Burundi experienced a coup d’état in May. Demonstrators burned car tires on the streets in front of the lenses of the world press. Then the reporting fell silent. Blank Spot Project’s Anna Roxvall and Johan Persson share an exclusive eyewitness report from within a crumbling nation.
omething seemed ’off’ about the two men who came to Pierre’s office asking for help. They had been part of the anti-government demonstrations in the spring, and now they were in trouble. One of them displayed a wound on his leg, an injury he got when he was arrested by the police. Was there a safe place where they could hide, he wondered?
At first, there was nothing strange about the situation. April had turned into May and there were thousands in the same situation. Oppositionists were either murdered or arrested or fled in a never-ending stream. The two men claimed that they came from the same neighborhood as Pierre, but no matter how deep he dug around in memory, he couldn’t place them.
”Who organized the protests in your area?” he asked gently.
The two visitors mumbled something unintelligible. They couldn’t remember any names.
”What about the woman who cooked for you, do you remember her name?”
They couldn’t answer that question either.
Pierre is one of Burundi’s few remaining human rights activists. It takes a lot of finesse to trick him. And now he knows they are on to him. Since the visit from the two men, a yellow motorcycle taxi with a view of the entrance to Pierre’s office has been parked a little ways up the street. Every day. The taxi driver never has any customers.
Pierre has had to change offices and started wearing a baseball hat. He takes different routes home every day. And at the end of every work day he erases photos and numbers from his cellphone, throws away his notes.
At night someone calls and yells obscenities. Pierre answers and says ”Wrong number.”
It’s been six months since we last visited Burundi’s capitol, which is home to about 500,000 people. Or, at least according to the last census which was made in 2008. Nobody knows the exact number now. Today we’re traveling on the bustling streets of Bujumbura. It’s rainy season and dark clouds are looming over Lake Tanganyika, but it’s still very hot. Women and animals walk on the asphalt, young men sway on weighed down bicycles or hang on to the back of trucks in clouds of exhaust. Shiny, well-waxed Jeeps honk at shoeless children, women sell mangoes from baskets on their heads.
There is no trace of the burning car tires from back in May. On the surface, everything seems to be back to normal. But nothing is normal. Darkness falls at six o’clock and the streets are empty. And then the explosions and shootings begin. When residents wake up to a new day, the neighbor’s son has disappeared. Maybe there is a corpse in the gutter.
When did the facade first start to crack? Probably much earlier than anyone understood—a violence-ridden election in 2010; an increasingly dictatorial governmental party; the harassment of journalists and activists; a merciless poverty seemingly without end; crippling corruption.
At the beginning of 2015, the looming problems were obvious. President Pierre Nkurunziza’s spokesman confirmed what everyone feared—that he planned to run for re-election despite the fact that it would be his third term, and the peace agreement and Burundi’s constitution only allow two.
The president’s camp had honed in on a sloppy formulation in the statutes about how a president can only be re-elected once, in public, free elections. Because it was parliament who appointed Nkurunziza in 2005 in the first democratic election since the civil war had begun in 1993, technically his first term didn’t count, they reasoned.
This interpretation gained little support, even within the own party lines. Most people thought there was no doubt as to what the lawmakers had intended when writing the statute. Politicians defected, were dismissed or fled. Civilian society started to mobilize. The Catholic Church backed them. And the outside world warned about the consequences if the president didn’t back off.
When we visited the first time, in May, police had already begun responding to the protests with teargas and live ammunition. The demonstrators built barricades around their neighborhoods, set tires on fire and threw rocks. At that point, 50,000 Burundians had already fled the country, people were dying in the streets and the rifts within police and military forces were obvious to everyone.
Hence it came as no a surprise when the former head of the Burundi intelligence service, Godefroid Niyombare, launched a coup d’état on May 13, while the president was away at a conference in neighboring Tanzania.
During all of this, we found ourselves in a Burundian refugee camp just across the other border, in Rwanda, when the different divisions within the military and security forces opened fire. Airports and borders were shut down, civilians hunkered down in their houses and nobody knew who was shooting at whom. It lasted less than 48 hours. The coup-makers were forced to give up and the president returned. By then all independent radio stations had been shut down or blown up. And, all people who had critized the president and his government suddenly became acceptable targets.
t is hot. The fan in our room sounds like a hammer-drill. We move one floor down. The elevator is out of order and the refrigerator is broken. The electricity comes and goes. In the evening, the songs of crickets is drowned by the booming of a diesel generator. It’s just a few months later, but it feels like another life time. Back in May this was a functioning hotel. Reception was packed with satellite modems and chargers, the breakfast canteen buzzing with journalists in bullet proof vests and bathrobes. Now it’s just us. It is October and everything is falling apart.
