A warning, in advance: this turned into a much larger project than I had anticipated. But the activity was far more engaging and educational than I had foreseen. Also, if someone wants to pay for the inevitable overage charge on my data plan now from all this research, I’d appreciate it.
“Our defense and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend our country,” wrote Burundian journalist Jean Claude Kavumbagu, in an article criticizing the military’s capacity to deal with outside threats from Somalia’s al-Shabaab, an article which led to his imprisonment on charges of treason, though he was eventually acquitted of that charge.
Nestled between Rwanda and Uganda and Tanzania and what used to be known as Zaire, Burundi was once part of Belgian colonial (League of Nations mandate) Africa with Rwanda, collectively Ruanda-Urundi. Belgium’s lesser colonial budget compared to Britain and Germany, other major central African land-hogs, meant less in infrastructure, governance, military intervention, and general interest of the occupier. After decades of relatively independent governance, it gained complete independence in 1962.
Long before that, though, the region was in the midst of a densely populated, thriving, fertile continental hub. The Tutsi ruled for centuries before European arrival, but the stories emanating from central Africa over the last century are pockmarked (understatement) with sectarian bloodshed and international neglect.
Burundi was, to me, one of those places findable on a map but probably nowhere else. It’s been overshadowed by the tyrants of Uganda, the genocides of Rwanda, the touristic beaches of Tanzania. But it is one of the poorest, most war-torn countries in the world. Though Rwanda got its fifteen minutes of infamy for the Hutu-Tutsi violence at the end of the last century, the historical connection between the countries didn’t end with their post-colonial severance. The geopolitical division, much like in the Middle East, was imposed by the League of Nations post-WWI mandate and in no way reflects the cultural geography of the region. Like modern Rwanda, Burundi is populated by Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. When the Hutu and Tutsi fought in Rwanda, they fought in Burundi, as they have been since 1962.
A civil war (though I’m not sure who determines whether or not a civil war is official) began in Burundi in 1992 and continued into the middle of this decade; Burundian refugees were not repatriated until beginning in 2007 and an official ceasefire was not signed until 2008. CIA World Fact Book estimated 100,000 IDPs in Burundi in 2007, displaced as a result of these armed conflicts between the government and rebel forces, most of whom are ethnic (Hutu and Tutsi) militias. However, the fighting—physical and non- —is not over.
The recent election cycle, a process which began in May 2010 and ended in September 2010, was characterized by bribery, censorship, grenades, intimidation, brutality, child soldiers, boycotts, rebel militias, and other forms of violence and rights violations.
According to the World Fact Book, current President Pierre Nkurunziza was elected in 2010 with – wait for it – 91.6% of the vote. So all you election-monitor-types out there know what that means. “[N]ote – opposition parties withdrew from the election due to alleged government interference in the electoral process.”
Though after the initial communal elections (May 2010) it was declared that the already-ruling party (CNDD-FDD) won with 64%, the opposition parties cited fraud, formed a coalition and boycotted the rest of the elections. The CNDD-FDD’s election campaign used such time-honored tactics of bribery, fraud, censorship, and intimidation to win votes. They also employed armed “partisan youth groups” to illegally arrest members of the opposition and commit other violence.
Holding to the boycott, all of the opposition candidates (except one) dropped out of the race in June, leaving the incumbent President Nkurunziza alone. In response to the boycott, government officials banned meetings of opposition groups and tortured political opponents. Members were also arrested, many on trumped-up charges of “inciting the population not to vote” which, according to HRW, is not a crime.
Opposition members fled cities to avoid police forces. Some convened and took up arms, forming essentially small rebel militias. These forces are thought to have been responsible for at least seven deaths, and retaliation on the part of the police is thought to have killed 18 opposition members.
Prior to the May elections, “at least five politically-motivated killings to place.” Between May and September, “at least 128 grenade attacks—many of them targeting political activists on all sides—took place…killing 11 and injuring at least 69.”
Further human rights violations occurred, from imprisonments to police brutality to impositions of travel restrictions on opposition leaders to silencing of the press and any and all criticism. There are also reports of a man being forced to eat his own ear after it was cut off during torture, and others of opposition members being imprisoned in (presumably dirty) bathrooms.
Though the election-time violence has settled, Burundi continuously struggles with free speech, the handling of criticism, and its respect for human rights advocacy groups, journalists, and political opposition.
A true story, as told to me some weeks ago in half Central African French and half broken English, complete with hand gestures and smatterings of idiomatic slang: (not verbatim, based on a rough reconstruction of my memory, but nothing factual added)
Burundi is a very corrupt country; I am a shop keeper, and the police, they are always in the market and ask who knows what, who is against who, you have to pay or tell them or they take you away. Always they take people away – there is very much la corruption. They take you to jail and ask you what they want to know and they hit-hit-hit you until you tell them. Very much la corruption, in Burundi, in Africa.
