July 1– Burundian Independence Day. 53 years of sovereignty. But what is there to celebrate?
This time two years ago I was in Bujumbura, standing in the baking heat with Paul and a Burundian colleague, who I’ll call Léonard. It was so hot that we almost turned back a few times although the walk to the parade ground was only a few blocks. We watched the dancers and scout groups and military regiments parade one after another down the appropriately named Boulevard du Peuple Murundi. The ingoma drums echoed throughout the city as the young drummers marched proudly down the street in their green and white. We were all watching for the paratroopers…when my Burundian colleague saw them drop from the sky as the planes left red, green and white smoke trails, his face lit up like a kid’s at Christmas. A paratrooper regiment had been behind a failed military coup years before, the regiment had been abolished, and bringing the paratroopers back was seen as a symbol of stability.
Fat lot of time that lasted. Less than two years.
Since the coup, my friends have scattered to the four winds. My former students are almost all in Uganda or Rwanda. Mohamed and Nadège and Quiet Michel are in rural Burundi, Loud Michel is in Kampala, Dieudonné is in Kigali. Émilie is in a camp in Rwanda. My journalist friends, including Léo whose face lit up at the sight of the paratroopers, are in hiding, either moving from house to house in Buja or staying with contacts in Rwanda. Some of them don’t disclose their whereabouts even to people they trust. Félicie hasn’t left, only because she’s a few weeks away from giving birth. Even Pierre has left, quitting his job and fleeing with two of his brothers, staying with relatives in Kigali. Maman Pierre is alone in Nyakabiga, with Pierre’s 11-year-old baby brother and his one unmarried sister, who’s a bit younger than I am.
Poor Maman Pierre. This time last year, she shared that long, low house in Nyakabiga with her husband, all four sons and two of her five daughters (one was already married and out of the house; two others had died in infancy nearly 35 years ago). Now another girl has married and had a kid, her husband has died, the three older boys left, and she’s alone in that echoing house with two of her children, probably spending her days worrying and praying for the end of the war. It’s not as if there’s much else she can do.
The band literally played on, as it has since this unrest started– military regiments and groups of drummers and the presidential brass band and (I have it on good authority) even the paratroopers paraded down the Boulevard, only with almost no audience– probably a few friendly journalists and the same knot of street kids who walked up to me to stroke my skin with their fingers. There’s hardly any way out for them.
The same cops who participated in the post-coup crackdown, perhaps the same people who destroyed “my” radio, were decorated by the president, as part of a celebratory program full of gaps, of speeches newly exiled dignitaries didn’t give.
Independence Day in wartime Bujumbura— what is there to celebrate?