Pierre throws a glance over his shoulder before he opens the squeaking blue door and walks in. There’s a man who looks to be in his 50s waiting for him on the inside. He has a shaved head, a yellowing but well-pressed shirt and lint-covered, grey slacks. He moves slowly up the stairs and into the worn out offices, then passes the posters encouraging free elections, and sits down on the chair as if it was made out of glass.
The first time he came here was in the summer time. He was in bad shape then. Pierre and his colleagues from a sister organization connected him to a doctor who does not cooperate with the police.
Joseph is from Mutakura – one of the neighborhoods that saw the most violent protests against the president during the spring. He used to make a living by collecting scrap metal in rural areas and selling it in the city for recycling. In one of the poorest countries on earth, Joseph had it better than many others.
June 25 was a day like any other. With his car full of metal treasures and two hitchhikers on the roof, Joseph was heading back home from the Kayanza province in northern Burundi. At Gard du Nord, a junction point just outside the city, he stopped to drop off his passengers. He was just about to get back into is car when someone pushed him so hard in his back that he lost his balance. Four civilian clothed men came out of nowhere, grabbed him by his arms and legs and threw him into a Jeep without license plates. They drove him to the old headquarters of the security forces, where eight men in blue camouflage uniforms waited.
Joseph says the interrogation began immediately. The men yelled at him, over and over, demanding that he confess that he trained youngsters to shoot police officers.
”I protested and told them the truth: ask anyone—my only job is gathering scrap metal! That’s when they took an iron pipe and started beating me,” he says.
Two policemen led the interrogation and the others beat him. Hard. Under his feet, on his back and behind. Then they took all his clothes and forced him to stand on a board with nails, filled a water jug with sand and hung it from a rope they tied to his penis.
The table in Pierre’s office has a long, deep scracth that Joseph is following slowly with his index finger, while he speaks.
”At that point it wouldn’t have mattered what they did. I couldn’t speak anymore anyway.”
When he awoke after the trauma, Joseph was naked and alone. He couldn’t get up, and spent the night on the freezing cold floor. They only beat him a few minutes at a time in the days that followed, but he was mostly left alone.
”The third day, one of the guards came with a pile of tattered clothes. He was nice, called me ’my eldest’ to show respect. ’Please, I know the clothes are dirty, but put them on any way, you will die if you keep laying naked on the floor like this,’ he said.”
On the fourth day, eight teenagers were thrown into cell where Joseph was held. They came from Mutakura too and had been brutally beaten. At nightfall, guards came and took them two by two.
”But the guards forgot to close the door, and I wanted to see where they were being taken, so I managed to get up on all fours and crawl out of the cell,” Joseph says.
That’s when the power outage happened and everything turned black. Joseph couldn’t hear or see anyone in the corridor. He hesitated for a while and then he started crawling.
”I knew they would kill me if they found me, but at least I would die trying to escape, I thought.”
A kind-hearted taxi driver saw a severely beaten man come crawling out of a building, carried him into his car and drove off.
Joseph doesn’t live in Mutakura anymore. When he returned to his house, every window was broken and his home plundered. A neighbor told him that the police had been there and they had said they would be back.
Now, Joseph is in hiding, eats antibiotics and thinks of his grown kids, whom he no longer can visit. All the scrap metal he had collected that day is gone along with his car. He will find out at the end of the month if he needs surgery or not.
I walk out into the sunny backyard, giving Joseph enough privacy to unbutton his pants and show the men on site why it is so painful for him to sit down. From the sound of things, it doesn’t look good.
The first blast is barely audible through the music in the bar. The second one feels pretty close. Then comes a rhytmical spatter. Caught with our forks halfway to our mouths, we all shoot questioning looks to the bartender, who is polishing glasses behind the bar.
”Is it always like this?”
”It is always like this.”
”So this is normal?”
”No, there is nothing normal about it.”
he car engine is protesting loudly in the steep hills and we slow down. Outside the window the world is plunging downward into a lush green under a blueish gray sky with tears of gold. The driver consistently takes every curve on the wrong side of the road. We are on our way to Gitega, the second largest city in Burundi, for a ceremoni with president Nkurunziza. While security in Bujumbura is pretty good, the spokesperson for the police says, for unknown reasons all appearances by the head of state have moved outside of the capitol. Ambassadors, party members and other VIPs are suddenly forced to load up in their shiny Jeeps and head out on a two-hour long mad ride on winding, mountaenous roads.
Just outside Gitega, we get stopped at a checkpoint.
