Richard Michaels serves as the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.Policy Podcast Video: Remembering Beirut Embassy Tragedy
On a sunny Monday afternoon in 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was a hive of activity: employees conducted meetings, visa applicants awaited their interviews and other American and Lebanese staff ate their lunch in the cafeteria. At 12:55pm, a truck bomb indelibly changed these people’s lives, detonating on the embassy’s doorstop, killing 52 innocent embassy employees and other passers-by. As a child growing up in Wisconsin, I remember the bombing, watching the grim footage on the evening news. Life at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut has changed since that tragic April day. The embassy itself moved from a seaside location in the heart of Beirut to a heavily fortified compound to the north of the city. American employees used to live in private residences throughout Beirut, enjoying freedom of movement. Now, my colleagues and I only leave the compound, where we live and work, escorted by bodyguards, even when going to the supermarket. But one thing that remains the same is the devotion of our local staff, especially the eight who survived the bombing, and a subsequent attack in 1984, and still work with us today.
Today’s somber event, under a sunny Friday sky, commemorated the 1983 and 1984 embassy bombings in addition to the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks. Chargé d’Affaires Sison opened the ceremony, telling the audience of victims’ families, survivors and current embassy employees where she was when she learned of the tragedy: working as a first-tour officer at our embassy in Haiti. Visiting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Welch, then-Lebanon desk officer, recounted the early morning phone call he received informing him of the breaking news, and guest Marine Corps Colonel Valore described the long and painful recuperation his brother endured after being blown out of a window during the Marine barracks explosion.
A local university choir formed a semi-circle around the "They Came in Peace" memorial, listing the names of all American and Lebanese employees killed in Lebanon since 1976, singing emotionally evocative hymns in Arabic and English. We watched the laying of several wreaths and an elderly woman who slowly approached the memorial, overcome by her grief, to touch her daughter’s name engraved in the granite wall. My colleagues and I – men and women, American and Lebanese alike – were moved by the sight. I felt immense pride to know that I am following in the footsteps of my Foreign Service predecessors who perished that day. I was reminded how fortunate I am to work side-by-side with Lebanese survivors like my officemate, Maggie. Never did I imagine while watching the news with my family 25 years ago that I would be in attendance at this commemoration ceremony while having the honor to serve my country at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.