Science and a World in Transition: Selected memories of an international science bureaucrat (Episode 3 -5)

Irving A. Lerch

Europe under Siege and a Death in August—

My job in Vienna had taken me around the world and I was acutely aware that after two years I was being transformed into a bureaucrat with decreasing likelihood of reentering the laboratory or university classroom.  Nonetheless in 1975 I agreed to a two year extension.

I had also discovered a voice on issues of scientific policy that affected institutions and people around the world.  I had met and become friendly with Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland in an IAEA meeting and heard him predict that CFCs would eat away the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere—work that would win for him and his colleagues a Nobel Prize in chemistry a decade later.  I grew alarmed by the implications of the first Indian Nuclear tests in Rajathstan in 1975 and published a long feature article which I followed up with a critical analysis of the nuclear power industry.  This last raised the ire of the nuclear establishment when I pointed to evidence of increasing public resistance to new reactor projects in Northern Europe (which was not helped when I dared describe the gruesome consequences of a major reactor incident that occurred in 1961 in the vast Idaho National Reactor Testing Station—a disaster that claimed the lives of three reactor operators outright and created a crisis that lasted for many months).  As it turned out, it presaged Three Mile Island, 1979, and Chernobyl, 1986.

My argument was that unless civic confidence was the first priority of the industry, the public would turn away from nuclear power at a time when it would be most needed.  The Director General and Assistant Director General were outraged that I would bring controversy to the IAEA but I assured them that I would soon return to university life and that they could breathe easy.

The world intruded on the pastoral delights of Austria in other ways.  The old IAEA headquarters on the Ringstrasse (also former Gestapo headquarters after the Anschluss) was the site of the Force Reduction Talks between the US, NATO, the Warsaw Pact and the USSR.  One day, as I emerged from the building a voice boomed out, “Lerch, is that you?”  It was my former 506th commander in the similitude of a lieutenant general (Elvy B. Roberts).  As we exchanged pleasantries he explained to his assistant, a young colonel, that we had served together in the 101st.  Then he turned to me and exclaimed, “You used to be a much larger man!”  No mention was made of the missing ground support radio and my near court-martial the previous decade.

Not long thereafter, terrorists stormed another site on the Ringstrasse hosting the OPEC oil ministers and after killing an Austrian security official, took the ministers and their staffs hostage.  The Turkish ambassador, our next door neighbor, was assassinated by Kurdish militants just below our window on the Prinz Eugein Strasse the very evening we had been invited to a reception in his residence.  And as I was opening the door to the airway at Schwechat airport to board a plane for a meeting in France, a voice rang out in English, “Where are you going?  Get out of the airport now!”  As I turned I looked out the great plate glass window facing the tarmac and not more than 20 meters distant saw a Volkswagen minibus surrounded by hooded men in black carrying AK-47s and holding hand grenades.  A group of Jewish refugees leaving Russia had been taken hostage by Palestinians and were being held at the airport awaiting a plane dispatched by Austrian authorities.

Europe, it seemed, was under siege.

That August, my mother became gravely ill (she had been treated for breast cancer and metastatic spread) while I was in Sofia and an alert international operator tracked me down to give me the news.  Sharon and I flew to Chicago and arrived in her hospital room minutes before she died.  It was a bitter time.  Before I left Chicago I had put her into an experimental program at the university medical center and she had been treated with a developmental high-energy electron hyperfractionated radiotherapy regimen based largely on research that I had done.  While the therapy was a long shot (the disease was pernicious in its origins and patterns of development), its failure horrified me.

This accelerated our decision to return to the US and an opportunity in the form of an invitation from New York University arrived in time for us to close up shop and fly to the Big Apple at the end of 1975, almost three years to the day after our arrival in Vienna.  After returning to the US, I continued my work in the international arena, often consulting for IAEA and other agencies (WHO, UNESCO) and becoming an advocate for increased international scientific collaboration.

Helping out during the Hadj and going to jail in Kano—

By the time of my first sabbatical from NYU in 1984, the IAEA and WHO asked me to travel to North, East and West Africa for a series of institutional visits to assess programs in Egypt, the Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Unfortunately these visits coincided with the Hadj, the great annual migration of Muslim faithful to Mecca.  This forced me to travel at the whim of vaporous schedules.  But Sharon had agreed to accompany me and we were prepared for adventure intermingled with just a bit of discomfort.  We got more than we bargained for.

I had been to Egypt a number of times and we had friends in Cairo.  One incident, however, would haunt me: a woman colleague who had been educated in the US and whom I had met at various IAEA functions, asked for my help in finding a job outside of Egypt.  She had just divorced her husband, a Coptic Christian, and she had been ostracized by her family.  She was isolated socially and professionally.  A year later, she committed suicide.

The trip to Sudan was uneventful, ignoring the midnight flight and heat at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles.  But Sharon found the environment threatening.  Many men in Khartoum appeared hostile towards us and we had to travel with colleagues and escorts.  But the real trouble found us on our trip to Nigeria.