All civilians in a kilometer-radius of the meeting place are force-evacuated from their homes and stores during the hours leading up to, during and after the event. When we finally get through the checkpoint, we enter a ghost city guarded by hundreds of police and military officers. The attendees have to park a few hundred yards away from the building where the meeting will take place. The American ambassador does not look happy when her high heels get struck in the red mud.
The EU, The US and several institutions have, over and over again, repeatedly demanded that president Nkurunziza sits down with the oppostition to negotiate. He refuses. Instead he has launched the ”National Commission for inter-Burundian dialogue” and its members are about to be sworn in now amid great pomp and circumstance. The umbrella organisation of the opposition is not present.
A less harmonizing brass orchestra and a group of young men with drums are waiting at the red carpet to welcome the president. He arrives an hour later than everybody else, and only after about 30 police officers and soldiers have secured the area.
The venue is adorned with white, red and green balloons, the colors of the Burundi flag. I try to sit down in the back of the room, but fall to the floor as the plastic chair is missing one leg.
Burundi is one of a few African countries whose borders are somewhat similar to what they were before the colonial era. Just like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi was a monarchy, ruled by the king, the mwami. The population was made up by three major groups: Hutu (85 percent), Tutsi (14 percent) and Twa (1 percent.) Historians have struggled to find a good way to describe Hutu and Tutsi, since ethnicity doesn’t really apply. The
Hutus were traditionally farmers and the Tutsis were herders. The latter often times richer and made up the power circuit around the mwami. They shared the same language and culture. The structure wasn’t carved in stone, however, and inter-marriage of Hutu and Tutsi was common, a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. It was a complex system based on power, natural resources, family bonds and loyalty.
When Belgium took power of the area from the Germans after World War I (then called “Ruanda-Urundi”), it seems that flexibility was erased. Inspired by the ideas of racial superiority of the times, the Tutsi were favored and believed to be more like the Europeans than the Hutu. In the 1930s, citizens were issued identification cards, which once and for all suppose to establish ethnicity. When there was any uncertainty at all, skulls and noses where measured. All positions within administration, police and military were assigned to Tutsis, while the Hutus were blocked from the education and the upper echelons. This was the basis for the catastrophy that would many decades later become the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi.
The president’s opening speech up there at the podium has a clear message directed toward the north-west. Just a few weeks prior, Belgium pulled the plug on its financial relief, with the alarming development in Burundi cited as a motivation. After that, the Belgian ambassador was sent packing.
Now Nkurunziza speaks about Burundi’s glorious pre-colonial history, when people were united under one king, and they solved their problems through dialogue. He also speaks about the time when Burundi was ruled by the Belgians and draws parallels with the current situation, sending the message that this is a engineered conflict.
”We do not need outsiders to destabilize our country this time around.”
On the drive way back to Bujumbura it rains so hard that we can’t continue. We stop on the side of the road next to a hastily abandoned vegetable stand. Large drops of water start finding their way through the car ceiling, trickling down to the plastic-covered seats. We take turns sleeping. Both of us have a stomach bug.
he water in the Kinyankonge River runs, dirt-brown, down its furrow. A few young men have set up a make-shift bar on a slope and play an edgy Afrobeat through cracked speakers. It’s hot.
This neighborhood along the river is called Mutakura and is the area where the biggest protests against the government raged this spring. Many young men were killed during the clashes there, which is considered the seat of the opposition by police and the government.
”This place used to be bustling with people who came for the clay to make bricks,” says 22-year-old Alain, balancing on the porous river bank.
Nowadays, nobody dares to begin new construction. In the ongoing conflict, the river has turned into a no-name graveyard. In the morning, the people who live here find corpses that have been dumped under the cover of the dark.
”It’s usually not people from here, so I think it’s people who have ’disappeared’ from other parts of the city,” Alain says.
The corpses are mostly men, but one time there was a woman. Someone had violated her with a stick.
Alice, who is 27, also found a dead body here two weeks ago.”It was impossible to see who it was, he was back-tied and had a rice bag over his head,” she says.
We stand there and consider the plastic bags, trash and old shoes that are swirled around and getting stuck on the river bottom. Alice puts her arm around a little girl who has joined us and then makes an irritated gesture toward the mess in the river.
”This affects our children very much. How are they supposed to be able to focus on their education if they find dead bodies on their way to school?”
Mutakura is framed by two busy asphalted roads, with cobble-stoned streets and alleys of red clay interspersed between. Behind brick walls and simple steel doors several families share common back yards, often times with only one water faucet, firepits and fruit trees. People here are very poor, but not the poorest. In Burundi, all nuances of poor are represented.
