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John Osterman
An arid landscape with flat sand dotted with green bushes and small trees in the foreground. In the distance and on the horizon are brown and rust-colored rock plateaus and formations, some extending thousand of feet high. The sky is a pale blue.

Sand in the Couscous

Coup d'état!


On June 8, 2003, I was in Nouakchott winding down the last days of my service, getting ready to depart for Johannesburg by way of Dakar when the strangeness that was Peace Corps RIM played one last strange hand—a coup d’état!

My journal’s better than any new synopsis I could write:

June 10, 2003

Two days ago, three in the morning, I got a call from C-- G–. “Is everyone there at the hotel?” he asked. “No one go to the bureau.” I asked him what was going on. “Il y a une petite manifestation en ville,” he said. [There’s a small protest in town.]

I found out after dawn that there’d been gunshots and explosions at the presidential palace. Later it was clear: Mauritania was in the middle of a coup. A faction of the military pissed off about all the recent arrests of islamists and other “enemies of the state” were trying to seize power. They’d flown a plane by the palace and it was fired on by anti-aircraft artillery. They had tanks. There were loud, building-shaking explosions and the underwater pop-pop-pop of far-off automatic gunfire.

I was at the Arc en Ciel residence and couldn’t budge. We watched TV and listened to the BBC and heard the explosions, some of which seemed too close for comfort.

Midafternoon, we get a message: pack your bags to go to the bureau. I get a call shortly after that and I say we’re ready. No more than a couple minutes after that, K___ is banging on the door. We open it and she asks what the hell are you waiting for? Throw you your shit in the car and get in.

We speed off to the bureau and get in with our bags as if we’re in a warzone. We were all surprised by her urgency. She’s trying to be responsible and cautious, and we had trouble, I think, realizing how dangerous the situation was.

We’ve been at the bureau ever since, unable to leave. This is our third night here.

I should have been in Dakar by now, but coups disrupt things. I should still be able to make my flight, though by flying to Dakar tomorrow.

The next day I did make my flight despite fears that damage to a runway might have disrupted flights. I didn’t write much more about it, but there are a few things I remember about the coup that aren’t in my journal.

One: like idiots, we went up the roof of the Arc en Ciel to see if we could see anything. Explosions and gunfire were so far off that we seemed very much out of harm’s way. Until—BANG!—a bone-shaking explosion sent us scrambling back down.

Two: I called the bureau after that to say that explosions seemed to be getting closer. Maybe it was time to come get us. While I was on the line, I heard another explosion, but first through the phone before it reached my ears through the air. “Nevermind,” I said. “They’re closer to you.”

Three: rumor had it that the would-be revolutionaries’ plans leaked and they were forced to begin the coup before they were ready and properly armed. Their tanks were firing blanks for most of the day until they got that sorted. I remember thinking that made sense: at first, we just heard far-off booms but now real explosions; only later were the booms followed by bangs. True? Who knows.

There is a little information about the whole thing online.