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M
y family moved to Peshawar,
in the Northwest Frontier
province of Pakistan, in July
1998. That name always suggested a
certain wildness to me since the area is
located at the edge of the country, with
a wide ungovernable belt known as the
Tribal Territories between it and the
Afghan border. As long as we stayed in
the city, we were assured safety; but if
we chose to venture west, a military
guard was required.
It is the duty of members of the
dominant Pathan tribe, which is closely
affiliated with the Taliban, to protect
guests with their lives if necessary. This
sense of honor helps explain why no
outside force has ever conquered the
areas held by the Pathan, and why the
Pakistan government concedes that the
Tribal Territories are still ungovernable.
In 1998, Peshawar was not yet on
the world’s radar screen. Al-Qaida had
not yet made the news, nor was Osama
bin Laden a household name. But
within weeks of our arrival, the bomb-
ing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi
and Dar es Salaam changed our lives:
our talk became grim, and we adopted
a “but for the grace of God” attitude.
Unknown to us, the U.S. government
was making plans to respond.
At 3 a.m. one mid-August day, with
just a 24-hour warning, every American
in our mission was gathered in front of
the consulate — about 20 people. We
were told we would be driving to Is-
lamabad, then flying from Pakistan.
None of the families knew why. We
were puzzled, sleepy and scared, but
we tried not to upset our children.
While waiting, we talked among
ourselves, and learned from the few al-
lowed to stay in-country that our gov-
ernment had declined to tell the
NWFP authorities why we were leav-
ing. These authorities had expressed
concern, for the omission disturbed the
traditional sense of Pathan honor by
implying that we were running from
their protection. After all, they would
keep us safe no matter what.
Even so, we drove east on the
Grand Trunk Road toward Islamabad.
The trip through the night and into the
gold-rimmed dawn was quiet. A plane
would meet us in Islamabad for a 30-
hour trip to Baltimore, but we were still
in the dark.
Only after the Red Cross met us in
Baltimore did we learn that, while we
were in the air, the United States had
launched cruise missiles at suspected
al-Qaida strongholds, one of them only
60 miles from our home and barely
outside Pakistan. Rioting followed.
We later heard from third-country
friends who had stayed in Peshawar
that, after a few days, life returned to
normal, and the international school re-
opened.
But it would be five months before
our government allowed us to return to
post. The “Pak-Evac” families, as we
came to be known in Washington,
came close to rioting ourselves over this
delay.
Still, what I remember most
poignantly is our convoy through the
NWFP toward the Punjab. The U.S.
government had not only refused to tell
local officials why we were leaving, but
later bombed perilously close to the
province. Yet as we left, they did what
they could to protect us until we had
left their territory, fulfilling their sense
of duty by providing an escort.
As we drove into the dawn, at every
dusty kilometer along the route, we saw
a pair of fatigue-clad soldiers standing
at attention, guns held ready. By the
time we crossed into the Punjab, the
sun had risen and our honor guard was
gone.
Victoria Hirschland Hess was married
to a Foreign Service officer for 17 years.
Their fourth overseas tour, in Pakistan,
included three evacuations, a car
bombing and a coup, interspersed with
moments of joy from the hospitality of
their hosts. She and her children now
live in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
We drove east on the
Grand Trunk Road
toward Islamabad.
R
EFLECTIONS
The Greater Honor
B
Y
V
ICTORIA
H. H
ESS
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