Photo Credit: La'Nita Johnson
How One Woman's Surviving A Terrorist Attack Led To Her Calling In Guatemala
In 2016, La’Nita Johnson went on a mission trip to Burkina Faso, where she ended up surviving a terrorist attack. The now 28-year-old education foreign service officer and mental health blogger is originally from Powder Springs, GA and recently moved to Guatemala City, Guatemala to answer her true calling, which ironically, the horrific attack led her to realize.
“Through a previous employer, I was introduced to a non-profit organization, whose goal is to empower rural villages in some of the world’s poorest countries by bringing education to these communities,” Johnson told Travel Noire. “Originally shocked by the extremely low literacy rates and high school desertion rates, I was interested in serving on the Burkina Faso mission trip.”
The goal for the mission trip was to lay the groundwork for construction of a primary school in the rural Mourpougha village, in addition to promoting equal gender rates in school enrollment. The mission trip was La’Nita’s first experience in a developing nation and for her, it helped shed light on international travel outside the lush, Eurocentric locations she had grown more acquainted with in her previous travel and study abroad experiences.
After spending a week in the village working on the primary school, La’Nita and her group returned to the capital city Ouagadougou to celebrate their final days in the country. They headed to Capuccino Café to celebrate with food and fellowship. Unfortunately, the night took a turn for the worst.
“At 7:35 PM, gunmen entered the restaurant and started shooting at point-blank range. As I dropped to the ground to hide under the table, an angel entered me and moved my body to jump on some man’s back to force myself in the bathroom to hide. I vividly remember cell phones, a baby crying, and constant shooting. After an hour and a half, the attackers detonated grenades and car bombs, and smoke began to fill the bathroom. As the smoke poured in, the last thing I remember hearing was a man saying ‘Nous allons mourir’ (We are going to die.)”
“By the grace of God, I escaped the bathroom with my two friends. The next was unspeakable. I hid under a dead couple to conceal myself from the attackers. Fifteen minutes passed, and the building started to collapse. I fled the restaurant and for the next fifteen hours, I hid in an alley under piles of trash. The amazing part is the attackers came into the alley, and with my knowledge of French and small encounters with the Burkinabe dialect, I did not answer their calls. Naked in the alley, I acquired over 300+ bug bites and cut my foot open from tripping on rusted sheet metal. All night, I hid, waiting for law enforcement to save me. The wait felt eternal.”
At around 10:30 AM the next morning, La’Nita was found by the French police and taken to the
hospital. There they stitched up her foot and sent her to an embassy house, where she was able to shower and meet up with her team. Later that day, La’Nita and her team were evacuated out of the country, and she returned to the United States.
La’Nita recalls some of the thoughts that were going through her head during the attack. At the beginning, she was completely unaware what was occurring, with many of her thoughts centering around her fear of dying and how sad her parents would be if they found out about her dying in such a tragic manner. She also spent part of the time praying for forgiveness of her sins.
“However, there was a moment where my mind went blank and I was at peace if the Lord was going to take me in that moment. I was very centered around the fact that I had given my life to serving and being kind. I repented for any mistakes that I made and just asked to be taken non-painfully. Yet, at some point in the attack, I knew that I was going to survive, because I kept beating survival odds.”
“For example, the attackers didn’t come into the bathroom, I was not shot upon exiting the bathroom, the attackers never found me hiding under the deceased couple, and even when the attackers came into the alley, I still continued to live,” she explained. “There was this sobering moment where I recalled a Bible verse that my mother shared with me about having the faith of a mustard seed, and I began to encompass every inch of that mustard seed faith— which I ultimately believe kept me alive.”
It was 15 hours before La’Nita realized what had transpired was a terrorist attack. Burkina Faso had just undergone a peace coup d’etat and change of power to a democratic government in November 2015. Due to the political climate of the country at the time, her initial assumption was that the country was undergoing a violent coup d’etat to steal back dictatorial power.
When the two French National Guards who found La’Nita in the alley carried her to the main street, she was greeted by two American rescue searchers, who had been looking for her. After hours of holding in her fear and emotions for her own safety, she finally broke down and asked “What happened?” The men shared with La’Nita that she and the others had been victims of a terrorist attack perpetrated by al-Qaeda.
