full of sand grains, even though my hotel room had sealed windows.
As we entered the restaurant (one of our regulars, whose name escapes me), we say the TV tuned to CNN and all eyes and faces turned to it. We were by the door and couldn’t hear the commentary, but we all took it that this was an action film being shown as we saw images of smoke tailing up into the sky.
No way in our imaginations could we have understood this to be real—an apocalyptic scene from the USA.
Then, we began to hear the commentary coming over the screen, in English—sounding odd, in a French-speaking country, and I don’t know how many understood the words spoken. As we stood watching and the realisation hit home, people started to reach for mobile phones and start calling home. It was hearing the distressed voices of loved ones talking about what they had seen and were going to do to get home or get children from school and reassess. My current wife and I weren’t yet married, and she was having to negotiate in the city that is the governmental epicentre, Washington DC. I’ve heard stories of the frantic drive from the Fund to school to pick up her daughter and get home, but it’s not a reality that I can touch. That’s how disasters are, second-hand.
Many things hit home, immediately, in Mauritania, the first of which was that the attack was by a group of radical Muslims, and there we were in the capital of a Muslim country. I remember voices from the restaurant saying things like “This is not Islam!” as the shock registered with local people.
We ended the mission and headed back to Washington and the first taste of what modern air travel was going to be for years afterwards, as we navigated new security measures as we transited Paris and then arrived in Washington. I can’t remember the details of the scrutiny but I had the ‘memories’ scarred onto my life for years to come as my UN laisser-passer carried stamps from a Muslim country. I was to be often taken aside for ‘special screening’ on many of my departures from Washington DC, and it took some strong letters to the Department of Homeland Security to get the ‘red flags’ removed from my profile, after the ‘random’ checks for almost every departure got to be too much.