Ilsa, age 9: “You know, it doesn’t feel like 2007. It still feels like 2006.”
2006 was a relatively uneventful year for us, although frankly 2005 was such a roller-coaster that anything less than a nuclear bomb under the bed might have seemed uneventful. Life here in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania has been calm and quiet. The sand whips around your ankles, dust fills the air, it’s days since we’ve seen the sun and at night the moon has an eerie halo, but it’s a pleasant temperature, and sandstorms are certainly not out of the ordinary. The elections in the fall went well, with everyone reporting that these were the best, most honest elections this country has ever seen. The university students are still on strike and rioting, and riot police recently hammered on the door where my colleague had locked herself in the library, leaking tear gas under the door, reshaping the door with their boots and clubs and scaring her to death, but I wasn’t there so it didn’t affect me.
But it hasn’t always been this uneventful.
For example, one night in June 2002, I awoke about 1:30 a.m. to the heavy rumble of tank fire. “Donn, wake up!” I whispered. “What do you think is going on?” “Nothing,” he muttered. “Go back to sleep.” A huge explosion shook the walls of the house, followed a few minutes later by a second explosion. (He told me later that he thought, “I hate it when she’s right.”) We looked out our window towards the presidential palace, located about 2 or 3 miles across town, and we could see an airplane buzzing in circles overhead and red tracers lighting up the sky.
Donn called our friend Tim. “Tim, is this normal?” he asked. We’d been here just over a year at that point, long enough to know that we were still often surprised at how things happen here on Planet Nomad. For all we knew, it was Independence Day or something.
Tim assured us it wasn’t normal. We decided it must be a coup. Every time the walls would shake, I’d toddle off to the kids’ rooms to reassure them that we were all fine, but they slept on unawares through the whole night. Donn and I tried to sleep too, but kept startling awake to crashes and rumbles of anti-aircraft fire, tanks going down the street, etc. The fighting wasn’t too close and we were in no danger, but it was loud enough to murder sleep.
The next day, we kept the kids home from school. We knew by then it was a coup attempt, but our TV wasn’t working and we had no way of knowing what was actually going on. Ironically, Donn’s dad calling from California, where he was watching BBC news, had the most updated information. We went out on our roof to see if we could see any tanks (we’re all 13 at heart) and shared the news from California with our neighbours, also on their roof.
Later in the day, we needed food. I sent Donn out for bread. He will never let me live this down, but he wasn’t in any danger. No really. (This is actually the crux of the argument) It’s true that the embassy was saying “Stay in” and I sent him out for bread, but you have to realize that the embassy is always saying “Stay in”–they are worse than your grandmother on a cold winter’s day.
I made a pie (comfort food) and invited our next-door neighbour, another American, over. I packed a box of food staples, including extra coffee which is always needed in an emergency, or non-emergency, or is basically just always needed. Donn put together all our vital information (passports, his negatives, etc) and I went through my bookshelves to decide what to read; something that would be involving enough to distract me in the event of an evacuation without being either too intellectually challenging or too simple. I can’t remember now what it was, but I remember that I chose 2 or 3 options. I also packed my journal. We were ready to evacuate if necessary. In the meantime, we watched movies with the kids, who were only too ready to stay home from school another day.
Two days later it was over. Reuters had actually already announced that the coup was successful, but troops loyal to the president drove through the night and managed to keep power in the president’s hands, so Reuters had to add in the word “almost”. Many people were arrested, some people had died, and for weeks we’d see tanks stationed around town. After Ould Taya (then president) returned in triumph, everyone in town quickly plastered posters of his face all over their cars and drove around honking to celebrate, hanging out of their cars or sitting on top, as if he’d just won an international soccer match. Everyone was sooo happy that he was still in power, even those who earlier might not have felt that way.
Elliot, then 6, didn’t clearly understand the situation, but he was happy. He’s an orderly child, the sort who would disapprove of military coups on principle. “I’d like to buy the president a chicken sandwich,” he told me that night.
Unless my so-called-exotic-life gets more interesting, over the next few days I’ll post some other highlights of our time here.