Monday, 31 March 2008

We Never Thought It Could Happen To Us

Zlatko reads the daily incident report from the UN, reading about Bubanza province where we’re supposed to be travelling tomorrow. He’s been waiting for the UN to promise at least one open-top pickup truck full of police to, at the least, make any armed bandits think twice before attacking us. So far, they haven’t agreed, so his project in Bubanza has been delayed.
He reads down the list of attacks.
“8pm. This one’s in Bubanza. A group of armed bandits broke into a family home, throwing a grenade and killing three members. 6am, armed bandits stop a bus on the road and rob the occupants of mobile phones and wallets.”

I continue reading down the list over his shoulder. One family was attacked and killed, in another grenade attack, because the bandits suspected a member of the family of “witchcraft”. The violence seems completely unpredictable, and illogical.

Zlatko cross-checks each report with a map of Bubanza province, to see how close each attack is to his team’s proposed route and area of operations.

The violence is unpredictable, but one thing remains consistent. Even after the horrors of genocide that this country has been through, even after the sickening associations with the names “Hutu” and “Tutsi” that make me cringe to hear them, the division remains. People still refer to one or the other. I remember David Niyonzima writing “Unlocking the Horns” about reconciliation in Burundi, when he said that before Belgian colonisation, no one here knew what it meant to be Hutu or Tutsi.

Last night, Zlatko and I were discussing the war in Bosnia again (I still have a lot to learn about it). He explained that when the war started and reports would come in that the Serbs had attacked here, or the Croats had attacked there, him and his friends would listen in confusion. He comes from Tusla, a town famously well integrated between Serbs, Croats and Muslim. The town’s mayor was even nominated for a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts in keeping his community together during the worst violence. But when they heard the news during the day, Zlatko and his friends would meet later that night in a bar to ask each other,
“’What are you? Are you a Serb?’ Are you a Croat?” We didn’t know,” he explains to me, “We had no idea what it meant to be a Serb or a Croat or even Muslim. Today, when I think about it, maybe 95 percent of my friend in Tusla are Muslims, but I didn’t even think about it at the time. I didn’t even know what it meant! And my friend would go ask his parents, and he would come back the next day saying ‘Well, my parents told me that we’re Serbs.’ If we heard on the radio that the Serbs had just attacked somewhere, he would be embarrassed. If you were in a mixed marriage - and my wife is from a mixed marriage but it didn’t mean anything before – suddenly your wife’s family would look at you suspiciously. We never thought it could happen to us. Especially in Tusla. We never believed it could happen, but it happened.”

I thought about this today, as Alain was explaining to me the news that morning. The President, a Hutu, had ordered the demobilisation of a number of army officers, all Tutsi. The President being a Hutu, people saw it as an attempt to either rebalance the army (if you’re a Hutu) or imbalance the army (if you’re a Tutsi). For years, the army has been dominated by Tutsis. After all, the 1993 coup - and the subsequent vengeful killing of Hutus by the army and their proxies - was made possible because of the Tutsi control over the army. The Vice President, a Tutsi, disagreed with the President’s decree, but here it looks like that doesn’t count for much.

At the same time, FNL leaders – Hutus - are in Tanzanian preparing to meet with the government – dominated by a Hutu party - to finalise a peace deal. Today, they’re still waiting for the government to guarantee them immunity from arrest and prosecution before they set foot in Burundian soil.

Over in Zimbabwe, “the people have won” they said.

Friday, 28 March 2008

We Are All God's Children

Early morning, and we leave the hotel at 8am. The air is cold up here at 2000m as we drive through the pine mountains of Bururi. The mist is still seeping along the road. Zlatko is analysing the convoy, because this is the area where a previous FSD convoy was attacked three weeks ago.
“Tell the first car to move forward a bit,” he tells Mathius in the back seat, who is communicating with the rest of the team by radio. “And tell the next two vehicles to move closer together.”
The first two cars are carrying armed policemen. To be honest, they don’t look to me like highly trained soldiers, but they’re better than nothing. Usually, just the sight of a group of police with AK-47s is enough to scare bandits off, many of whom may have only one gun between them, the rest just carrying machetes.

