(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Friday, September 30, 2011


The small town of Gatumba is located on the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika, only a few kilometers from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and a similar distance to Bujumbura to the east. Given the lake's tremendous length (673km/418m – the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume) and the only options to get from one side to the other were by boat or to go around, this strip of land at the top has seen considerable traffic for centuries.

Rough Neighborhood

This area, and particularly this hamlet, has seen more than its share of violence over the years, most of which has probably never been recorded. Enough has been documented to give you an idea of the drama the residents have experienced, particularly in recent history.

Theories abound as to why the area has seen so much violence. One logical starting point is the Western invasion into the heart of Africa. In colonial times the northern part of the lake was a point of contention between occupying powers. In the early 20th century, the outbreak of World War I saw Allied forces (i.e. Briton and Belgium) taking up arms against the Germans, who at the outset, while occupying what is modern day Tanzania, had complete control of the lake. Each side forced indigenous populations to serve as foot soldiers. Often this forced people to be at war with each other that had peacefully coexisted for centuries.


Che instructing Congolese rebels
As colonial times were drawing to a close, the large and hard-to-govern Congo continued to play a role in the area's unrest. One small but interesting example was in 1965 when Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara used the western shores of Lake Tanganyika as a training camp for guerrilla forces in the Congo. From his camp Che and his forces attempted to overthrow the government but ended up pulling out in less than a year.

The hangover from the colonial era set the stage for the ensuing ethnic violence in Burundi and particularly Rwanda that would inevitably spill over into the Congo. These more recent struggles, the Rwandan genocide, civil war in Burundi, violence in the Congo, provide the basis for today's animosity which is linked to a number of causes, ethnic animosity being only one.

Refugee Camp Massacre

Flash forward to August 13, 2004. A refugee camp in Gatumba was the scene of one of the largest civilian massacres ever carried out in Burundi. A force of armed combatants, many of them members of the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), massacred at least 160 Congolese civilians and wounded more than a hundred more. The attack occurred after nightfall when men armed with machetes and guns attacked the camp, torching houses, shooting people as they tried to escape and leaving the scene littered with bodies, many burned beyond recognition. (NB: The refugees were subsequently moved to the eastern part of the country and we are now providing protection, education and other support for these camps.)

One Example of Many

I visited the town a few weeks ago. One of the people we'd been supporting through our activities in the village had been killed and I was paying a visit to the mother of the victim as a show of support. The girl, a 9-year-old, was raped towards the end of last year. Though the perpetrator had been arrested, the mother and daughter had been dealing with not only the incident but also threats from the family of the rapist. Long story short, the girl went missing in May and her body was found a few weeks ago decapitated and lying in a wooded area just outside town. The brother of the rapist is considered to be the leading suspect.

visit to Gatumba

Yet Another Massacre

My visit was still fairly fresh in my mind when another and much larger incident happened a week ago Sunday night. After nightfall a group of armed men attacked a bar, once again in Gatumba. The attack occurred around 8:00pm local time and the attackers were armed with guns and grenades and were well organized according to witnesses. They apparently asked everyone in the bar to lie down and then proceeded to open fire. The latest figure announced was 22 dead on the spot with several others seriously injured. The wounded were evacuated to hospitals in Bujumbura. Nine apparently died later as a result of their injuries. There is speculation that the attack was the work of a rebel group hiding in eastern Congo and connected to the current unrest in Burundi.


As we were driving back after visiting the mother of the girl that had been killed, I was thinking about the area's troubled existence and how sad it is (all the while unaware of the massacre to come only days later). The village sits at one of the most stunning locations on the lake. Facing the water you have the hills of Bujumbura to your left and the impressive mountains of the Congo to your right. The climate is near perfect – tropical without the nasty heat. The underlying tension and trouble seem to be in such striking contrast to such a serene and beautiful setting. 
view from our house
Yet people live in tremendous fear. Smaller, more isolated attacks occur almost daily, not only in Gatumba but throughout the rural areas surrounding Bujumbura. While many organizations suspended operations in the area following the recent massacre, we chose to continue. It's a credit to our staff who are willing to continue to serve the community and are in agreement that the worst time to walk away from these people is now – when they likely need us the most.

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