Our flight was delayed until about 2 am and we spent much of the night with men dressed in white dishdashah who were waiting for flights to Saudi Arabia.  Many roamed the airport in high spirits and quite a few seemed to have been drinking heavily despite the proscription against alcohol.  We were assured that they would ‘behave’ on the flight east.  It turned out that our flight was being diverted to Nigeria to pick up more pilgrims in the North, in Kano, the capitol of Muslim Nigeria.

My UN travel papers indicated that I was traveling to Lagos, however, and on landing in Kano a border official took us into custody and locked us in a small holding facility in the airport.  We did not know at the time, but the difficulty in providing adequate transportation for pilgrims clamoring to go to Mecca had caused unrest in Kano with rioting and fighting between Muslims and Christians.  The situation was tense and the young customs official, a major in the border police, was unsure of what to do with us.

After a few hours in the lock-up, bombarded by locusts, Sharon asked me if I wanted her to do “something” to clarify our situation.  I’m no fool so I readily assented, knowing full well that Sharon’s resourceful edicts should not be ignored.

She began pounding on the door and complaining loudly that she wanted to go to the toilet and needed water.  When our young jailor responded, Sharon berated him for failing to look after our creature comforts and he began to apologize profusely and offered to take us to the “sanitary facilities.”  On our way, Sharon maintained a steady stream of complaints and pointed out that we were guests of the Nigerian government on official UN duty and were expected that day in Lagos (all true) and that the UN resident representative would have to be informed of our situation.  He whimpered that the communications links with Lagos were down.  She threatened diplomatic sanctions.

At this point the major had had enough and he took us down to the departure lounge, went to the head of a long line of passengers clamoring to get out of Kano, approached the agent and in a loud and threatening voice demanded that we be put on the plane first and flown to Lagos immediately.

But a long day was just beginning.

A Senatorial Investigating Committee and Collapse in the West—

On each of our stops, the ranking UN Resident Representative (equivalent of ambassador in diplomatic terms) was supposed to meet us and provide lodging, transportation and incidental funds.  However, arriving in Lagos we were several hours late and the Resident Representative had no inkling of our whereabouts.  We were without funds, without contacts and without a plan.  What’s more, we were warned that we would be prey to bandits on the roads if we did not leave the airport soon.

 Salvation came in the guise of an Air-Nigeria manager who gave me the equivalent of $100 cash and instructed a driver to take us to the UN compound on the outskirts of the city.  We arrived just as the gates were closing and were received by a highly annoyed UN official.  He transferred us to a UN car to be driven to our quarters.

At the university guest quarters we were ensconced in an airy room overlooking the ocean and with some relief Sharon went into the shower at the precise moment that a messenger pounded on our door and announced that the Chancellor demanded our immediate presence.  Dripping wet, Sharon pulled on some clothes and we rushed to a large banquet hall were the Chancellor had convened the faculty of the university to meet a Senate Investigating Committee sent to examine the university’s administration (evidently the Chancellor was a member of the opposition political party).  We were introduced as guests of the University and UN representatives.

Thus began my West African mission.

Nigeria is emblematic of much of sub-Saharan Africa—vast, sprawling, inchoate, fascinating, alien, and often repelling.  The human and natural resources are immense but the history, religious and ethnic divisions, corruption, politics and social problems threaten to submerge the nation in chaos.  No mortal can find a way into or out of this labyrinth and I had resigned myself to help, knowing that my efforts would likely be washed away in the successive waves of disorder that engulf the region.  I was not wrong.

In Ghana, I had in the past found good scientists with whom I had worked closely but on this trip, a government coup and military mismanagement had brought the nation to ruin and the University of Legon and the Nuclear Research Center had deteriorated badly.  There was hunger in a country that had always been able to feed itself and its neighbors and the hydroelectric dams on the Upper Volta were producing power at much reduced capacity because of a persistent drought.  I would return in a few years to improved conditions and on a high note of optimism.  In 1984, however, the prospect was dreary.

Liberia had just undergone a brutal coup and the airport terminal was pock-marked from machine-gun fire.  The UN resident representative almost had been shot by marauding troops (in fact he had been shot at and had dropped to the ground to the horror of his wife and children who witnessed the event and were certain that he had been killed).

Sierra Leone seemed untouched but when I spoke to some students I was alarmed when a young man told me that the nation was about to explode.  He warned me that there would be unprecedented terror throughout the country and his prediction came to pass in a bloody civil war where rebels wiped out whole villages and chopped off the arms of men, women and children indiscriminately.  And it was in Sierra Leone that I found a shipment of radiation equipment abandoned in the open—unattended for two years except for the rats that ate the wiring and rendered the equipment a silent, useless monument to yet another good intention lost to the rainforest.

* Irving Lerch has also been Chair, Executive Committee, FIP, and Director, Office of International Affairs, APS

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