One day they come to me, and I tell them I don’t know anything, and they take me to jail, and I am there for a long time, for days or weeks. They put like this around here (mimes tying rope or chain around wrists, holding them spread above his head) and hit me (mimes being punched, kicked, whipped probably, all over the body) and leave me for days.
Then I get out, and I come to America, and …. (trailing off, he gestures around the bleak, small conference room, stained whiteboard and half-covered windows overlooking an alley and a rooftop).
He arrived in the US in September of 2010. His wife and two boys, fourteen and eight, are still in Burundi, supporting themselves in some way I presume. I didn’t ask. I suppose I don’t want to know, really.
His near-apathy to being tortured, his testament to its normalcy—such a part of daily life in the market, a powerful government and police force perpetually fearful of potential opposition—makes me wonder how many people around the world, living under likewise repressive, tyrannical, non-transparent regimes, suffer similarly or worse on a daily basis. How many of these do we know about, or not? Why?
For whatever reason, we seem to neglect places and people suffering from post-colonial aftereffects. Perhaps the White Man’s Burden does not apply here.
Interestingly, The US State Department updated their travel warning on Burundi on June 1, making this post quite timely (lucky for me I delayed writing it).
Their stance is quite intriguing (emphasis and commentary, of course, my own):
Because of Burundi’s participation in peacekeeping operations in Somalia, the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab has threatened to conduct terror attacks in Burundi. It may also target U.S. interests. [We hate the terrorists.]
The Burundian civil war that lasted from 1993 to 2006 often involved non-governmental and non-combatant targets. In December 2008, the government and the last rebel group signed their final cease-fire agreement in which the rebel group agreed to demobilize and register as a political party. Burundi held general elections in 2010 which were generally considered credible. [Actually, they were not considered credible. Near-unanimous election results after an opposition boycott is not, generally speaking, credible.]
Political tensions ran high and there were incidents of violence during the campaign period…There are no known armed militia groups operating in Burundi … [According to HRW, World Fact Book, and other reports, there are armed groups operating in Burundi.]
U.S. citizens should be aware that even peaceful gatherings and demonstrations can turn violent. U.S. citizens residing in or traveling to Burundi are reminded to maintain a high level of security awareness at all times and avoid political rallies, demonstrations, and crowds of any kind. Even seemingly peaceful sporting events can become politicized and turn violent. U.S. citizens should routinely monitor local media sources and the internet for reports of demonstrations and unrest. Significant traffic congestion, shortages of lodging availability, and large crowds throughout the country, particularly in Bujumbura, are likely to inconvenience travelers. [I just find this amusing.]
Corruption is endemic in Burundi and contributes to an environment where the rule of law is not respected. Government officials frequently ask for bribes for providing routine services. Travelers are frequently stopped, questioned, and asked for bribes by security forces at numerous official and unofficial road blocks throughout the country.
I wonder what the governmental relationship is between the US and Burundi, why they are so forward about bureaucratic corruption but not about top-level election fraud, rebel militias, or the use of youth soldiers as documented by HRW and others.
Out of curiosity: USAID assistance to Burundi grew in 2010, primarily through the addition of health programs: malaria prevention and childhood nutrition. Out of $40.5 million in 2010 (estimated), only $275,000 fall into the “security and stabilization” category. Then again, that’s about 300 AK-47s, based on my google search for “cost of ak 47.” Here’s the fact sheet: http://www.usaid.gov/locations/sub-saharan_africa/countries/burundi/burundi_fs.pdf.
My tutee and I missed our last appointment as he had a meeting with his translator to go over some information for his immigration hearing. He is here as a political asylee, as are many like him from other countries in Africa, probably also with misguided travel warnings ignoring systematic corruption, violence, and lack of transparency, democratic process, or freedom of speech. Without legal status, there is almost nothing anyone can do for these asylees; it is a struggle to meet basic needs such as food and medical attention, and virtually impossible to achieve longer-term psychological counseling, job placement, and hopefully, someday, reunion with his family somewhere they will be safe.
I feel awkward, self-conscious, guilty when I try to explain the word “blood”. How do you explain something so tied to pain, to family, to land, to honor, to injury? I show him a cut; I try to mime something spurting out of my arm; I point to veins and try to explain it’s the red stuff inside. Ahhh! Recognition dawns and he writes damu (phonetic damm) in Swahili. It’s the same, incidentally, in Arabic and Hebrew. Lots of Swahili words come from the Arabic, I learn. And so here we are, back to the Middle East, and its own devastating post-colonial victimhood.