Living past terror
Five years ago, Dianne Reed barely survived a militant attack on her compound in Saudi Arabia in which 22 others died. Helena Frith Powell meets the American who moved back to the Middle East to prove that peace can win over violence
What would you say to a person who had just shot you? Assuming, of course, that you were still able to speak. Maybe you would ask why? Or just stare in disbelief at your wound. You might ask them please to refrain from killing you. But I imagine few of you would yell: “You idiot, you just shot me.” Especially if the person you were shouting at was an Al Qa’eda terrorist wearing a balaclava and pointing an AK47 at you.
Almost five years to the day that she was shot during the Oasis Compound attack in Saudi Arabia, Dianne Reed says she has no idea why she said that. Dianne, 52, now lives in Abu Dhabi where she and her husband Owen have been for the past four years. She has been focusing on her rehabilitation and surgeries after the terrorist attack, where a total of 22 people died, and is working on a book about her experience while training for the Dubai Marathon in January next year. Dianne is one of the two survivors who were shot in the Al Qa’eda terrorist attack on the compound where she lived.
“I was upset,” she says, referring to the fact that she called the terrorist an idiot. “I shouldn’t have said that. I feel bad that I called him an idiot, but I remember thinking, ‘This kid should be in school, he’s better than this’.” The morning of May 29 2004 had started for Dianne as many mornings do, in the gym. By then she and her husband Owen had been living in Saudia Arabia for eight years.
“Our whole Middle East experience began on April Fool’s Day in 1996,” she tells me. “Someone called and offered Owen a job in Saudi. I thought it was a joke but passed on his number anyway.” By June they were on their way. “We thought of it as an adventure,” says Dianne, who is originally from Tennessee, but was living in Denver, Colorado, at the time. “I grew up in a military family and mom and dad approached every place like an adventure, an opportunity to learn about the people and the culture.”
They arrived in Jubail, a city in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, just as the rest of the expat community were leaving for the summer. Dianne remembers those first few months as tough and extremely isolating. “Back home I had worked as a social worker and counsellor for children with difficulties,” she tells me. In Saudi she was not able to find work. Things came to a head on her 40th birthday around three months after moving, when she was speaking with her parents on the phone. “I told them everything was great, super, then when I got off the phone I broke down. Suddenly I had no idea what I was doing there. I knew I wanted to support my husband, but what was I doing with my life? I had no direction, no plan.”
Owen encouraged her to look on the bright side, and once the expat community returned, she found herself involved in the local women’s group as well as teaching at the Dharhan International School. Four years on, she was offered the post of president of the American Women of the Eastern Province (AWEP) in Khobar. Fortuitously, Owen was offered a job there as the managing director of a training, consulting and equipment company at the same time, so they moved to the Oasis Compound in June 2000.
Dianne was president for two years, during which time she worked with a group of women helping the local community and was especially involved in children’s charities. By this time she had spent eight years in Saudi Arabia; “the longest we’ve ever lived anywhere. We felt very positive about life there, about being part of the community and giving back to the community. We had made a lot of friends; the expat community is very close-knit. We also had the privilege of developing a close relationship with a few Saudi families.”
She was still very much involved in the group in May 2004; in fact, the morning of the shooting they were planning a meeting about security issues due to recent unsettling events such as an attack on foreigners in Yanbu the previous month. The meeting was just one of the things on a busy agenda that included a goodbye lunch with friends as Dianne was due to fly home the following week. She began the day in the gym at the compound. Owen had gone to work. “I went to work out at around 6am and came back from the gym at around 7.45am. I noticed there was something eerily different,” she says. “There was no sound.”
Dianne got home and was about to jump in the shower when her phone rang. It was a friend telling her there had been a shooting at the so-called Rainbow Roundabout, about five kilometres from the compound. There were rumours the gunmen were heading to a compound. Dianne called Owen to see if he knew any more. He said he’d call the consulate. “I hung up and looked at our cat on the bed, who looked right back at me. I knew then there was something terribly wrong because of the way she was acting. I went downstairs and my front door was on fire.”
Dianne used her drinking water from the gym to put the fire out. She saw men dressed in military clothing around the house. “Luckily we had recently put in a high gate to keep the neighbourhood cats out, otherwise they would just have jumped right over it.” Dianne went into the office, called Owen and asked him what she should do. By now they were shooting through her windows, trying to force her out. “Do what your gut tells you to,” he told her.
“I knew I never wanted to be in a hostage situation because those situations do not usually end favourably,” she says. “An inner voice, I would call faith, told me to leave. I thought, ‘I am stronger than this and I am getting out of here alive.'” As it turned out, many people stayed hidden in cupboards for 12 hours until they were rescued. “I decided to check out early,” jokes Dianne. “I am always telling my students they can do whatever they want to and I need to live by that myself.”
By the time Dianne ran through the back door and out the back gate, the attackers were kicking down the front door. “At that point I was concentrating on action and really didn’t think about being scared. I had a job to do, and that job was to survive.” She made a run for the security gate, hiding behind trees en route. “I was like GI Jane dodging bullets,” she says. She got about 45 metres before one of the terrorists managed to hit her in the leg. “I almost made it to the gate, but then I was shot twice by a high velocity AK47.”
She fell down on the ground. “I didn’t feel any pain. I just remember thinking, I can’t run any more.” She looked back and saw a figure wearing a balaclava with a gun. She yelled at him.”It really hurt me that a young adult, another person, was making the decision over whether I was going to live or die,” she says. “Nobody has that right, only God. I felt that if he was going to make that choice I was going to have some control over how I died. I was going to leave this world without fear or intimidation, knowing I was going to a better place.”