The police constantly target this neighborhood in their raids for weapons and people. The explosions and gunfire we heard the night before came from Mutakura.
In response to the constant raids, young men in this area have begun patrolling their streets at night, armed with grenades and guns.
Alain knows them all. Maybe he is one of them. While we walk with him through the alleys, he stops several times to shake hands with young guys who wear bulky jackets and boots, despite the heat.
”Since the police kill the people here, the people have to find a way to defend themselves. It’s natural,” he says calmly.
But the violence is constantly escalating, becoming more and more brutal.
Police pickets are attacked by grenades and the residents are exposed to the reprisals. Everyone from Mutakura is a suspected opposition member. People are arrested and often disappear.
It’s hard to grasp the situation. Uniforms go astray. In the dark it’s impossible to be sure who is shooting. But so far it’s peaceful. In one intersection, children are playing in the burnt out skeleton of a car while its despondent owner lifts the hood. He maintains that the police came this morning, knocked on doors and started shooting at anything.
”I hid in the bathroom and refused to open, but then they torched my car,” he says, shaking his head.
Farther down the street, a woman who calls herself Eugenie is sitting in a small kiosk decorated by beer caps and waiting for customers. She lives across the yard and had gone home to prepare dinner last night when the first grenade exploded. From her window she saw a bicycle-taxi driver take cover inside her kiosk along with her neighbor’s little boy.
Suddenly a few officers ran up to them and yelled, ”Show us where the criminals are hiding!” The police tried to enter through the bars protecing the front of the kiosk, but when they were unable, they busted down the backdoor instead, she tells us.
The man and the little boy were taken and nobody has heard from either one since then.
Still, Eugenie opened her store this morning. There is nothing else she can do.
”This is how our everyday situation is these days. We have to make a living,” she says.
Evidence of the war bubbles beneath the surface, everywhere. The young men who join us haul open a red metal door riddled with bullet holes, revealing an empty yard with destroyed houses. The roof has caved in on one of the structures and a wall was blasted away on another. Alain tells us that a father and his twin sons lived here.
”It was July 1. A policeman had been shot somewhere near here and a lot of them came to take revenge. They forced the father and his twin sons down on the ground and shot them in the head. Then they fired rockets into their house and tried to burn it to the ground.”
Green grass has already found its way into the rubble. Mango fruit is rotting on the ground. Alain carefully moves a large glass shard with his foot.
”Their mother lives in Belgium. The father and the boys were going to travel to see her the following day.”
Alice lives in a small room with a bed, footstool and a shelf. She sells charcoal on the street and that’s what she was doing last week, when suddenly a lot of police officers poured into the neighborhood.
”As soon as we see them we run for our lives, but I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t manage to get away,” she says.
With guns pointed at her, she was forced to sit down on a chair while they rummaged through her things.
”I was petrified. They took the one hundred dollars I had managed to save and poured rice and flower on the flour. Then they ordered me to go get a shovel,” she says and shows us the empty rice and four bags.
But tall, wiry Alice is known for being fast as the lightning, the guys in the neighborhood vouch and say she is the fastest woman in Mutakura. When the police looked the other way, she threw herself over the wall behind the house and ran as fast as her legs could carry her.
”They never caught me, but when I returned later all the rooms had been ransacked. They even took the mattresses from our beds,” she says.
Many houses in the area are empty. Those who were able to moved in with relatives in different areas, or managed to leave for neighboring countries. Of the 10 people who used to share Alice’s yard, just she and two other women are left.
”Everyone else has fled, we are scared all the time.”
Alain takes our numbers on the way back to the car. He promises to call us the next time a corpse turns up.
This is before we know that his dead body will soon appear on state televised news.
bdoul was 20 years old when he got a family again. He came alone as an orphan to Bujumbura from Burundi’s war-ridden next-door neighbor Kongo-Kinshasa. He had nothing, but a family here met him and took him in. Since he had never learned how to read and write, the mother in the family taught him how to sew. Together they ran a small tailorshop a few hundred yards from their house, on the other side of the street.
Now the family stands in their yard, putting the finishing touches on a plywood coffin with a purple shroud. Abdoul’s adoptive father paces back and forth, tortured by guilt. It was he who heard the gunfire last night and told them to come home.
”When Abdoul went to lock the main door he was struck by a hand grenade. He died instantly. My wife spent the whole night watching over his dead body,” he says, wiping his forehead with a hankerchief.
He also wipes the corner of his eye.
The men lift the coffin and walk in procession across the busy street, toward the tailor shop where the body lay on a bast mat. The air in the room is suffocating, the smell of blood makes my stomach churn. The women in the neighborhood have gathered outside and together they cry, while the young man is tucked into the coffin and carried out to a waiting taxi.