“Following my surviving the terrorist attack, it is safe to say that I had a huge change of heart regarding my personal and professional vocation. Throughout my undergraduate career at Pepperdine University, I was deeply involved in public service. However, following my graduation in 2014, I entered the corporate world, though it never felt fulfilling. Thus, as I was deep in prayer through the duration of the terrorist attack, I promised God that if I made it out of this attack alive, I would change my career path to education, as that’s always what I’ve felt called to do.”
“One of the questions that sat with me following the attack (after finding out that youth were the perpetrators) was ‘How can we ensure that youth aren’t choosing terrorism as an option?’ This question sparked the search for my next journey. When I got home from the attack, I immediately began looking for opportunities in international education. Yet, throughout the job search, I kept noticing the requirements for a Master’s degree in the field.”
La’Nita knew that the next step needed to be finding a graduate degree that was in-line with her new goals and aspirations. She came across the International Training and Education Program (ITEP) at American University. After applying for three national Foreign Service Fellowships, she was awarded the Donald M. Payne International Fellowship, which helped pay for her Master’s degree and led to her career in foreign service with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Now, as an education officer, La’Nita works with implementing partners who are awardees of USAID grants or contracts, to ensure their compliance with the terms of their award. She works alongside the country’s Ministry of Education, UNICEF, in addition to other agencies in the education space. Her job also includes her passion of youth engagement and promoting youth voices.
“I often look for ways in which to include youth leaders in Guatemala to connect with one another, build connections and be agents to their own change and the advancement of their country. One of my favorite parts of my life is planning virtual learning events where youth facilitate and share their experiences with international development practitioners, so that we can keep our finger on the pulse of youth experiences.”
Many people have questioned La’Nita’s choice to continue traveling the world after surviving a terrorist attack. However, she says her parents raised her as a world citizen. She began travelling internationally at age six, and had been to well over twenty countries before going to Burkina Faso. She studied abroad in five countries, spoke Spanish and French, and had studied other languages, as well.
“These experiences not only shaped my view of travel, these international experiences were at the core of my brand and being. Thus, when one negative experience happened, in comparison to twenty plus other experiences, it was easy to compartmentalize that one experience was not equivalent to future travel experiences that I would have. That is not to say I was not afraid to travel after surviving a terrorist attack, but I was able to create a strong juxtaposition between my once-in-a-lifetime trauma versus the rich, cultural tapestries of other countries.”
Today, La’Nita struggles with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and says one of the biggest struggles she manages in her day-to-day life is the reality of living with mental illness and grief in a society that doesn’t necessarily value discussion around those themes. She has taken advantage of psychotherapy and specialized trauma therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Comprehensive Resource Model.
With therapy as a staple in her healing process, La’Nita also got a cockapoo named Chino as an emotional support animal, which she says has helped her immensely. Another aspect that helps provide an outlet for healing is an annual trip that La’Nita and other survivors from her mission trip team take to celebrate the anniversary of their survival.
“We like to call it the Terrorist Attack Reunion Party. Each year, we meet in a location where one of us survives and have dinner, ordering pizza— the meal that we ordered the night of the attack and unfortunately never received. However, when we get together, we use it as an opportunity to connect, share our memories from that experience, and reminisce about the fun parts of the trip that are often overshadowed due to the perilous ending of our trip.”
La’Nita also says the pandemic has contributed largely to her healing, by giving her an opportunity to pause, reflect, and evaluate her values. However, within this pause, she moved out of her home country to start her foreign service journey.
“This move has forced me to be vulnerable in the feelings I’m having about being uprooted, recognize that I
can’t heal alone, and explore a new definition to the meaning of home— which I think most expats reflect upon. I don’t always have bright and rainbow days, but each step I take here in Guatemala, living on my own, after surviving a terrorist attack, shows me my level of resilience and gives me the courage and strength to keep pushing each day.”
Next week, Vice President Kamala Harris will be visiting Guatemala, and La’Nita has a significant role
in the planning and logistics preparation behind her visit.
“I look forward to engaging with the first woman Vice President of Black and South Asian descent, my fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sister, and sharing how much her fight for her place at the table inspires me as a young, Black diplomat and how using her phrase ‘I’m speaking,’ makes me feel empowered, knowing that my voice is valuable and has the same right and power to be there as any man’s!”
Despite the traumatic events La’Nita experienced, she makes it clear that she is not a victim; she is a survivor. You can follow her at @lanitamargarita.