This is an out of office notice. My mind is elsewhere.
Over the past week, the situation in Burundi has gotten far worse.
On Tuesday, there was a military coup attempt. A former high-ranking general named Godefroid Niyombare took over the national radio, the RTNB. Protesters fraternized in the streets with members of the military, the pro-Nkurunziza factions of the police (which had treated protesters especially harshly) and the army were nowhere to be seen. Nkurunziza was away from the country, at a summit, and wasn’t being allowed back in. Colette Braeckmann, among others, wrote optimistically of a “carnation revolution.” I heard of at least one baby named Godefroide. My friend Dieudonné, who had gone to Kigali to wait for the situation to calm down, sent me a few jubilant texts asked me for a few bucks to get back home.
I didn’t have time to get to the bank that day or the next, and am I glad.
The coup failed. Loyalists won back control of the airport and the radio station. Nkurunziza returned from the summit, laid low for a short time in his hometown of Ngozi and then came back to Kamenge (Bujumbura) where he was welcomed by celebrating supporters of his party.
Loyalists and coup plotters engaged in a cat-and-mouse game. Armed gangs set fire to the RPA (Radio Publique Africaine, an opposition radio station which had been taken off air during the initial protests). Their equipment, or so I hear, was melted black. Radio Bonesha was also overrun by police and soldiers with weapons, and its journalists “expelled manu militari from the premises,” according to the Bonesha website, which has not posted an update since then (May 14). The same day, Tele Renaissance and Radio Renaissance were taken off air, and then Isanganiro, yes, “my” radio, my and Paul’s and Pascal’s and Robert’s and all my other friends’ radio, was also attacked, despite its reputation for balance and fairness. Its computers were destroyed, cables cut, empty cars fired on. Someone, somewhere, is still occasionally updating its website. Eventually even the evangelical protestant station, REMA, was targeted, leaving RTNB and the Catholic radio the only radio stations operating in the country. At Iwacu, the team saw the writing on the wall and stopped producing material, finding it unsafe although people need information more than ever. I don’t know if that has ever happened before. Whatsapp, Facebook and mobile phone service are available off and on. Geneviève hasn’t heard from Diomède in days, and my getting through to Pierre twice in 48 hours was almost a miracle. In a country with 5% Internet penetration, the most reliable source of up-to-date information has become…Twitter.
This is “my” radio.
My former students and colleagues are scattered everywhere. Emilie and Dieudonné are still in Rwanda. Those who have friends or connections en province– Nadège, Michel, Mohamed, Diomède… have gone there. Pierre and his brothers and sisters have stayed put– his mother just buried her husband, and damned if she will bury any of her kids. Several of my former colleagues aren’t disclosing their locations even to me.
I spoke today with a friend of Pierre’s who planned to join the protests. He said they would restart Monday despite an order from Nkurunziza to the contrary. He said they would stay there until Nkurunziza stepped down of his own accord. I said he risked being out there for years. Other protesters have said that the coup plotters never had the people’s best interests at heart in the first place, but tried to seize power for their own selfish ends and, when it didn’t work, left the protesters to suffer the consequences. Loyalists looking for putschists have already fired on patients in a hospital.
Although this conflict has mostly stayed away from old ethnic antagonisms (“If there’s one good thing we can take away from this, it’s that people are fleeing not as Hutus or as Tutsis but as barundi,” someone I know tweeted), Nkurunziza’s base is mainly Hutu, and the neighbourhoods where the the protests are centred have a high Tutsi population. Niyombare, incidentally, is a Hutu perceived as having abandoned the protesters to their fate. If people begin to capitalize on the ethnic factor, the situation could become very bad indeed.
The US and Canada are now evacuating their expats. No word on whether Allison or Diomède plans to come back, but my guess would be no– as captains, they would rather go down with their ships. I wish I could be there too.
Thinking of the very real danger my friends are in kind of makes covering a burlesque show, a rooftop gardening conference or a taxi drivers’ union rally less interesting. I feel like my world is in front of me in black and white, while what’s going on in Bujumbura is there in living colour. I would go to Bujumbura now if I could, but for quite a few reasons, I can’t, at least not for a few months.
This is an out of office notice. I’m not here.