Monique Atwood, Diplomatic Courier, U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service
My predecessors once rode the Orient Express through Europe, transporting classified diplomatic pouches to and from U.S. embassies and consulates behind the Iron Curtain. They traveled in jeeps through the desolate Khyber Pass, delivering classified and sensitive material from U.S. embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They used military aircraft, ocean liners, buses, trains, horses – whatever mode of transportation was available – to complete their crucial mission.
Welcome to the life of a diplomatic courier with the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Courier Service, a relatively small office within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which celebrates its centennial this year. While transportation to and from U.S. posts around the world has changed significantly over the last 100 years, the mission remains the same. Like a modern-day Pony Express, diplomatic couriers are tasked with safely and securely delivering our nation’s most sensitive documents and materials to 275 U.S. Department of State locations around the world. We are not privy to the contents of the diplomatic pouches we safeguard, but we are acutely aware that the items and information contained in them are vital to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in every corner of the globe.
During my 19 years as a diplomatic courier, I have traveled to 184 countries and logged more than six million miles – which equates to 25 trips to the moon. In my official capacity, I have traveled to remote parts of the world like the Federated States of Micronesia; to ancient cities like Cairo and Samarkand; and to countries off the beaten path like Tajikistan, Mauritania, and both Sudans!
My first assignment with the Foreign Service was to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire, a lush, cosmopolitan city in West Africa. It was an idyllic life where the standard of living was comparatively high, the nightlife was exuberant, and French restaurants thrived. Abidjan was a hub for a now-defunct regional airline called Air Afrique, which made it an ideal location for a diplomatic courier office. I was tasked with delivering pouches to each of the other West African posts in the surrounding area – Conakry, Banjul, Dakar, Sierra Leone, and others.
As an ex-pat, life in Abidjan was good, but there was an undercurrent of tension in the Ivory Coast because the economy was faltering. A few days before Christmas in 1999, President Henri Konan Bêdié was overthrown in a coup d’état.
The radio station behind my apartment building became an operating area for the mutineers, and gunfire and explosions were heard throughout the neighborhood. For several days I was forced to hunker down in my apartment with my embassy radio crackling as the Marine Security Guards asked for regular updates on my welfare.
Supporters of both the ousted president and the mutineers spread through the streets below my balcony on the Boulevard de la Republique. Tear gas meant to disperse the crowds exploded nearby, and I inadvisably stepped onto my veranda. I choked and spluttered as I tried to snap a few photographs from my extraordinary vantage point. Several people had been hit with gunfire and their bleeding bodies were thrown into vehicles that sped away from the scene.
The U.S. embassy subsequently evacuated all non-essential staff and their families, but my job required me to remain at post and to continue the indispensable work of a diplomatic courier. As chaos reigned in the country, the business of moving diplomatic pouches from our hub to other regional posts continued. Throughout those perilous weeks, we would load up an unarmored embassy vehicle with diplomatic pouches, and set off through the treacherous streets of Abidjan to the airport to catch a flight to Cotonou or Libreville. We would pass half a dozen checkpoints manned by menacing guards with guns locked and loaded, and would readily show our diplomatic identification and documentation. With words of caution, we were always cleared to continue, but the long slog to the airport was rife with uncertainty and the nagging question “What the h*** am I doing here??” A colleague and I ran that gauntlet dozens of times with our cargo.
I survived those weeks of maze-running and fear, and departed Abidjan in 2002 just as mutiny and civil war overtook the country.
Due to the unrest, the U.S. Department of State shut down the courier hub in Abidjan, and for a decade, routes through West Africa were managed by the auxiliary courier hub in Dakar, Senegal. The situation in the Ivory Coast has since stabilized, and I am happy to report that the Diplomatic Courier Service re-established its busy hub in Abidjan in the fall of 2016.
Since that first assignment, I have served in Bangkok, Thailand; Frankfurt, Germany; Miami, and Washington, D.C. I have traveled through some risky places, but nothing like I experienced in Côte d’Ivoire. I often look back on those exhilarating, terrifying days in Abidjan when the world was falling apart around us, when we focused exclusively on our mission and the determination to deliver our pouches, and think back to the couriers who came before me over the last century, the adventures they must have undertaken, the ingenuity they must have necessarily brought to their jobs. My courier ancestors helped bring peace to Europe after World War I, reopening communications to U.S. embassies across war-torn Europe and into Bolshevik Russia so that treaty negotiations could move forward unhindered. Navigating through wars, civil unrest, and even the tragedy of fatal plane crashes, the couriers have been quietly and steadfastly getting their pouches to their destinations for 100 years.
This November, as we celebrate our 100th birthday; retired and active diplomatic couriers will gather to remember the past, and look forward to the future. And many of us will be on the road, getting on with business, and transporting our pouches to the next post.