Those who have money in Bujumbura are buried at a cemetary out by the airport, under white tiles with names and photographs. The poor are buried near the farmlands north of the city, a hand carved cross as the marker.
Five male relatives squish themselves into the trunk of the taxi and ride out to the anonymous graveyard. The ceremony is over in 30 minutes.
Afterward, the adoptive father stands next to the mound where the flowers are already starting to wilt, sad that nobody else could afford to transport themselves to come to the burial.
”Under normal circumstances we would have been many. Abdoul was like a son to me. I took him in and treated him like my own, and he never disappointed me,” he says.
Who killed Abdoul? Nobody knows and no one will try to find out. There will be no report to the police and no investigation. His death will never be registered anywhere. But those who loved him won’t forget.
Death is never far away in Burundi. People die of old age, people die of incurable diseases and people die from diseases that could have been cured by antibiotics. People die in traffic, too. And from childbirth. Death is a big part of life here. But when someone dies a violent death, it is a different type of death. It’s a type of death in which the tentacles wrap around people’s hearts and squeeze so hard that they almost stop. It’s been ten years since the civil war ended, but the number of victims of violent deaths here is increasing every day. And the fragile peace that took so many years to build back up, can be torn down again at the blink of an eye. Old mechanisms are activated.
Marie-Claire Kanyange greets us at a white-washed house in one of the nicer areas of Bujumbura. She is the treasurer for the civilian umbrella organization FORSC, and one of the last people in a leadership position who has not left the country yet. She has a calm demeanor and smiles often. Her home is neat and quiet. But Marie-Claire rarely goes outside anymore, other than transporting herself to and from work. She’s had to let the maid go; she doesn’t trust anyone.
It is a life that’s disturbingly familiar. She has lived like this before: constantly on her guard. Worried. With danger at her doorstep.
Marie-Claire, who’s in her late 50s, was a child when Burundi was liberated in 1962. The Belgians had not prepared their exit from the country they had ruled since the early 1920s, and the following 25 years became a macabre parade of military dictatorships and political murders. Coup d’états and coup-attempts were followed by ethnic massacres in 1972, 1988 and 1993. Burundi-Hutus fled to Rwanda, Rwandan Tutsi to Burundi, and, in 1994, the other way around.
The bitterness of the injustices committed by either side constantly deepened. It was a fundamentally divided country that went to the polls in its first democratic election in 1993. Marie-Claire, who is Tutsi, had just married and remembers the Hutu extremists election propaganda with a shiver.
”There was so much hatred. They talked about slitting the throats of all Tutsis. I remember how incredibly scared we were.”
That a Hutu party would win when the majority got to vote, was clear, but as a result of the old order, the military was still mostly made up by Tutsi. So when Melchior Ndadaye won the election with his Hutu party, Frodebu, the reaction was nearly instinctive. Less than three months after he took office, Ndadaye was murdered by a faction of the Army. And then all hell broke loose.
In rural areas, Hutu rebels murdered civilian Tutsis and the Army murdered civilian Hutu. It spiraled out of control and turned into a vicious cycle of ethnic violence and retaliation. People were raped and mutilated, infants executed. About 300,000 people died in those years.
Since Marie-Claire’s family was Tutsi, it was safest for them to remain in the army-controlled capitol, Bujumbura.
”But they were horrific years, we lived day to day, it was a terrible, terrible time.”
One of her sons, who was at a university somewhere inland, disappeared in connection with a massacre. Marie-Claire’s father, who was too sick to flee when the rebels attacked his home, spent two weeks hidden in a hole in the ground. Hutus from his home village snuck food and water to him at night. That’s how he survived.
”It is important to point out that all people did not get drawn in by the war. There were people who resisted. We also hid many Hutu friends here in Bujumbura,” Marie-Claire says.
Young Tutsi extremists attacked Hutus in the capitol, just based on their ethnicity, and one day Marie-Claire and some members of her church choir learned that the extremists had surrounded a house where their friends were hiding.
”We ran over there and demanded that they’d let them go, but then they threatened to kill us, too. ’By God, kill us then, instead of these innocent people who have nothing to do with the politics of this country,’ we responded and then they left.”
Marie-Claire’s choir continued to meet and sing together in their church all through the civil war. A tapestry of Jesus hangs, slightly askew, above her head, as a reminder of the faith that guided her away from the ethnic hatred.
”A good Christian understands that we are all the sons and daughters of this Earth. But we lost many, many during those years.”
