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.”