Then she lay down. When she looked up again, he was gone. She looked down to see how bad her injury was. “I remember putting my skin back in place and thinking ‘You’re going to need some help here.’ I dragged myself towards the security building. My plan was for the cameras to see how badly I’d been shot, which would alert someone to calling an ambulance. When I got there the door was locked. I had a moment of prayer. I said: ‘God if it’s my time now, then I’m ready. But if it’s not, then I could really use a hand.'”
Help came in the form of Heidi, a nurse and friend of Dianne’s. She was with her two children, and Dianne’s first thought was to tell her to “get out of there as quickly as possible”. But Heidi went around the building, opened the door on the other side and then helped Dianne into the security room. There was a black and white ghutra lying there and she used that to stop the bleeding. Heidi used the phone in the security building to call for help, and the compound security guard came and called an ambulance.
By this stage, Dianne had lost seven units (pints) of blood and was extremely weak, but still conscious. (The human body has around 10-12 units in total: although Dianne was still conscious, medical knowledge would say she couldn’t be.) “I called Owen and said, ‘Honey, I have been shot in the leg and I need you to meet me at the hospital.’ Then I remember being lifted into an ambulance and starting to see white.”
Dianne was taken to the Saad Hospital, a few minutes’ drive from the compound. A young doctor asked her to stick out her tongue to check her circulation. “I thought, ‘Great, this guy can’t even see it’s my leg that’s the problem. I am definitely going to die here.’ He then said ‘type and cross-match’ to determine my blood type, and I sat up and said O-positive. I then heard a nurse say, ‘I wonder if she’s wearing contacts?’ so I took my contacts out. The nurse told me they were going to cut my shorts off and I said, ‘Oh please don’t do that, I have only just broken them in’.”
They took her up to the operating theatre. Afterwards, the same young doctor, a South African named Cornelius Burger, told Dianne that when she arrived at the hospital, she was two minutes away from bleeding to death. And that all the way to the operating theatre she had begged him not to cut off her leg. “You managed to get yourself here,” he told her. “So I thought the least I could do was save your leg.”
Her injuries were extensive. She had a compound fracture of the tibia, and her fibula was completely blown away on her lower right leg. AK47 bullets are designed to do more damage as they exit than on entry and Dianne’s wound was severe. The other bullet that hit her left thigh was what is termed “through and through”, not much more than a graze. She spent six weeks in hospital after which she and Owen planned to return to the US, but before that they went back to the house. “Owen had told me that he hadn’t seen Peace, our cat, since the shooting, but I knew she would come back and she did. I was so happy I cried like a baby. When we were reunited, I felt like I was home. They might have tried to torch the house and shoot me, but they hadn’t destroyed what was inside.”
On her return to the US, Dianne was constantly asked to talk to the press. “I didn’t want to,” she explains. “I knew they would sensationalise the whole thing, and I did not want that one event to define my time in the Middle East.” In fact, Dianne soon returned to the Middle East. “We were home from August to October and then we went back to Saudi. We still had lots of friends there and missed the people. That day not only affected the expats there but the whole community. And if you don’t go back, you don’t have closure. I needed that, and also if I had stayed home I wouldn’t have had my wonderful doctor.”
Both their families were uncomfortable with their returning to Saudi, so when a job offer as a corporate health, safety and environmental manager for a large construction company came up in Abu Dhabi, Owen took it. That was in January 2005. By lucky coincidence, Dr Burger now lives in Al Ain, so he has been involved in Dianne’s continued recovery, which has included eight further operations. He removed the steel plate from her tibia that he installed. The steel plate was to give the tibia extra support while it healed, and it is normally removed once the X-rays show a complete mending of the fracture.
He then referred her to one of his colleagues, Dr Jacobus Scholtz, a remarkable reconstructive surgeon who was also from South Africa and is based in Al Ain. The third key person in her recovery has been Dr Elvira Dzundzyak, a physiotherapist, with whom Dianne spent many hours rehabilitating the leg. She also spends a great deal of time working with a personal trainer at the gym at the Emirates Palace Hotel.
Dr Scholtz basically rebuilt Dianne’s calf, and it looks almost normal. “People now see me before they see the wound. It was a defining moment in my life, but it didn’t define me,” she says. She has no qualms about continuing to live in the Middle East. “I feel blessed to be here and want to do something positive,” she says. “I was always a compassionate person, but I think that I have more compassion for victims of violence now and a deeper insight into the suffering it causes. It really hurts me to see it. I wish we could resolve conflict a different way. We are all people, living on the same earth, all with a right to be here. That is why I came back to this region, to prove that to myself and to others. It was an important part of the healing process.”
The second survivor in the attack was a Filipino man who was shot in the face. She often thinks about those who didn’t make it. “I think about a friend whose husband died. They have four kids and had been living in the Middle East for 30 years. I still stay in touch with her. There is a connection between the people who were there that day.” Does she ever wonder why she was so lucky? “Yes, of course.” However, she feels it has more to do with being blessed than luck. “I feel there is a reason I survived, and that I was given a second chance. I feel compelled to do something with that second chance. But at the same time I don’t want to be defined by what happened to me.”
Dianne feels very strongly that the choices she made that day were made long before as a result of her faith and the people she has surrounded herself with throughout her life, people who gave her the confidence to run and to believe in her own abilities. Those factors have also been central in her rehabilitation. “Audrey Hepburn once said that a woman’s true beauty is in her eyes because they are the window to her soul,” she says. “People often say I have lovely eyes and I like to think they are a reflection of my soul, of all the goodness and kindness I have encountered and all the people who have had an impact on my life. This is not just my story, it is theirs as well.”
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019