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"Aaron,wake up!" cried my mother. I struggled to consciousness and heard poppingsounds in the distance.
"What is it?" I asked, still halfasleep.
"There's fighting in the streets. Hurry, get up!" shesaid. There was fear and urgency in her voice. I jumped immediately from my bunkbed, gouging my hand on a jagged beam. We dashed into the hallway where my fatherand five-year-old sister stood.
My parents were missionaries, and had beensent to the city of Monrovia in Liberia four months before. This West Africancountry was war-torn and haggard after almost two decades of civil war. My fatherwas teaching in the Methodist seminary, and my mother was teaching art andhome-schooling my sister Chelsea and me (she was in kindergarten, I was in thirdgrade).
Two weeks before there had been a small confrontation on the beachjust outside our compound. One of the warlords who lived nearby had captured amember of the opposing faction, shooting him dead. This became the catalyst forwhat happened that night. The opposing factions who had been waging war outsidethe city were moving into our area. They struck in the night, and fightingerupted throughout the city.
We stayed in that hallway for almost 15hours. Our house was made of concrete and had no windows in the middle, making itvery safe. All night we heard gunshots and cannons. After all those hours ofbeing terrified and numb, we grew annoyed, and even bored. I remember saying,"When is something new going to happen?" Just then, we heard awhistling sound grow louder, and then an earth-shattering explosion. It was abomb, a mortar, that had hit right next door. Then there was another, andanother. They just kept coming! There must have been fighters from opposingfactions on either side of our housing compound. They had been getting closer andcloser until we were stuck in the middle. Eventually they were going to miss, andwhen they did, we did not want to be there.
My father told us to hurry tothe car. It was either stay and face certain death, or make a desperate runthrough the chaotic streets. He had heard over his ham radio that there was goingto be a convoy of missionaries, and strength in numbers always helped. We wouldtry and make our way to the American Embassy three miles away.
We got intoour car, with my sister and me under a thick blanket on the floor of the backseat. We said a quick good-bye to the guards of our compound and sped out of thegates to rendezvous with the convoy that was headed toward the Embassy.
Myfather told me later that bodies littered the streets. The heat was excruciatingand the stench of death permeated the air. We rode past shelled houses andbullet-ridden buildings. At every intersection were soldiers, but not ordinaryones. They were not courageous warriors, but doped-up teenagers who fired at uswith automatic weapons. Thankfully they were not good shots.
My father wasdoing a fantastic job driving. I could not see anything, but he made sharp turnsto avoid soldiers. Every time he'd turn, my head would smash into the side of thecar. I'm sure it hurt, but at the time I was so frightened I didn't feel it. Fearoverwhelmed all my senses.
We kept going and suddenly turned a corner,driving straight into the sights of a rocket-propelled grenade, a vicious littleweapon shot from a bazooka-type barrel. A soldier had it hoisted over hisshoulder and aimed directly at us. My father stopped, figuring you don't have tobe a good shot to do damage with a bazooka. One soldier grabbed my father andyanked him from the car. He was holding a machete and told my father to get onhis knees. My father didn't, staring the Grim Reaper in the face. He wasn't goingto die like a coward. The soldier, on the other hand, was a coward and, unable tolook my father in the eye as he killed him, and so stepped down. My mother,sister and I clambered out of the car as the soldiers commandeered it, getting inand speeding away.
We had no car and no possessions. We had to walkthrough the blazing inferno that was once the city of Mon-rovia. I had no shoes,so my father carried me on his back. We were tired and scared. My tears dried inthe heat.
We trudged on through burning buildings and bodies. The carnageand destruction decreased as we neared the Embassy. We crossed a makeshift lineof broken auto parts and scrap metal, and the peacekeepers told us we wereentering Monrovia. They had been forced back and had brought the city line withthem, leaving the fighting outside. The peacekeepers were determined to keep thewar out of Monrovia at all costs.
When we reached the Embassy, it was likea dream come true - our haven, the only safe place in Monrovia. When we entered,our fear eased, but we were not out of danger yet, nor out of Monrovia.
We stayed in the Embassy three long, frightening nights. I could notsleep because of the cannons and tanks shelling unknown targets. On the third daythe Marines evacuated us by helicopter; we were the first Americans to get out.The helicopter landed on the Embassy's basketball court and we climbed aboard,sitting between the two gunners. The helicopter roared into the air. Since wewere the first evacuated, the ground troops were not ready and there was noresistance. We were flying to safety, and for the first time in more than fourdays, I was able to relax.
I turned to the gunner next to me and said,"Here, this is for you," handing him one of my Africanbracelets.
"Thank you," he said as he strapped it to hishelmet. "It will bring me good luck."
We landed in Sierra Leone,where we boarded a military cargo plane and flew to Dakar, the capital ofSenegal. It was late and we were worn-out, and emotionally tattered. As we rodeto a hotel, I drifted in and out of sleep. At one point we hit a large potholeand I jerked awake, startled and frightened. I didn't know where I was for asecond and thought I was back in Liberia. A woman saw me.
"Don'tworry," she said, "you're safe now."
I was. I was safe.
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