When the Arusha Peace and Reconcilation Agreement for Burundi was signed in 2000, it was the beginning of the end of the bloody war. A system was established which guaranteed all ethnic groups political influence.
The possibility for individual political parties to gain too much power was restricted, as was the number of terms a president could stay in power. No ethnic group would be allowed to make up more than 50 percent of the country’s army.
In 2005, the Arusha agreement was made into Burundi’s consitution by a popular vote. Later that year, the old Hutu rebel group CNDD-FDD gained a majority of the votes in the election and Pierre Nkurunziza was eventually installed as president.
A fragile peace was established and with it, a different society than before the war was built. To prevent the spreading of hateful dispatches, free radio stations were founded and funded by development aid money. These stations and their role as educators in reconciliation and human rights quickly made them very popular. Education was open to all who could afford it and an ethnically-mixed society took root.
To the rest of the world, the reconciliation work in Burundi was in many ways viewed as a success story. Especially in comparison with their hardcore neighbor, Rwanda. Because of this, the Arusha agreement is viewed by many Burundis in the way Americans view the Constitution of the United States: Something sacred that people are ready to defend with their lives. When the opposing sides unified to form an organization they chose the abbreviation CNARED: Conseil National pour le Respect de l’Accord d’Arusha et de l’Etat de Droit au Burundi.
The firey anger the president has stoked is not just about his hunger for power. It’s suspected that Nkurunziza wants to overhaul the Arusha agreement, the very thing that gave Burundi peace.
Marie-Claire laughs a sad laugh and says that many voted for Nkurunziza’s party to prevent the old elite, which had so much blood on their hands, from gaining power.
”People wanted a change, and instead it got worse.”
aul sits on the edge of a chair in the light of a flickering lamp, looking often at the clock. Pierre and the interpreter sit next to him and tap frenetically on their SmartPhones. Outside, the sun is setting fast.
We have tried to reach someone who participated in the actual organization of the protests in the spring. Here he is now, but he refuses to have his picture taken and absolutely does not want to meet in his part of town.
We are not allowed to use his real name either, because he, like everyone else in the opposition movement, was forced underground in May. The unsuccessful coup d’état was a watershed.
”It was a fake coup attempt, it must have been. The president orchestrated it to crush us,” Paul says with conviction, rolling his beer bottle between his palms.
It is a common theory, perhaps easier to believe than that yet another autocratic man went for it and failed. Either way, there is no doubt that the opposition was deflated after that. Everyone who in some way has expressed an opinion against the president’s third term is accused of supporting the coup-makers. Lists with names and warrants for those who are supposedly responsible for the planned accession to power are in circulation. On these lists are the names of prominent human rights activists, politicians and journalists. Some of them have been murdered, some are victims of attempted murder, and others have fled.
”We realized that we can’t be seen on the streets any more, because they will kill us all. But the opposition movement isn’t dead, we have just changed methods,” Paul says.
He often repeats that from the beginning, all efforts were peaceful, but those who are met with violence have the right to answer with violence. He helps coordinate between different neighborhoods and makes sure the weapons they manage to get a hold of are distributed where they are needed.
”Many with the police and military are also against the government, some of them tip us off when there’s an upcoming raid, others give us weapons and uniforms,” he says.
It’s now completely dark outside the dirty window. The wind rustles in the trees and the lamps in the room flit like candles. We hear gunfire from nearby Cibitoke and Mutakura, and the men’s cellphones get busier and busier with incoming calls. The conversation slows down, turns more and more fragmented, until our questions aren’t answered at all any more. The interpreter has stopped translating completely and is talking on the phone with relatives in Cibitoke, who have sought refuge at some friends’ house. They have suddenly realized that there are way too many people gathered in one place and if the police comes and do a search, they risk being accused of being a resistance group. Everyone knows how those situations can end up. The phone call gets disconnected several times and the voices on the other end get more and more upset. Finally a woman screams hysterically that our interpreter has to call every higherup he knows with the police and tell them that there are innocent civilians in a house that they mustn’t shoot.
Suddenly the power goes out completely and it is black both inside and outside. Paul, Pierre and the interpreter decide to leave, bid a quick farwell and disappear with their phones glued to their ears. Thunder rolls across Lake Tanganyika and the rain is whipping against the windshield when the men drive out of the parking lot.
Johan and I manange our way back to the blacked-out hotel and collapse in our beds, while waiting for the redemptive sound of the generator in the backyard. We both have stomach bugs again. The hotel kitchen has suspiciously many alternatives on their menu, despite having only two guests. The vegetable soup reminds us of algae bloom. We eat reluctantly and sleep uneasily. Just after 11 pm, the interpreter rings on the local cell number.
