To Die in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
Peace Corps Volunteer Susan Traub was killed on the night she and her husband arrived as new Peace Corps Volunteers to Ethiopia. It was a tragic death through absolutely no fault of her own and only because she turned left and not right when she stepped out of the Land Rover at the hotel on her first night in Addis Ababa.
This story is about Susan, and it is also about her husband, Charles, who was also injured that night, but who went onto have an amazing life in all the years since, living through the death of his young wife, his own injury, and then a tour in Vietnam. Today he has emerged having had a successful career as a photographer, college professor, author of fifteen books, and a husband and a father.
What happened in Ethiopia in September 1967, happened in the last days of my tour as an APCD. I was leaving Addis Ababa and the Peace Corps. The torch had been passed, so to speak, to a new staff and a new Volunteers.
The PCVs arriving had, as they said, survived a terrible Training Program in Utah. Charlie Traub would write me in 2011, “It has become clear over the years that our training was not only the most inept in Peace Corps history, but also the cruelest. Eliminating Volunteers in the way it was done was something out of a totalitarian state. I have no recollection of the head of the Peace Corps apologizing, though he did speak to us in Utah. Further, when we boarded the airplane in New York, after all the labor and learning of language, and cutting out of approximately half of our Volunteers, they included a whole new number of Kenyan-trained Volunteers to go to Ethiopia. That was the biggest slap in our face.”
They arrived at dawn, having flown from New York to Amsterdam and then Lebanon. A few of the Staff were standing out on the chilly runway of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I International Airport waiting for their arrival and watched the plane come over the top of the blue glaze mountain range and catch the sun, then shine like a morning star gracefully onto the tarmac.
“We had met in college,” Charles told me about his wife. “We were married in April of our senior year prior to Peace Corps Training. Ironically, in our last semester of our senior year, we both took elective photography classes, knowing that it would be useful to know the medium for our Peace Corp adventure. That, too, changed my life.”
Charles would after his brief Peace Corps experience and being drafted into the war, continue to study photography and become the Chair of the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
But that first night in Addis, Charlie said, telling me what had happened. “We were being transferred to another hotel. We were getting out of the Land Rover in the parking lot when a police van swerved in an unlikely way into the lot, and hit us directly. It was reported that the driver was drunk and that this was just a freak accident. There was always suspicion that this had to do with some kind of anti-American sentiment, given the forthcoming regime changes in Ethiopia. Most unfortunately, the US government and the Peace Corps did very little to investigate, at least to my knowledge, and were completely insensitive to the return of personal property and the need to provide explanation for my wife’s bereaved parents. It all was a great nightmare. It is a story that’s hard to believe, even so many years later. I’ve always thought that I should investigate the documents regarding this incident under the Freedom of Information Act. One day, I shall do it.”
What is fascinating for all of us is how our lives have changed since we were PCVs and how many of us have lived through tragedies of one sort or another. From time to time, I will meet up with RPCVs from those Ethiopian years and we’ll talk and reminisce and perhaps over a beer or two and at some point, we’ll get around to the death of Susan Traub on that side street a block from Mexico Square. We’ll talk about it, and think back, and we’ll be stunned silent and inarticulate for really we have nothing to say that might explain it, and secretly we are thinking about the close calls we all had in our years in-country and realize it could have been one of us who might have suffered a similar fate in the Peace Corps.
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This is a tragic story, on several levels, from the death of an enthusiastic arriving volunteer, to the close-mouthed Ethiopia PC staff, to the inept training in Utah, to the impact of the emerging Vietanam War on returning volunteers and the organization itself. I saw most of these things myself, however had the great good fortune to serve under a remarkable country director, George Carter, in the earliest Ghana PC projects.
George was a veteran of the early civil rights movement in the US, and I think had a keen eye for official crap. George, from the beginning, made it clear that we were in this together, and the success ultimately was on the volunteers’ shoulders, and his role was to clear away emergent crap, watch out for us, and facilitate our work. I think I’m correct in saying that all the volunteers had implicit trust in George, and nobody wanted to disappoint him. So different from what is written above.
I think I also am correct in saying that had the tragic events in Ethiopia, as described above, happened with George at the helm, it would have been a very different affair.
