Tag Archives: “burundi civil war”

City of angels.

“When they killed the president, I had nowhere to go, because I am a Tutsi,” Maggy said, smiling a wide, self-deprecating smile.

We were sitting three weeks ago in the office of Maison Shalom, in a sprawling compound in the provincial capital of Ruyigi, and Marguerite Barankitse – “Maggy” to just about everyone in Burundi – was telling me about the war. In 1993, after the assassination of President Melchior Ndabaye, Burundi was in a state of panic. The killing of the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president sparked a wave of reprisal killings. Tutsis were being targeted all across Burundi. In Ruyigi, thousands fled the city for a nearby military garrison, hoping to be protected by the Tutsi-dominated army.

But Maggy refused to join them. “No, I am not a Hutu or a Tutsi,” she told them. “I am a woman, and the noble vocation of a woman is to give the life.” A former teacher, she had adopted seven orphans from both ethnic backgrounds. “I cannot abandon my Hutu children,” she said.

So she stayed in her home and rallied friends and neighbors – Hutu and Tutsi intellectuals – to stay behind with her. “Don’t go. Stay here. We will protect each other,” she told them. As the violence intensified, Maggy and her neighbors sought sanctuary in the home of Ruyigi’s bishop. “I was thinking it was a sacred place,” she said to me. For the first time, her voice began to crack.

After a wave of bloodletting against Tutsis, the Burundian army responded. Their reaction across the country was swift and brutal. When the soldiers arrived at the bishop’s home in Ruyigi, they felt none of Maggy’s solidarity with their Hutu neighbors. She watched them kill indiscriminately – old men and young mothers, infants and small children. “In front of me, they killed all those friends that I protected,” she said to me, dabbing at the corner of her eye. When the killing stopped, 72 Hutus were left dead.

Years later, Maggy was oddly calm as she told her story. “Today, when I talk about that, I am not so angry,” she said to me. “It can seem to a foreign person that I am cynique.” But Maggy’s incredible journey began that day in the bishop’s house. She watched the killings and refused to be overcome by anger and despair. “Since this day, my life has changed completely,” she said to me. It was on that day that Maison Shalom was born.

A nurse at the Rema Hospital, built by Maison Shalom

What began as an orphanage, with Maggy adopting the 25 children whose parents were killed in the bishop’s home that day, has turned into an ambitious project for rural development in Ruyigi. Maggy has built two guesthouses, Villa des Anges and Frieden Guest House, staffed by orphans (“Maggy’s children,” as they’re known in Ruyigi). She’s built a massive, modern hospital complex, which attracts patients from across Burundi, and from across the nearby Tanzanian border. And she’s built the Cité des Anges – the “City of Angels” – a complex that houses a movie theater, a library, a computer center, a hair salon, a tailor’s atelier de couture, and an auto body shop – all staffed by children and young adults orphaned by AIDS and war.

Burundi's second movie theater, courtesy of Maison Shalom

The need in Burundi is overwhelming. UNICEF estimated that there were 600,000 orphans living in the country in 2007 – a staggering figure for a nation of just 8 million. Maggy takes them into her “House of Peace,” feeds them, schools them; by Maison Shalom’s estimates, she has helped more than 30,000 orphans since 1993. (A video about her work can be found on YouTube here.) Most of her businesses turn a profit; occasionally there are contributions from abroad, or awards like the prestigious Opus Prize for faith-based humanitarian work, which cut her a $1 million check in 2008. She is a shrewd businesswoman, too: land owned by Maison Shalom has been leased to a Burundi Commercial Bank, and to a compound housing staff for the UN.

Maggy is a proud, defiant, outspoken woman. She recalled with relish the time she jabbed a finger in the face of a minister, accusing him of putting divisionist politics ahead of development. “You don’t prepare the new generation, but you prepare the rebellion,” she said to him, laughing heartily as she told the story.

