WHO WOULD HAVE thought the Guineans would be holding us hostage for four days after our arrrival? It was 1966 and my husband, Robinson McIlvaine, was the new American ambassador to Conakry. U.S.-Guinea relations had been cool, but the welcome we had received from President Sekou Toure was unusually cordial.
So it was a shock when armed guards with machine guns stopped us at our gate and wouldn't let us leave the ambassador's residence.
By midnight, we had finally found out why. A Pan American Airways plane, carrying a delegation of Guinean officials headed by their foreign minister, had made a stop in neighboring Ghana, and the whole delegation had been seized and put in jail. The dispute between the two countries had nothing to do with the United States -- the cause was Guinea's having granted asylum to Ghana's ousted president, Kwame Nkrumah -- but the Guineans blamed us for what had happened, because Pan American is a U.S. company. So the order had gone out: All Americans in Guinea were to be held hostage until the Guinean delegation was released.
The next morning, my husband managed to talk the guards into letting him drive to the embassy. Then the excitement started.
10:30 a.m. : The radio called: "Whisky 2, Whisky 2." I ran in from the hall, where I had been unpacking our trunks. The air-conditioned bedroom was blessedly cool compared to the steaming West African heat outside. I pushed the receiver button, trying to remember my husband's instructions last night when he had set it up.
"Whisky 2 here," I said, trying to sound professional. Bob was calling from the embassy office downtown: "Pass the word to the other sets that a demonstration is going on here -- big mob outside -- but it is peaceful -- no trouble -- stress peaceful -- we don't want rumors starting. It looks organized -- not spontaneous -- think we see Cubans directing. Everyone must stay inside and shut doors and windows. All the embassy is locked in. No one is allowed out."
10:40 : I started calling the other radios that had been set up last night in key areas. My set was the relay point, the only one that could reach the families in the suburbs. These were the lucky ones, I thought, thinking of the 400 or so other Americans who are stranded without telephones, radios, or any means of communication. The best they could so was turn on the local radio and listen to the striden anti-American speeches.
The noise from the radio and the air conditioner blocked all sound. I did not hear the approaching mob even though I was told later they were very noisy.
10:51 : Loud banging at the bedroom door got my attention. In the hall, our cook and the wife of our Pan Am neighbor pointed excitedly out a front window. Crowds were coming down the red dirt road.
I told the neighbor to get home, lock up and stay quiet, explaining there was a big protest march at the embassy and this was probably another. I told her everything would be all right.
11:02 : Hurried to the beach behind the house to get the babies, who were with Lisa, the Norwegian baby sitter, and the dog. Heads were popping up over the hedges bordering the garden. Lisa and I grabbed buckets, shovels, sandals and towels, yelled for the dog and dragged the children toward the house. Tried to hurry but still keep our dignity. Out of the corner of my eye, could see more and more heads appearing.
11:20 : Reached the terrace and stepped inside. The crowd broke through the hedges with a roar and surged forward, picking up the rocks from the borders to flower beds and heaving them at the large glass doors. I groaned, remembering the charge's telling me it had taken 18 months to get these doors from the United States.
11:27 : Got to the bedroom and the radio. "Whiskey 1, Whiskey 1," I called, "Whiskey 2 here." My voice cracked, my throat was dry and I was out of breath. I tried to sound calm. "Big mob here -- not at all peaceful -- rocks being thrown -- everything being smashed."
Thank God. Bob came on: "Still trying to reach foreign ministry. They don't answer -- locked in here -- cannot get to you -- afraid you're on your own. Good luck."
11:31 : A rock came crashing through the bedroom window, just missing me. Glass was flying and shattering. The noise was overwhelming, deafening -- guttural roars of hundreds of voices and the crashing, smashing of rocks and glass. Two more careened past.
"Whisky 1," I called back, "must sign off -- rocks coming in bedroom -- too dangerous."
11:35 : Tried to lock the bedroom door but could find no lock or key so jammed an armchair under th doorknob. Then all of us crowded into a small windowless corridor which led to the bedroom. Felt terribly cut off without the radio, which was left behind on the bedroom bureau.
11:35 : At the embassy office, the staff had crowded into Bob's office.
They had heard about the attack and sat looking at the radio, anxious and frustrated. Bob was frantic. How he could get to us? As ambassador his job was at the embassy. He couldn't leave.
Leo Arel, the administratiive officer, couldn't stand it any longer. "I'll go for you," he said. Tom Egan, a Pan Am captain, said, "I'm joining you."
11:38 : Arel and Egan found a small window in the rear of the embassy overlooking the parking lot, squeezed unseen down a drain spout, got into an embassy car and headed out to the suburbs.
