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.