”Paul has been shot.”
t is early morning by the Kinyankonge River. Police officers and soldiers have spread across the area. Someone has already fished out the corpse. The man lay under a checkered table cloth while Red Cross personnel dispense plastic gloves to some volunteers. Two women come walking on the gravel road from opposite directions. They slow down and take a look at the corpse’s face, and disappear again. One of them is looking for her son; the other her husband. Neither find their missing loved one this time.
A blood spot behind a house not far from the discovery site bears witness of where the man under the table cloth took his last breaths. A scrawny woman among the onlookers supposedly saw the perpetrators, but she backs off and quickly disappears into a house when one of the soldiers points at her.
The body is put into the back of a pickup and driven away.
Nobody knows how many people have been murdered in Bujumbura since the protests in April. The government speaks of 130 people, while foreign media says ”at least 200”. Pierre, on the other hand, has a list of 270 names in his computer, and it’s being added to every day. Still, he’s only registering the cases where there is a photo of the body, so many aren’t on the list. The hardest number to verify is that of all the slain police officers, since the authorities consistently under-report their own losses.
Among those who have been murdered are many from the resistance and persons from the anti-governmental regions, but also members of the feared youth wing of the ruling party, Imbonerakure.
From the beginning, the corpses of missing people were hidden. Nowadays they are dumped in plain sight so nobody misses them. The bodies oftentimes have evidence of torture, sometimes they have been desecrated. One day we meet a man who shows us pictures of a family member who was found in the gutter with his heart missing. Carving the heart out of ”the enemy” was the Rwanda Hutu militia’s signature.
Someone is borrowing their symbolism.
Paul switches hiding places several times a day. Everything is up in the air. We finally meet at a bar that hasn’t opened yet, in a neighborhood far away from where he used to live.
He still has two bullets in one leg, in the other the shot just went through soft tissue. He’s being operated on the following day.
”It is okay, I knew I was a target, they have just never been able to get to me before,” he says and shrugs his shoulders.
He actually looks less stressed than before he was shot. Almost relieved. Now it’s us who are anxious. It’s starting to feel like we’ve been in the same place for too long. There are few white people left in the country. Everyone knows who we are.
To throw a handgrenade over a wall is easy.
Paul says he was on his way to have a beer with a relative after he had met with us that night. He was on his way from our meeting, when he was discovered by two police officers.
”My wife had met one of them earlier, and then he told her that he was going to turn her into a widow. I thought it was just talk, but when he saw me, then… well, then he shot me.”
According to Paul, they drove him straight to the local jail. There the police had planned on locking him up with the blood gushing down his leg, but he fought, demanded that they’d take him to a hospital instead. While the officers went to call their superiors, he slipped out of the back door.
”It hasn’t started hurting real bad yet. I managed to get to a good friend who lives nearby. He helped me to a place where they do first-aid,” he says and pulls up the leisure suit to show the large basic adhesive bandages taped onto his legs.
It’s completely still outside. Through the bamboo fence surrounding the bar, it’s possible to keep an eye on the nearly-empty cobble-stoned street outside. A police officer is stationed a short distance away. A motorcycle comes speeds by. A shiny black car creeps past where we are sitting.
There’s the thought of the hand grenade again.
We get up and leave.
he violence and explosions aren’t just a nighttime occurence anymore. Suddenly there is a blast near the heart of the city. In Gitega, a group of unidentified men in uniform attack an army outpost. It is Thursday, October 29, and there’s a heavy downpour when highschool students in Mutakura go on strike. Headmaster Agnès Nyota comes out from the meeting with student representatives, overpowering the murmurs with her deep voice.
She announces that all education is interrupted until there is a solution.
The jubilation is loud.
”In a way I understand them, us who work here live in this area too,” she says while slipping her cellphone and calendar into her purse.
It is the police offiers in the building across the school yard that are the problem, at least according to the students. The police are targets for young men who are part of the resistance and fighting against the government, so are constantly under attack. The students were shocked when the police suddenly had occupied a room in one of the actual school buildings and established a provisory outpost there—as if they were going to use children as human shields. An angry female student shows us craters in the walls and the bullet holes in the windows to the auditorium.
”Those men come here to attack the police, but it’s us, the students, who are affected. We have told our school management that we cannot study as long as the police are here, they have to leave!” she yells.
Oswald Bigirindavyi, an English teacher standing with us under the roof to escape the rain, quietly adds that the situation is getting worse. Just yesterday there was chaos already at 8.30 in the morning, in the middle of class.
”There were grenade explosions and they were shooting everywhere around us. It’s not a sustainable learning environment.”
