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Thankfully, The Terrorists Only Wanted Our SUV

Last Friday, two young Frenchman were sitting in a bar in Niamey when a group of armed, turbaned men entered the establishment and kidnapped them. One of the men was about to marry a Nigerienne woman. The other was his childhood friend, who had flown from France earlier in the day to help prepare for the wedding. Their lifeless bodies were found near the border with Mali on Saturday.

The story is tragic, and my heart hurts for the fiancée and the families of the victims. It’s not the only story of kidnapping in Niger in recent years, but the stories don’t usually end in death.

For me, the story is disturbing in some very personal ways.

First, this horrific crime occurred in a bar where I spent an evening dining and drinking with my husband during our trip to Niger in 2006. Most terrorist acts in Niger happen in the desert or in the eastern part of the country. And I’m quick to point that out when justifying my potential future trips to Niger. This attack happened at a popular restaurant in the middle of the capital city. A place where many expatriates, including Peace Corps volunteers, like to frequent. It was close to home.

And second, because I was once the target of armed, turbaned men.

the 4x4 that came to our rescue in Agadez

In August of 2001, just a few weeks before America would be savagely and horrifically terrorized, I hitched a ride with a Peace Corps staffer, Cindy, who was traveling up to the exotic northern part of Niger to visit some volunteers. I hadn’t seen the Sahara Desert yet, so I was looking forward to exploring life amidst the sand dunes.

We met two of the volunteers in Agadez, after a tiring 12-hour ride up a gravel road. They’d traveled nearly as far from the opposite direction, so to relax a bit we decided to give our Nigerien driver the rest of the night off and the four of us women drove the 4×4 to a local restaurant where we enjoyed beers and good food on the rooftop bar.

The police later told us that the hijackers had likely spotted our vehicle the moment we arrived in Agadez, and upon reflection the signs were there. When we asked for the dinner check, our waiter was strangely preoccupied gazing down to the street below us. When we exited the restaurant, I looked around to pay the guy who was supposed to be guarding our car, but there was no one nearby. Instead, passersby were standing across the street watching us from a distance.

We piled in the car to head back to our hotel, and in a matter of seconds our pleasant evening became a terrorist’s dream. The instant Cindy turned the ignition a turbaned man was at her window. “Get out of the car,” he ordered in French. We all ignored him and the French didn’t register at first, as it’s common in Niger for men to approach NGO vehicles begging for change. He repeated the phrase just as the words began to translate in our minds, and that’s when we heard Cindy announce that the man had a gun. Four doors opened without hesitation, and we walked, heads down and briskly, back into the restaurant a few feet away. I remember passing a second turbaned man, who took my seat in the 4×4 just before it peeled off into the dark streets.

Those hijackers won the jackpot that night. The car they stole was a brand-new, shiny, white 4×4. It was carrying two full canisters of fuel on the top, and a supply of transmitter radios that were to be given to a remote desert village. We had left much of our luggage in the vehicle, including food and cameras and video recorders and at least $1,000 cash. But none of us really cared about all of that, because they didn’t steal our lives.

We immediately called the local police, and then the Peace Corps office. A new vehicle, accompanied by our Country Director, was dispatched immediately to come to our assistance and remove all volunteers from the area. As for the local police, well, they needed to borrow a car from the Agriculture Department, and then they had to fuel it up, and then they came to interrogate us a few hours later.

After assuring that the officers had sufficient snacks available, the four of us were taken to a room where we were separated from one another and asked a series of questions: “What were you doing at the restaurant?” “Did you get a good look at the hijackers?” “Where do you live in Niger?” “Could I come visit you sometime in your village?”

Tired and annoyed, I responded with a question of my own: “Do you really think you’re going to catch these guys?”

No. There’s no question — no. How could they? When the police didn’t have a vehicle of their own, how could they catch an SUV equipped enough to be in Algeria before anyone came to our aid?

So we counted our blessings, which were many. While armed, the terrorists were not violent. While we’d lost many possessions, we were still breathing. While they could have waited until we were deep in the desert, they chose to hijack us in the middle of the quiet city. While we felt alone, we had a support network on the way to rescue us.

The next morning our entourage arrived, accompanied by armed soldiers in separate trucks. We voyaged into the dusty desert (where I saw no sand dunes) for 6 hours until we arrived in Iferouane, where the region’s remaining volunteers were given a few hours to pack up all their belongings and say their goodbyes.

After that incident, Agadez was closed off to foreign travel. Occasionally it is deemed safe enough to re-open, and then another hijacking closes it off again. It’s much less feasible to close off Niamey. And much more of a strike against the people of Niger as a whole. If only terrorists were still satisfied with merely material gain.

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