At some point, around half way through the journey, we turn off the main road and onto a bright red dirt track that brings is straight through tiny, straw hut villages and town markets. People stare as the convoy of five white vehicles, antennas waving, sprints past. We are heading this morning to a series of electricity pylons to do a final visual check of FSD’s work. They've already cleared the pylons of several fragmentation mines, originally planted by the Burundian Army to keep FNL rebels from sabotaging the power lines. But since the start of the war 13 years ago, the mines have been forgotten, abandoned, and eventually the national electricity company Regideso called FSD to clear the area and allow their workers to get back to essential maintenance work.

We park the jeeps on the tarmac road and the team collects their equipment, as children nearby sit and stare in amazement. The policemen just hang around, disinterested.

With everything in hand, the team steps off the road, onto a dirt track, into the bush. At such high altitude, even this little hike, with all my gear, leaves me gasping for breath and dripping in sweat. At the top of the path, the team sets up a camp and gets dressed in their protective gear, flak jacket and protective helmet. They tune their metal detectors, and return to the paths around the pylons.

I ask Gabriel why he does this dangerous work. “Because I want to help my brothers and sisters in Burundi,” he tells me.

When the work is finished, and we’re all back down on tarmac with the Land Rovers, it starts to rain. Just a trickle, at first, but then the warm, thick rain of the tropics. Some of the team stand under it, it’s so relaxing, rather than take shelter in the jeeps. Gabriel shares around some Kasava that he found while working, and we all take bites. The team is laughing and relaxed after a tough day. I practice more words in Kurundi.

As Gabriel offers me another piece of Kasava, he asks “Where are you from originally?” in his very specific and clipped vocabulary.
“Ah, Palestine!” he says knowingly. “We hear about Palestinians fighting with the Israelis every day here. Whey can’t they live together in peace? I have heard that they say that this conflict is in the Bible. Is it true? And that it will end when Jesus returns to earth?”
“No. There are stories about it in the Bible, but the real conflict is political.”
“Ah, okay. I have heard also that the Israelis and the Palestinians are brothers, is this true?”
“Yes, I think so.” I want to compare the situation to this country - The FNL, a Hutu military group, is fighting the government, now also run by Hutus – but I’m not sure that the analogy is right and I don’t want to say anything insensitive.

Later that night, Gabriel tells me 23 members of his family were killed in the violence of 1993, including his father, his brother and his uncle. He sees the look of shock on my face, and answers as only someone who has been saturated by such violence can: “But this is normal! This is just something that happened...” He was at the University of Kibima in Kitanga when around 150 of his classmates were burned in a petrol station.

But even Gabriel, a well-educated and sensible man, has his own version of history. Everyone here has their own version of history. The violence of 1993 was sparked after the country’s first democratically elected president – a Hutu - was assassinated by the Tutsi-led army. Hutus took revenge on a mass scale against any Tutsi they could find. In return, the Tutsi-dominated army, with proxy Tutsi killers of their own, slaughtered tens of thousands of Hutus in further revenge. But Gabriel still tells the same story those Tutsi killers told 15 years ago – those were only a few deaths, regrettable accidents that occurred during military operations in response to Hutu violence around the country. It was not a policy of killing, he insists, there were not tens of thousands of Hutus murdered, he tells me.

When I ask if he is a Tutsi or a Hutu, he laughs, just as Alain laughed when I asked him casually over lunch a few days ago. It’s still an awkward question to ask, and I think Alain and Gabriel were only laughing out of politeness. “ I will tell you,” he said, “but I also want to say that I don’t like to make these divisions. I believe in God, and I believe we are all in God’s image so we should not make these ethnic divisions between us...”

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Mountains

In the afternoon, I finally leave the centre of Bujumbura as we drive in convoy to the province of Bururi. Some areas there are still threatened by FNL, the last armed rebel group holding out for a separate peace. Zltko spent the morning meeting with the UN, trying to arrange a security convoy for the group after one of his teams was attacked by an armed ambush two weeks ago on a similar route. That time, a bullet pierced the vehicle’s radiator and skimmed one of the de-miners’ skulls. He went to hospital with only slight injuries – that time he was lucky, but Zlatko was furious. The UN wasn’t offering his team daily incident reports, so he had no idea that route was dangerous, and now the UN was refusing to arrange a security convoy for the next trip. Maybe they couldn’t be bothered, maybe they didn’t like giving the impression that the country wasn’t safe.

