Ballots, bullets and hand grenades: Burundi in 2010.

A Somali businessman tells me they found the guy behind last week’s grenade attack in Bujumbura’s central market. Seems he was an employee of Onatel – Burundi’s largest telecom company – but no word on what prompted him to methodically plant a grenade in a package, leave it with a trader, and melt into the crowd before the grenade went off. (This is the story I was told by my friend, which was also reported by the AFP.) Here’s the market in more peaceful times:

Bujumbura's central market

Maybe the perpetrator had a gripe with the jurassic pace of change at the state-run company. Maybe he was just pissed that he, like the rest of us, has hardly been able to send a single text for THE PAST THREE WEEKS.

The attack also came in spite of the heightened security around Bujumbura, after Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants threatened Burundi and Uganda for supplying troops for the African Union’s fledgling peacekeeping mission in Somalia. (This “heightened security” includes a bunch of bedraggled police milling around the market, shaking down the odd tourist who, for example, snaps pictures like this one.)

A grave threat to national security

Whatever prompted the plot, grenade attacks are a sad and tragic fact of life in Burundi. (“When it was the war, this would happen every week,” my Somali friend tells me.) According to the AFP report (linked above),

A total of 616 people were killed by violence in Burundi in 2008, including 133 in grenade attacks, according to the country’s leading human rights group.

The UN Development Programme said there were more than 300 grenade attacks in Burundi in 2008.

I’ve been following the news from Burundi since April, and have read a number of reports of similar attacks. They usually stem from domestic disputes: quarrels between lovers, disputes over land. (“After a decade of civil war and years of daily violence, people have a tendency to resort to violence to solve their differences,” said one government official.)

The ready availability of hand grenades – both the relics of Burundi’s long civil war, and the spillover from neighboring Congo – has made them, according to the AFP, “the weapon of choice for everybody, from petty criminals to disgruntled lovers.”

“For a criminal, the grenade is convenient because it guarantees many people are killed in very little time and allows the perpetrator to vanish without revealing himself,” [local human rights group] Iteka chairman David Nahimana said.

The ease of anonymity – along with a chilling culture of impunity – makes it easy for perpetrators to disappear without a trace. In October, the Burundi Press Agency noted that “at least 10 grenades had exploded in several areas in the administrative centre of Ruyigi province [in the previous month] without any arrest being made.”

AFP reported on this “hand grenade epidemic” in June, noting that the weapons “go for around one dollar on the black market.” Despite a highly publicized disarmament drive which netted nearly 70,000 weapons in the past two years – including 14,000 in a single week in October – this remains a heavily armed country. Most estimates place the number of small arms at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000. Securing those weapons remains a huge obstacle in the months leading up to this year’s presidential election.

Unfortunately, the seriousness of the government in tackling the problem remains…questionable. Already government-sponsored “youth groups” – militias to me and you – have been putting on shows of strength in rural communes. Opposition parties are retaliating. In November, AFP reported how

Burundi’s main opposition group (FRODEBU) massed youths at a weekend rally, warning that it was preparing to fight fire with fire after accusing the ruling CNDD-FDD of forming a militia ahead of polls.

One opposition politician I spoke to called FRODEBU’s bluff. “They’re using violent words to say we are going to fight,” he said. But it’s a widely known fact that the CNDD has the bulk of the weapons. And the ruling party has already proven its willingness to resort to violence to achieve its ends.

I’d been hoping to report on all of this when I arrived in Burundi last month. The militias seemed especially intriguing. But a friend – an American aid worker – advised me against it, calling it a “very dangerous” story. The biggest problem was that most of the militia activities – usually military drills performed in the street in the early morning hours, euphemistically described as “sports days” – take place in rural areas where security is most tenuous. (On a visit to the rural town of Bururi in mid-December, I apparently managed to sleep through a firefight that woke up the rest of the hotel.) In the collines, things happen. They happen to the poor harassed villagers who face the brunt of daily threats and violence; and they can just as easily happen to nosy foreign journalists who – let’s face it – aren’t exactly war correspondents to begin with. As a travel writer, I tend to spend my time doing things like this:

Reporting from the frontlines

and, occasionally, this:

Risking life and limb

and, abundantly, this:

Putting it all on the line

“Very dangerous” just doesn’t make me want to reach for my Moleskin.

After all, let’s not forget that the ruling party, CNDD-FDD, is itself a former rebel group, which came in from the bush just in time to win the 2005 election. (According to most commentators, it was the implicit threat of violence – that they would simply return to the bush and restart the war if they lost – that helped bring CNDD to power.) When President Pierre Nkurunziza returned from a trip to Rome in November – both to discuss the plight of the developing world at the World Food Security Summit and have a pow-wow with the Pope – he was asked by a local reporter what he thought of the disturbing rise in youth demonstrations. His deadpan reply – “the youth need sports” – sent a chill down more than a few spines of those present.

The youth need sports.

Which leaves Burundi in a very precarious place ahead of this year’s polls.

“To win against fear is not to take up a weapon,” Alexis Sinduhije, the controversial presidential candidate, once told me. “If you take up a weapon, you already have that fear yourself.

“If you don’t take up a weapon, you will win with the force of your ideas.”

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One response to “Ballots, bullets and hand grenades: Burundi in 2010.

  1. Pingback: Just when you thought it was safe to leave Burundi… « This Is Africa

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