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...”