As soon as we leave the Bujumbura city limits, we climb into the mountains of Burundi. I soon understand why they used to call this country “the Switzerland of Africa.” It’s high altitude pine forests, and thin cool mountain air. I remember my family holidays in Switzerland when I was 12 or 13. The air is thin, it gets harder to breathe as we approach 2000m. The roads are lined with coffee plants, piles of wood burning for charcoal, papaya plants. It’s hot, despite the cold mountain air. Rain comes in for a few seconds, then dissipates.

We pass crowds of Burundians, walking through markets, stacked between the dirt road and the soaring mountains behind them. There are misty green forests all around us, and crowds of excitable children staring at the convoy, waving passionately and yelling “Muzungo! Muzungo!”. Zlatko laughs every time. “Yes, here I am. I am the Muzungo!”
I practice my Kirundi with Mathias in the back seat. “I learned this the other day: ‘sin do Muzungo. Do Muarabo!” I am not a white man, I’m an Arab. Mathias laughs with approval.
“What’s the difference?” Zlatko asks. He puts his arm next to mine as he holds the steering wheel. His skin is tanned, and darker than mine.

I tried to convince a nurse the other day that I was half African. “My mother is Egyptian,” I told her. But she laughed off my explanation. If you’re not black, you’re a Muzungo.

The drive is long – we son get bored. I ask Zlatko to give me a brief history – once again – of the Balkan wars. “Don’t worry,” he reassures me, “Even Bosnian’s find it complicated,” and he tells me the story of the day his city of Tusla came under attack from the Serbs. Despite being a Bosnian Serb himself, he joined the local militia to defend the Muslims, and defend his town. For months, they didn’t trust him, he says, “I knew there was always someone at my back with a gun, ready to kill me.” But he soon proved himself, and he rose through the ranks of the once-guerrilla army to become a counter-intelligence officer. When he would return home from the front every few months, his villagers would throw him a welcome party, offering what little they had as gifts.

We reach Bururi by 5:30pm, here to do quality assurance on the latest phase of FSD’s mine clearance operation. We order brochettes for dinner, and I have to accept that I’ll be eating meat for the first time in maybe 18 months. There’s nothing else available. With a local Primus beer, I sit with Zlatko and his Burundian team in the tin-roofed back room of the restaurant, one naked light bulb above our heads and a tropical rain splashing down outside the glassless window. Near the end of the night, an older man leans over to Gabriel, one of the team members, and says something as he motions to Zlatko. Gabriel translates in very polite, accented English.
“He says he is surprised to see a white man sitting with him and drinking and eating normally.”
“Tell him,” Zlatko replies, “there is no difference between him and me except for a little more pigment in his skin.” Gabriel translates. The older man nods in agreement, and stands up to shake Gabriel’s hand, then Zlatko’s hand, with a smile.

“You know,” Gabriel continues, “because we had colonialism here and it was very bad. It meant white men would sit alone and separate from black men. So for this man to see you sitting here with us and sharing food with us is very special.”

Monday, 24 March 2008


It's been five days so far in Bujumbura. This is my first experience of Central Africa, and the first time I've been south of the Sahara since South Africa, when I was still only a little boy (now a big boy), in 1994.

The nights are hot and humid, geckos are climbing the walls. In the mornings, I look out of my window and see mist over the mountains. I can hear the sound of tropical birds. It's already warm by 8am, and I climb out from under my mosquito net, still drowsy after some very vivid dreams brought on, I think, by malaria medication.

I'm here to cover a landmine clearance operation, one that - when completed within the next two months - will make Burundi the first 100% landmine free country in the world. Burundi, as tiny and internationally obscure as it is, has its own horrific past of genocide and civil war. One thing it doesn't need now is landmines and unexploded ordnance littering the country. Violence continues despite a 2000 ceasefire and the parliament has been paralysed for over two months after Alice Nzumokunda - the head of the ruling party CNDD-FDD - was dismissed for "undisclosed" reasons.

I interviewed the new head of CNDD-FDD, Colonel Jeremie Ngendakumana, and asked him directly why Alice was removed from office.

He smiled and said "This is internal party matters, I don't think it is right to discuss it with people outside of the party."

The Colonel had, so far, refused to discuss his party's reasons with anyone in Burundi, neither journalist or non-party member. "But everyone in the party knows why," he assured me. This wasn't a good answer from a Colonel, in a country accustomed to military coups, who is now being accused of being a dictator.