When two planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, I was half a world away in Sierra Leone. I was working there for the UN peacekeeping mission set up to help end the brutal civil war in that country.
Part of my job was to plan and mobilise aid for national recovery in anticipation of the end of the war. On 9/11, together with UN agency colleagues, I met in Freetown with a visiting diplomat to discuss how his government could contribute to the post-war effort. During the meeting, a member of my staff appeared and whispered in my ear that my wife was on the phone and needed to speak with me. I said that I would call back in a few minutes, to which he responded that I really needed to take the call.
Puzzled, I excused myself and got on the phone. My wife was distraught and told me that something dreadful had happened in New York. By chance, we had access to a TV tuned to CNN. The full horror of 9/11 was beginning to unfold.
Before my appointment to the UN mission, I was at UN headquarters in New York. On re-assignment to Sierra Leone, we had decided to keep on the apartment for two of my daughters who were at college in New York City. The apartment was three blocks from the World Trade Center.
We tried frantically to get through to the girls. Normally, they would have been up and about and on their way to morning classes. All the communications were down. We followed events minute by minute, terrified that our daughters might have been caught up in the catastrophe. Their elder sister in Geneva relayed messages from family and friends, but there was no news from lower Manhattan.
Eight excruciating hours passed before we finally got word that they were safe. They had fled the apartment building, descending twenty-plus floors by flashlight with nothing in hand except our two dachshunds. They headed for nearby Battery Park. Before they could get there, one of the towers fell. Along with dozens of others fleeing the chaos and danger, they broke into a restaurant to escape the toxic clouds of debris and smoke that blanketed the neighbourhood. Later in the day, they were evacuated on a US Coast Guard vessel and deposited in Brooklyn without money, clothes or food. Fortunately, my wife persuaded the renting agency to find them a temporary apartment in mid-town to camp in.
Later we learnt that our youngest daughter had an early start that day. With a cup of coffee in hand, she looked out of the window to check on the weather and saw what seemed to be a fire on the top floor of one of the tower blocks. As she wondered what had happened, she was startled by the roar of a low flying aircraft as it passed over our apartment building. A second later, she saw the plane crash into the second tower.
My wife and I look back with grateful thanks that our daughters were spared injury, or worse, even though they were deeply shocked by what happened. But the irony of our moving to Sierra Leone to help end a horrendous war, only to see an even deadlier conflict unleashed so close to home, came as a stunning and sober reminder that violent conflict is never far away.
Fortunately, our daughters were able to continue their studies. Sadly, in the wars that followed 9/11, many parents lost their children, and many more girls and young women have been denied educational opportunities. We cannot undo the anguish of 9/11, but we can strive to ensure that violence and terror do not deny other daughters their rightful chance of education free of repression and discrimination.
Alan Doss, former President of the Kofi Annan Foundation