Maggy in the chapel she built on the grounds of Maison Shalom

Despite her Christian faith, she refuses to look at Maison Shalom as a charity. “I want the poor people to be able to take care of themselves – not to become beggars,” she said. She frequently debates the role of the international community in Burundi, which sacrifices long-term development for short-term goals. “The mistake the NGOs make is only to distribute,” she said, “not to teach people to be independent. It is very dangerous.” She thought the UN spent too much time giving conferences in Bujumbura: the speeches, the presentations, the endless buffets. And the NGOs, who put up their placards all around Burundi, touting their good deeds. “It’s a sham,” she said, with a swipe of the hand. “Behind these placards, you will see there is nothing!”

She wanted Burundians to seize the reins of the country’s development. “We’ve become very lazy,” she said, “because we know the North will come and build something if we don’t.” She knew self-reliance was the only answer to Burundi’s problems, and that development was the only way to build a lasting peace.

“If the father can’t find a job, if a mother can’t afford to find a doctor for her child,” she said. “You can’t have peace when young people can’t study. You can’t have peace when the people are hungry.”

Prices for medical procedures at the Rema Hospital, at Fbu 1,200 to the dollar. Note the $13 c-section.

For 17 years she has built her House of Peace, believing that Maison Shalom is “a ship, conducted by God.” She knows its work will continue without her.

“Maison Shalom is a dream,” she said. “Maison Shalom is a message for all humanity to stand up and fight for dignity without violence, with love. I am sure evil will not take the last word.

“Our job as Christians is not to have a good car, to go to the moon. It is to love.”

Olivier Simbakwira, waiting for a meeting with Maggy

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A land of milk and honey.

I am living in Burundi, which is almost funny to say, because if you’d stumbled across this blog at home or at the office or on whatever Apple pleasure device you call your own, you might have felt a sense of ambiguousness, or amorphousness, at what you’re reading. I have used my little digital platform to talk about Angolan oil wealth and Ugandan homosexuals and the heartbreaking sincerity of letters from Malawi, but I haven’t always had a lot to say about Burundi itself – apart from observing that it is a useful butt for jokes that begin with, “If you think [insert impoverished country here] is poor…”; and a comedic foil for anyone hoping to make light of a particularly dire situation (i.e., “At least we’re not in Burundi!”)

Well I, for one, am in Burundi, along with eight million or so other people, most of whom, if my months here are any indication, are probably poor; most likely illiterate; guarded toward their neighbors; skeptical of their leaders; not at all unkind; worried for their children; unsure when the next meal will find them; hopeful, impossibly hopeful; and generally glad to be tilling their soil and drinking their banana beer and making do in whatever thrifty, belt-tightened way, if only there could be a few good leaders and a small dose of good luck to help this country back on the right track.

A good deal of the song sounds something like, 'MSD, MSD, MSDeeeeeee!'

I was at a campaign rally a few weeks back for the Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie – Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, or MSD – led by the charismatic and controversial Alexis Sinduhije. The party was opening a new permanence – a permanent office, I suppose – in Bururi province, and during the obligatory flag-raising ceremony a strident, militaristic tune filled the air. Few in the crowd knew the words to the MSD anthem, and I could hardly blame them: the song carried on for six or seven minutes. Between the murmuring and lip-synching, I asked a man beside me to translate the refrain.

“When MSD gets there, the international community will recognize that we are again a country that will rise above our problems and again be a land of milk and honey,” he said. It was, admittedly, not the catchiest tune. But you sort of get the point.

The crowd lip-synchs its support

Say what you will about Burundians, but they sure know how to open a permanence in style!

This is a proud and anxious year for Burundi, which is holding its first direct presidential elections since its 12-year civil war officially ended in 2005. (The 2005 polls brought in a new parliament, which in turn chose former rebel, gospel singer, and football afficionado Pierre “Peter” Nkurunziza to lead the country.) Even after the formal peace was brokered in 2005, the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), the last and most recalcitrant of the Hutu rebel groups, continued to wage a small-scale war in the bush. They formally agreed to lay down their arms in 2008; last April, they finally carried through on their promise. Thus 2010 marks the first year since the civil war began in 1993 that no armed factions are at loose in the countryside, and that the government – ostensibly, at least – includes all of this country’s dissonant voices (43 officially recognized political parties, at last count).

