Oct. 26—Hamed Diallo sat anxiously in an airport terminal beside his two siblings as reports swirled. His parents turned to each other, cautiously concerned, "This has to be a rumor, right?"
Once regaining cell service after their July 26 connecting flight landed in Dallas-Fort Worth, en route to Niamey, Niger, the Diallos got wind of potential militaristic movement around the capital city's presidential palace. Souleymane Diallo, Hamed's father, messaged his brother in Niger over WhatsApp, seeking some semblance of clarity.
A bit of apprehension seeped in. Souleymane said, "It wasn't clear if this was a coup or just frustrated military." Hamed, a 17-year-old weeks away from starting his senior soccer season at Havre de Grace, and his family spent their layover closely monitoring the situation.
Earlier that morning, local time, Niger President Mohamed Bazoum was detained by his presidential guard at his own residence along with his wife and son. Uncertainty swelled when Bazoum, still in possession of his cellphone, publicly communicated that, despite some reports, it was merely a standoff responding to a narrow set of grievances.
By dusk, a plume of smoke arose from the ransacked presidential headquarters, a backdrop to rallies of protesters filling city streets. Borders were swiftly restricted and a nationwide curfew was instituted.
But the Diallos wouldn't learn of rising tensions until the following morning. They landed in Morocco for their second layover greeted by the news via an automatic email. Their final flight had been postponed a day and subsequently canceled.
Hamed sat atop a set of Havre de Grace bleachers before one recent practice retelling the vacation marred by revolt that forced his absence at the outset of the season. His foot tapped anxiously as he strove to avoid misplacing a detail. But he spoke with a self-assurance beyond his years, the kind amplified by real-world experience.
He returned home with one sweeping descriptor: "eye-opening."
By the time the Diallos touched down in Morocco, 1,300 miles north of Niamey, the morning of the 27th, Niger Army spokesperson Col. Amadou Adramane had already taken to state television. There, with nine military leaders in full regalia standing behind him, he announced the removal of Niger's democratically elected president in what he called an effort to restore security and fight poor economic and social governance.
According to Specialist in African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, Alexis Arieff, seizing control of the national radio and television station is often the sign of a successful coup — Adramane's broadcast marked Niger's fifth since gaining independence from France in 1960 (with other unsuccessful coups in between).
"We could have decided not to go," Souleymane said recently, interjecting a retrospective laugh. "But I think we were already all [thinking] nothing's gonna happen. We didn't anticipate this was going to be different with a [threat of] war looming and the borders closed for almost two months."
'We took enough risks'
Niamey is a relatively frequent trip for Hamed, whose parents are high school sweethearts born and raised in Niger.
Souleymane left in 2000 to complete his undergraduate degree in Morocco, then moved to the United States for graduate school at the University of Delaware. Hamed's mom, Zelika, is now a nurse practitioner at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
They've been visiting extended family during many of Hamed's school breaks since he was 3 years old. At no point before this summer had any visits been amid a significant political uprising.
Past trips were often precious moments of quality family time, nourishing their Nigerian roots. This time, they watched as Bazoum was (and still is) being held hostage with his wife and son refusing to resign, unlike previously ousted leaders. A quasi-hostage situation clouded by conflicting reports caused tense confusion, colored by counterprotests met with bursts of gunfire.
Meanwhile, the Diallos, a party of seven — Souleymane, Zelika, Hamed, Hamed's sister and brother, a friend of his brother's and Zelika's elderly mom — were still in Morocco mapping out their flexed plans and tracking the coup from afar. There, they spent a night in Casablanca near the airport, then a week living more like tourists at an Airbnb in Marrakech.
It wasn't until a few days into their stay in Morocco that Hamed was able to update his coaches and teammates. A sliver of Wi-Fi delivered the message via their shared app, TeamSnap.
"Wow," was all coach Jeff Berthney could articulate when he first read the news. "We were in shock. The main thing was safety for the family. That was our one concern."
The family held out hope this coup wouldn't last, that tensions might fizzle out and borders could reopen. Catching their original flight home was still thought to be a possibility. With their canceled trip redeemable to any other sub-Saharan African country at no extra cost, the Diallos packed their bags and flew to Benin, Niger's southern neighbor.
They spent the next few days mulling over the situation.
Souleymane opted to catch a bus toward Niamey, hoping to see his mother while expecting his wife and kids to return home to the United States. He spent eight hours stuck at the border turning what would normally be a 15-hour trip into a full-day affair. He eventually cleared police customs and arrived at the family's house in the capital city.
So Hamed and the rest of the family figured they'd follow. "Since you made it, we're gonna come too," they said, venturing into an ongoing coup the next day.
They hitched a ride in a taxi with Hamed's uncle and another soldier (neither involved with the coup), all meeting for the first time. It was an uneasy trek. Resting atop the middle console laid an imposing assault rifle pointed directly at Hamed's brother Adam's chest.
