BAMAKO, Mali — I summoned courage to finally draw back the curtains and leaned cautiously through my open window into the warm night. The dark horizon was backlit by flickers of red, yellow and orange. The sounds that had been muffled earlier echoed back into my room on the fourth floor of my hotel, amplifying loud voices, heavy engines, and the repeat of gunfire.
It was my third day in Bamako. Earlier in the evening, Africable television reported that the Malian government was overthrown, following a rebellion in the military barracks led by junior officers, and fighting continued throughout the capital.
I searched unsuccessfully for other information, but, the state broadcaster, ORTM, continued to repeat recordings of traditional Malian music, interspersed with test patterns and followed by a terse message in black and white: “In a moment, a declaration by the military.”
The electricity abruptly cut off shortly before the impending announcement. I had no idea when power would be restored and I began to shut down the only connections to my home in Canada by turning off my cell phone and laptop until they were absolutely necessary.
The events brought back memories of a coup d'état that occurred during my childhood in Nairobi, Kenya. My family, like many others, sought a place of safety as we waited for updates on an unforeseen and rapidly degenerating situation that threatened the newly independent republic.
I could hear the sound of others in the building moving their furniture and luggage into defensive positions; a rumor had circulated that personal information collected for entry visas would be used by rebel soldiers to identify and detain foreign nationals.
My thoughts began to cloud with the different scenarios that could play out during the night; for example, assuming that the land borders were still open, it could have been possible to find a way overland to the closest neighboring country. However, I was still 650 miles away from the safety of Dakar, Senegal and all other options to leave were shut off when the rebels seized Bamako-Sénou International Airport, leaving passengers stranded with a hazardous nine mile return journey to the city.
I used the diminished power supply on my laptop to survey maps of the city and identify my neighborhood. I wanted and needed to know that there was somewhere safe that I could reach on foot in case anything went wrong. I thought of how I would function in the communes and quartiers of Bamako, but I wasn't comforted. In the past few days, my passable French had been met with knowing smiles and simple responses — the kind that you might save for a relative who might not quite follow what your saying without the benefit of loud repetition and animated gestures.
The maps were old and outdated and I began to realize that I wasn't prepared for a furtive dash down the now deserted Avenue Al Quds and across the Niger River late at night.
I also noticed the location of the national museum where I had spent the previous afternoon. The presence of heavily armed soldiers and checkpoints did not seem out of place in a country that had recently experienced civil unrest and protests against a poorly resourced and failing war in the northern part of the country.
My inability to sense the less than subtle changes throughout Bamako during the day left me poorly prepared for a security environment that had changed drastically.
A decision on what to take with me was difficult as I sifted through whatever possessions I would need at a moments notice. A survival bag filled with food from a roadside kiosk and Central African Francs stashed in the brim of my hat seemed to be pitiful gear for the terrain of an unfamiliar city.
I felt the heaviness of the moment as I began to build a barricade of furniture to reinforce the door, knowing that it would not hold against aggressive forced entry or anything else.
I didn’t have any training or practical knowledge on how to deal with this situation. Whatever I could remember from literature wasn’t particularly useful. The only references that I could recall — passages of Graham Greene adventures or the murky intrigue of John le Carré — were an odd match for the reality of the West African city that I might face in a few minutes.
I reached the end of all preparations that I could have taken. The flurry of activity in my room was replaced with silence and resignation. The sound of soft padded footsteps and scattered conversations in the hallway barely kept me awake as my energy started to fade over the next four hours.
I closed the window, drew the curtains, sat on a chair and anxiously waited for whatever would happen next.
The days and nights fell into a similar pattern, stretches of boredom followed by moments of panic. I would gather frequently with other guests in the hotel lobby to watch press conferences by the coup leaders and discuss the random violence, robberies and shootings in the city as well as the surging campaign of Islamic separatists in the north who were overrunning army bases and towns, including the ancient city of Timbuktu.
The lack of predicable transportation repeatedly delayed my departure; one flight was canceled after protestors, supportive of the new military regime, occupied the airport and stormed the runway to prevent the arrival of a delegation of negotiators representing the Economic Community of West African States. The United Nations and African countries also organized a number of air evacuations that were both limited in number and not an option for me.
I finally returned to Canada on a commercial flight through Burkina Faso. My last memories of Bamako were driving to the airport first past gleaming new government buildings that had been ransacked during the early days of the coup and then through the numerous checkpoints manned stoic soldiers who had become the only legitimate source of power in Mali.
Joseph Odhiambo is a Canadian who was participating in an international environmental conference and was trapped in a hotel in Bamako, Mali during the first night of the military coup that began on March 21, 2012. He wasn't able to leave for three weeks.