Later, after my transfer to the new Nyasaland Protectorate project (Nyasaland would soon to become independent as Malawi), I would see a far less competent PC in-country staff, rarely visiting volunteers, and mostly barricaded in their office above the Blantyre grocery store, probably wondering what was going on.
I do hope that Charles will first, at this late date accept my condolences, and my gratitude that he managed Vietnam, AND my hopes that he will indeed obtain the documents pertaining to Susan’s death, and write up his conclusions. One thing that Charles can be grateful for is that he was able to pursue his professional career. For me, the War, and everything orbiting around it, made a shambles of my professional plans and ambitions. My greatest consolation is that other challenges would appear, to benefit from my experiences. I’m grateful that II stayed an American citizen, and that I never was compelled to do anything that I would regret the remainder of my life.
John Turnbull Ghana-2 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment, 1963, -64, -65.
There is a depth to this tragedy beyond the personal sacrifice of all those early vols in Ethiopia; it is the context of revolution, tribal enmity, famine and poverty which stoked the poison of hatred in many of the populations within which we worked. My respect to Charles for not going silently, for pursuing a life Susan would surely have been proud of. Scott Billings – Korem 66-68
This comment is from David Berlew who was the CD in Ethiopia at the time. He emailed me and said it was okay to post his recollection of that tragic event.
Amazing how we remember details of traumatic experiences.
I remember a bus full of new PCV’s pulling up to the curb in front of a hotel entrance where we were putting the new arrivals up and having a welcome and orientation meeting. A Ethiopian police vehicle (small truck) was parked up the hill in front of the bus. As the arriving PCVs were milling around the bus getting their luggage out of the storage compartment under the bus, the police vehicle rolled down the hill, struck the bus, and forced it to roll back a few feet over the victim. A whole bunch of us, arriving PCVs ,PC and hotel staff, lifted up the rear of the bus enough to pull the victim out from under the rear, curbside wheel of the bus. We all assumed the police vehicle’s brakes had given away. I don’t remember whether or not there were any policemen in the truck, but we never thought that it was any kind of a plot. Hard to imagine it was a planned attack. I don’t remember Ethiopians resenting the Peace Corps, certainly not to the point of mounting what would be a badly designed terrorist attack. I don’t remember any inquest; perhaps I was on a trip back to the States or my tour was over and my family and I had gone home.
I was also in Ethiopia in 1966 and found the administration of the Peace Corps from top to bottom was totally incompetent. The head of the program lied to us and admitted it. In addition, he asked us where in Ethiopia we wanted to be placed and put me in exactly the opposite location! The Peace Corps was determined to tell you what is success. It doesn’t matter if you played soccer with the local team or built a water supply system, or revamped the computer system for the telephone company, or produced posters to increase tourism; rather it was more important to sit in a room and learn the language. Thats all we heard, you are not a success until you learn the language.We increased the liberal education program four fold with no vocational training which meant we graduated students into a society that had no need for their skills. I believe we were responsible for the revolution in Ethiopia as we created a massive population of disgruntled twenty year olds. Even after I returned to the States the Peace Corps never followed up with promises they made to me and I had to contact Bobby Kennedy (our senator at the time) to meet their obligations.
But the worst crime the Peace Corps committed was to tell us we were going to Ethiopia to do a job. When that job failed the administration flipped and said the job wasn’t important but rather we were there to be an example of “compassion.”
I was also one of the volunteers who survived the Utah training and our days in tents on the Navaho reservation. My memories and the letters I wrote home were a mix of the recollections of Charles and David Berlow. It was a tragic beginning that had been preceded by a traumatic training program. I have thought about Charles many times and I am so happy to hear about his successes. I wish him continued happiness.
My mother Rosemary was Susan’s first cousin. Although only 10-and-a-half at the time, this event was such a shocking and horrible tragedy for the family, it made an indelible impression on me – evidenced by my being on this page now, after googling out of curiosity.
I can say that there was certainly no satisfactory explanation given to my great aunt and great uncle. From what my mother knew of the accident, she believed that there was a cover-up, at the very least, and quite possibly, malicious intent.
After losing her only daughter, my aunt was never the same.
As Charlie had kept in touch with them for awhile, I was aware that he had been able to pick up the pieces of his life and had remarried, fortunately.
Whenever there is news about a death in the Peace Corps, I can’t help but prick up my ears. It seems that there is still much that is suspicious in many of these cases.