As they got nearer the ambassador's residence, the dirt roads were jammed with people. The two men were forced to stop. Then the crowd spotted the car as American and attacked it. Thinking fast, Leo Arel, knowing how much Africans love babies, shouted through the window, "Je vais sauver des enfants bleesses. (I am going to save wounded babies.)" It did the trick. The Guineans stopped the attack and, pushing and shoving, made way for the car to pass, shouting to the others, "enfants blesses."
12:35 : Arel and Egan forced their way into the residence and were really alarmed when they saw the debris and the crowds. Then, with relief, they saw that the old cook and the gendarme were holding the crowds back at the top of the staircase, and had hope we might be safe after all.
In the meantime, crowded in our corridor, minutes seemed more like hours. Ian, 3, had been screeming because he didn't want to miss the action or have the doors shut. KASS, 1 1/2, SAT QUIETLY HUDDLED IN lisa's lap. The dog had sensibly crawled into the far end of the closet. I had wanted to sing to calm the children and drown out the noise but my throat was too dry and "My Country 'tis of Thee" came out in a rasp. Water was right there behind the bathroom door but it was wedged shut by a fallen window screen.
12:40 : The noise seemed to have died down. Or had it ? Cautiously I opened the door and peered in the bedroom. Glass from the windows littered the floor. Keeping low, I inched over the glass to the bureau and got the radio.
"Whisky 1, Whisky 1," I called.
Bob's voice, flooded with relief, came back: "My God, are you all right?"
"Yes, we're okay," I answered.
"Has anyone reached you? The foreign minister says it sent help and Arel and Egan left long ago to try to get to you. Have you seen them?"
I laughed, wondering whom I could have seen jammed in the little corridor. "No, I started to say -- and then froze.
Outside a few feet away on the flat roof, saw a dozen men. They wore ragged uniforms and looked disturbingly like a French Revolution mob. They carried guns and sticks and had cocades in their hats. When they saw me on the radio, they started shaking their fists.
"They're on the roof," my voice cracked.
Bob answered calmly, "It must be the militia. They've come to help."
"But they don't look friendly," I insisted. I heard people banging on the door.
"They're at the door!" I signed off.
Ordering Lisa to hold Kassie and say nothing, I grabbed a pair of my highest heeled shoes (I already stand 6 feet tall) and slipped them on. Then I picked up Ian, took the airchair from the door and stepped back into a corner, standing as tall as possible.
12:50 : They came in. All I can remember is the Castro-type hat and fierce eyes of the leader who shouted as he entered, "Ne touchez pas les enfants! (Don't touch the babies!)" What about Lisa and me, I remember thinking, feeling releived we were clutching the babies. The leader pointed and gestured at the radio and then marched for it. The radio was vital -- it was the only link we had to the embassy and the other families.
"But your telephones don't work," I protested. "I need the radio to call for an appointment at the hairdressers" -- knowing full well there was no such thing as a hairdresser in Guinea.
The leader paused. While he looked at me, frowning, we heard a new commotion outside, whistles blowing and men shouting. Our frozen tableau looked through the window. We saw troops. We heard American voices. The army had arrived. And Arel and Egan had gotten through from the embassy.
1:05 : The official Guinean delegation came in. They made profuse apoligies. They announced the servants would be returned (we hadn't realized they had been taken away) and the water and electricity would be turned back on (we hadn't known they were off).
A miracle. We were not free, but we were safe and had our radio. The mob was pulled back to the street.
1:15 : Egan went for a tray full of Cokes, beers and peanut butter sandwiches. With a sudden release of tension, joking and laughing we plunged into the food.
Revived and charged with adrenalin, we tacked up sheets at the broken windows to keep the cool air in and the bugs out. Then we got back on the radio calls. It was a joyous moment and the radio crackled with cheers, good wishes and well-dones. Everyone was under guard but everyone was safe.
2:15 : Now it was so quiet that Arel and Egal relented to my pressure to get out of the bedroom and go downstairs. What a sight. Shattered glass everywhere. Outside, the garden and terrace were a shambles of broken furniture and trampled plants. Inside, amazingly, everything was intact except for broken windows. Not a thing had been taken. All the bottles were still on the bar and even the servants' watches wre lined up neatly on the kitchen sink.
2:45 : I went outside with a broom and started to clean up the glass when a totally strange Guinean stepped up, startling me. He reached for the broom and said, "No, madam. We did this, so we will clean it up."
Touched, I handed him the broom and walked back into the house.
It was 10 days before we were set free. It took the release of the Guinean delegation in Ghana to end the crisis. Though the Peace Corps was forced to leave Guinea, along with all Pan American Airways personnel and most of the embassy's aid and administrative staff, my husband and I stayed on for three years, until 1969.
Today I feel lucky -- very lucky.