"That was freaky," Hamed recalled, noting that they sat squished in silence. "I was afraid that he would hit a bump and it would go off."
Less than 48 hours after the family crossed the border, Niger military mobilized forces to more sternly block any passage in or out. That was a preventive measure after the Economic Community of West African States threatened forceful intervention. "They blocked it physically so you couldn't have gone back," Souleymane said.
The only way out of Niger would have been paying strangers to smuggle the family down the river in a compact, wooden boat that might or might not be safe enough to survive an excursion back to Benin.
Souleymane's hearty laugh interrupted his thick accent, reliving each decision. He spent recent weeks contemplating, if given the chance, whether he might repeat some of those same precarious choices.
"We didn't take that risk," he said. "We took enough risks."
Ultimate life lesson
A less eventful trip to Niger might include trips to the zoo, visiting the family farm roughly 30 miles north of Niamey in a town called Tuareg among crops of mango and banana trees, and Hamed shaping his soccer skills in the neighborhood — a street-style outlier fawned over by teammates on the pitch in Harford County.
But this trip, capsized by a coup, will be remembered for gunshots waking Hamed up in the middle of the night and for seeing heavy artillery posted on street corners. A U.S. Embassy emailing list updated them almost daily with intelligence on impending protests, meaning family dinners out became infrequent following guidance to stay inside.
When Nigeria imposed sanctions on imported electricity, which accounts for 30% of Niger's, it left extensive blackouts across the country. Most homes had up to five hours of power and AC at a time, Souleymane said. The Diallos offset blackouts with a generator, but Nigeria's additional ban on fuel in response to the coup posed another stumbling block to charge the generator.
"Since the coup," Arieff said, "regional leaders have announced ... these really sweeping economic sanctions against Niger. Even though the region has made similar moves, at times, in response to other coups and undemocratic seizures of power, these restrictions are unusually broad and include things like electricity and fuel."
For example, the European Union suspended financial support. France suspended developmental aid. The Dutch government suspended government cooperation. Canada suspended assistance efforts. The United States paused non-humanitarian and assistance programs as well, warning further suspension of cooperation as of early August.
"We were forced to stay in the house a lot, unfortunately, but a lot of family members came over so I got to see them," Hamed said. "We tried to make the best of it. I mean, it's unfortunate that it happened right as we got there. But I still got to see family, which is the number one thing."
Leaving a country in upheaval was just as tricky as getting in.
A family connection to the military couldn't pull any strings. But Souleymane was able to contact the U.S. Embassy and explain their situation. The family woke up Aug. 26, a month after their whirlwind trip began, to an offer for seats on a military-authorized plane.
It leaves in nine hours and you get one carry-on bag, the email read. Hamed said they "woke up at like 6 a.m. that morning and just got on." The plane's two stops were Lomé, a coastline city in Togo, just west of Benin, then Frankfurt, Germany.
"There was this promissory note that you have to sign without knowing the bill," Souleymane said. "I don't care, I'm gonna sign whatever they give me. We need to be taken home. ... But what was scary for me was seeing these big guns pointed at the plane."
Down on the tarmac toward their transit out of Niger, they walked past junta soldiers lined with firearms inside trenches and tanks stationed ready to shoot down any unauthorized flights.
But the Diallos boarded safely alongside other American families to fly to Lomé and Frankfurt before catching a flight back home to BWI Marshall Airport. In a trip arranged to visit one country, they spent at least a night in five, arriving home the evening of Havre de Grace's season opener against Catonsville.
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The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association requires 10 practices before a player can compete in a game. For Hamed, that meant missing the team's second match against Bohemia Manor before seeing action Sept. 12 against Perryville.
He dove back in headfirst as an 80-minute centerpiece for the Warriors. Berthney and assistant coach Addy Pleh described his mere presence as a critical barometer for a good team practice or game. "When he's not here," Pleh said, "the intensity level drops off a bit."
Souleymane reminds Hamed how lucky he is to even carry cleats and a ball, as opposed to when he was growing up kicking around a sock stuffed with clothes, stubbing toes on the makeshift gravel field.
Hamed took a moment to reflect, his legs perched up on the practice field's metal bleachers. He thought about all the places to return to with his future kids: the presidential palace, French and U.S. embassies, family homes and the farm in Tuareg.
"I'll be like, 'When I was here, this happened,'" Hamed said. "I'll point out all these things."
He looked over at his team stretching in the grass, then to his coach and back to the ground, his foot still tapping, before gathering the words to sum up four trying weeks.
"It's eye-opening to know that there are these type of things going on in the world and a lot of people here are oblivious to it," Hamed said. "I think the ultimate life lesson I learned is that life is often taken for granted. Like, just be thankful for whatever you have no matter what."