American Embassy, Bujumbura, Burundi.
Back in 1995 I was a corporal serving with the Marine Security Guard detachment in Bujumbura. Buj is the capitol an interesting nation just south of Rwanda. They shared similar ethnic cleansing issues between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen along with cultural pastimes like taking a machete to their neighbor, shooting up villages with AKs, and an event we liked to call The Night of 1000 Hand Grenades. While normally this kind of violence was not directed at Americans it didn’t pay to be hanging around the bus stop during a drive by hand grenade-ing.
Periodically the embassy staff would conduct a tabletop emergency action drill covering various scenarios involving things like rioting, attacks on the embassy, etc. As part of one particular drill the Marines reacted to the embassy to conduct some internal defense. In full battle rattle we smoothly took our positions throughout the small two-story building in order to have a 360 degree view of the compound which we shared with the national bank.
Our protective gear included a Kevlar helmet and flak jacket festooned with pockets and pouches filled with assorted ammo for our shotguns and .357 revolvers. In two back pouches we carried canisters of CS (tear gas). These resembled a small plastic can of coffee with a pin and spoon set-up which dispensed approximately 100 grams of CS powder. Some of this equipment was older than we were, particularly the CS canisters. After years of bouncing around in those pouches the plastic parts holding the pins begin to wear out and crack.
In the Detachment Commander’s office one of the Marines settled in a chair taking an overwatch position. He heard a soft ‘pop’ and looked down to see he was suddenly covered in a thin blanket of green powder. One of the canisters had gone off in his gear and doused him in CS. CS “gas” isn’t really a gas so much as aerosolized crystals. The sharp edges of the crystals are what cause irritation particularly to soft tissue areas like the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. They are a lot of fun at parties.
The Marine at Post 1 later related all he saw was a chair fly out of the Det. Commander’s office followed by a set of flak gear being hurled into the hallway. Then came the unfortunate owner of the faulty canister as he sprinted down the hall toward the front door of the chancery.
“I knew I had to get out of there before the CS hit me.” Valiantly he hit the first crash bar on the inner door leading to the waiting area. As he hit the second crash bar of the front door he collapsed in a heap as the full force of an entire canister CS took affect. Crawling, he slowly clawed his way toward an outside faucet finally turning the water on his face and lay there inert, like a snail liberally sprinkled with salt.
Noting a CS canister had gone off inside the building, Post 1 donned his field protective mask and immediately began ordering everyone to evacuate the bottom floor. Being human, everyone strode from their nearby offices indignantly demanding to know why they had to leave, particularly the local nationals who no doubt had never experienced or considered the effects of tear gas.
“Why? Why must we…Arrgh! *cough* Run away! *retch*!” Now fleeing, the gagging, snot flinging mob clawed out their eyes as they spilled into the small parking area between the embassy and the bank.
Our Det. Commander was a Staff Sergeant the Foreign Service staffers knew as Bernie. Bernie was not widely regarded as the sharpest bowling ball in the drawer. He calmly approached the Regional Security Officer during the emergency action drill in the upstairs conference room and merely said: “We’ve got a little problem downstairs.” Thinking one of the Marines probably injured himself, the RSO made it about half way down the stairwell:
“So what’s the…gah!…Aw Bernie!…You dick!” Bernie never did get that license to practice brain surgery.
By the time I got the word it was: “We need you downstairs. You might want to put your mask on.”
After surveying the carnage we opened a large side door to the building and began to decontaminate the first floor. In this case decon consisted of throwing the chair and flak jacket outside and sweeping and swabbing the deck. As a side note, readers may find it interesting in the world of chemical, biological, and nuclear incident response, hot soapy water and bleach are the number one decontaminating agents for most situations. Radioactive alpha and beta particles? Hot soapy water over here please!
We swept the CS powder out of the side hatch in great billowing clouds. Being Africa, most folks leave their windows open for fresh air. We cleared the national bank out in a matter of minutes. A local military commander even called our RSO later and remarked: “So I hear the Americans are attacking the bank.”
Cultural differences are interesting to watch. In the United States it is considered quite rude to stare at people. Within the brain housing of alpha males such as you find in the Marine Corps, staring must mean you want to fight. In Africa and other places worldwide staring at folks isn’t viewed in the same manner. I couldn’t say why, but in Central Africa, anything a mzungu (foreigner) was up to was worth the time to hang around and check out. Certainly a mzungu wearing a gas mask and carrying a broom was far too interesting to ignore; as such local guards and a small crowd gathered along the back fence.
So intense was their interest they never once did the math and figured out their noses were running and eyes itched because of what we were doing. I laughed to myself as they continued to rub their eyes and sniffle while crowding in to get a better look. Being the young smart ass I was, I kicked up as much dust as my broom would allow.
At one point a man with his shirt pulled over his nose and mouth ran from the bank to his car. Once safely in his vehicle he rolled down the window before pulling away. We never did find out how well it worked out for him.
Once we had cleaned up the gross contamination the embassy staff was able to return to their offices on the ground floor. Some remarked they could still smell the “pili-pili gas” as they pointed to their noses. Pili-pili is an African hot sauce, very spicy. I thought the comparison was hilarious.
In the end what is really important is to note a handful of Marines with one CS canister can shut down an entire city block and a national banking institution in a single afternoon. Imagine if we really meant it!