Burundi’s past experiences with elections have not always ended well, and have always been surprising. Beginning with the election of the Tutsi nationalist Prince Louis Rwagasore as prime minister in 1961 – won at a time when Burundi’s colonial overlords in Belgium had shifted their allegiances to the country’s Hutu majority – Burundian elections have always defied by the conventional wisdom. Calling for elections in Burundi has, in effect, always been a precursor to defeat.

The lesson for Buyoya: don't hold an election unless you're sure you can fix it

In 1993, when Tutsi strongman Pierre Buyoya called for elections – prompted by a wave of post-Cold War reforms across the continent, and signaling the end of 30 years of Tutsi military rule – he was upended by Melchior Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu whose brief experiment with reform ended with his murder at the hands of Tutsi extremists from the army. When Ndadaye’s Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) party, wayward custodians of the transitional government which brought the civil war to an end, called for elections in 2005, it was the Conseil National pour la Defense de la Démocratie -Forces pour la Defense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) – a rebel group that threatened to return to the bush should they lose – which surprised everyone with a sweeping electoral win. FRODEBU, full of wounded pride, retreated to lick its wounds, and CNDD-FDD suddenly found itself, despite a complete lack of governing experience, at the helm of this tiny, troubled nation.

Incredibly, these men would prove unfit to govern

You can argue that the experiment was doomed to fail – that a party raised and founded on a culture of violence would find the tricky business of politics to be less palatable than their preferred gun-barrel diplomacy. But the Burundians I’ve spoken to all describe those first months as a time of great promise. The war had ended; the corrupt old guard of FRODEBU – tainted by years in power, however neutered – had been swept from office; and the new ruling party – running on a platform of human rights and good governance – had stirred hopes of a fresh start for the country.

The honeymoon was over before it started. Rights groups quickly uncovered a campaign of repression and political violence being carried out at the hands of the ruling party; and the corruption that, to some degree or other, had always played a part in Burundian politics, soon took on the momentum of a runaway train. Describing the disillusionment that set in once the first hopeful signs faded, one restaurant owner in Bujumbura told me, “It was like a dream had been taken away.”

The presidential jet: If found, please return to this address

The scale and audacity of the crimes was shocking, even to the most cynical observers. The presidential plane was sold under bizarre circumstances shrouded in sleaze and secrecy; and the free-for-all became so brazen in recent years that the anti-corruption watchdog OLUCOME, citing $30 million in stolen revenues in the first half of 2009 alone, called graft “a way of life” in Burundi.

“It is the first time that people have stolen more than $30 million at one time,” said Gabriel Rufyiri, the head of OLUCOME, when I met him last week. “That’s the first time in our history that such an amount was stolen. It was the first time that a presidential jet was stolen in view of everyone. And all the criminals are there, and they’re becoming stronger and stronger. They are becoming stronger than the state. We see that corruption is becoming more endemic than before. The corruption is being legitimized by those who were supposed to fight against it.”

Rufyiri, like most outspoken critics of the government, has received numerous threats on his life. He has been imprisoned, according to his own count, “at least five times since 2002.” Twice he has had to flee the country.

In the five years since CNDD-FDD took office, a culture of repression and impunity has come to dominate the political scene. And yet people are oddly hopeful – that particular, African hope that finds even the darkest clouds to have a silvery lining. While the threat of violence remains high around the elections, most believe the prospect of a return to civil war are slim. Nearly 300,000 lives were claimed by that lost decade; the country is only just getting back on its feet.

“The Burundian people are not ready for more war,” a pastor told me.

Today I met a man, Pacifique, who has spent the past 10 years living in Antwerp. He was sitting beside me at Aroma, the café, complaining about the heat (the first time I’d every heard an African pining for the cold of Europe). It was his first visit to Burundi in more than two years, and the difference to him was palpable.

“The mentality is changed,” he said. “In Bwiza” – one of the city’s poorest, liveliest quartiers – “people are doing some trade and commerce. They are talking about some things with politics they were afraid to talk about before.”

Pacifique’s daughter, a placid, pot-bellied little girl, came down the sidewalk and joined us. She planted a kiss on her father’s cheek and unfolded some schoolwork for him to look over.

“I don’t believe in all this politics, Hutu and Tutsi,” he said. “We speak the same language, we are the same people.”

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.”