The very same day, the President of Burundi’s Senate, Révérien Ndikuriyo, holds a speech to local governmental officials in Bujumbura which sends a chill down the spines of many Burundians. The goverment is preparing a massive effort to disarm all restance groups in the capitol, and in front of everybody Ndikuriyo talks about ”spraying” the areas where people refuse to put their guns down.
”You are going to tell them that so far, the police have only aimed for the legs, but one day we will give the order: ’Get to work!’”
In Rwanda and Burundi words like ”spray” and ”work” have a deep and hurtful, historic significance, and the President of the Senate uses them, purposely, several times. It’s a speech that stirs up dark memories. Memories of machetes against bodies. About 200,000 Burundi have already fled to neighboring countries. The warnings that a new genocide may be looming in Burundi come increasingly often.
Johan and I are getting really tired from this constant vigilance. A danger that we can’t see, the feeling that the earth is parting in separate directions under our feet.
We only have one day left in Burundi when police open fire at a funeral procession on its way toward the airport. The people have just buried a young man who was killed in his neighborhood and the air is heavy with rumors. When we are called to a press conference, there are is talk about an ambush and anywhere from one to 20 people dead.
There is only one person who has died in connection with the arrest of a group ”criminal men,” the press officer with the Police says. Twelve others were arrested and are now in jail.
The few local journalists who came to the press conference have already been in touch with those who survived the attack and those whose relatives never came back from the funeral, so they don’t pay much attention to the man up on the podium. It’s not until the press officer declares that they are investigating why one of the arrestees had the number to Doctors Without Borders in his cell phone, they perk up.
What did he say?
It’s the Belgian division of Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who are present in Burundi and the govermental rhetoric against the Belgians gets harsher every day. What stirs up the most agitation, however, is the principal of the organization—treating everyone who is injured, regardless of which side he or she is on. The identities of patients are never shared with the police, which means that the MSF hospital is the only place those who are in opposition to the ruling party and president dare to seek help.
There is no doubt that the police’s press officer has delivered a clear warning. And everyone in the room heard it.
That evening someone in the staff zaps in the state-owned television’s newscast on the TV in our hotel bar. The footage of the attack of the funeral procession comes on. Police officers and a mini-bus flicker by on the screen, then the camera zooms in on a lifeless man in the ditch. The chest of his striped T-shirt is red from blood. His Adidas sweatpants have slid down from the waist, exposing the waistband of a pair of worn boxers. It is 22-year-old Alain, who showed us around in Mutakura.
t’s November 2, and the Burundi parliament should be busy debating the 2016 budget, but there is none to debate. In Gihosha, which is in the north, a dead woman is thrown out of a car. In the south, the corpse of a man who’s been missing for a few days is discovered.
The supervisor for Pierre’s organization has fled to Rwanda and the pay checks have stopped coming. He lives off handouts from relatives and friends and doesn’t want to be bothered with how much longer he’ll be able to carry on like this.
”I have worse problems, I may not even be alive then,” he says when we meet at the secret office the last time.
Pierre hasn’t seen his family in months. All waking time is spent on helping people who have been arrested, assaulted, or need to hide. He eats too little. He sleeps too little. Wakes up by gunfire and dreams of what he’s lost.
”It’s as if I don’t have any feelings anymore,” he says and massages his forehead with his hand.
It’s been nearly two weeks since he saw his best friend, Evariste, for the last time. The presidential guard’s special forces demanded the whole family out of the house and executed them all. Nobody knows why. Pierre shows a photo of himself in his phone, when he was strong and happy and 20 pounds heavier Now, he doesn’t trust anyone and barely dares to go outside to meet a friend.
One by one, the people around him disappear. Evariste is gone, Paul was shot. Can one prepare himself to die? Pierre tries.
He will never leave Burundi. Someone has to stay and fight. It’s becoming an increasingly lonely battle. The radio stations have been closed, the international press has gone home, the remains of Burundi’s civilian society is taking its last breaths.
”It feels like we’ve been abandoned and left to fend for ourselves,” he says, pulling the cap further down over his face.
It’s rainy season in Burundi. Thunder rolls over its thousands of hills. Heavy water drops dissolve the clay holding together the poor people’s houses. On TV, the president calls the opposition ’Enemies of the nation.’
Pierre has to-do lists he needs to fulfil. Life continues until it doesn’t anymore.
”They practically crushed our movement,” he says and puts the note book with undecipherable notes back into his satchel.
”But inside, the people—the resistance, remains.”
Stockholm December 1, 2015
Some names, places, and organizations have been replaced in the text to anonymise and protect whistleblowers.