Burundi made world news recently with the release from prison of the director of a radio station. It never was very clear to me why he was jailed in the first place but it was, at the very least, a message to the media that they would need to watch their step. The situation in the country is particularly tense these days now that we have moved to the final months and weeks before the elections. It’s a tremendously complex political situation that has been increasingly focused on whether the president would run for a disputed third term (disputed in the sense that a third term may or may not be allowed under the constitution depending on how the constitution is interpreted). The announcement is to come anytime in the next few days and there are deep concerns as to whether or not it could provoke widespread violence.
In the midst of this tension, the release of the director caused potentially more nervousness than the arrest. The days leading up the decision to let him go were filled with tense but peaceful protest. As information spread that he would be freed from his jail located about an hour from the capital, the protest turned to celebration in rather dramatic fashion. Thousands of supporters filled the streets, many carrying palm branches. Youtube has clips of the excitement. Priya was inadvertently caught up in some of it in her car and said how moving the scene was. It was a moment of release for a weary people.
It’s been a tough time. In addition to being one of the poorest countries on earth, the long drawn-out tension is weighing heavily on the population regardless which of the many sides you are on. High stakes drama is nothing new for Burundi and its citizens tend to be quite resilient. Regardless, you can feel the tension and weariness when you talk to people. You feel that things could erupt at any moment. Rumors abound about movements of soldiers, political decisions, militia group activities, reactions by civil society, coalitions within the opposition, etc. No one seems to have any idea how this may play out.
In the meantime people go about their business. You keep your telephone close by in case something happens. It's not uncommon to see several staff huddling around a radio broadcast through a cell phone. This morning while we were at a local swimming pool with the girls and a group of friends, I received a series of text messages from our security focal point regarding activities taking place in the capital and parts of the city to avoid.
So we wait, the beauty of the country providing stark contrast to what lies in hiding. While we wait we prepare our contingency plans, both for the security of staff and assets but also for how we as an organization might respond in support of the population in the case of violence and/or displacement. We hope it’s a lot of preparation for nothing but history has shown that these things are often sorted out by something other than peaceful means.
|beauty and razor wire - the amazing southern red bishop in our garden|
“Burundi is the garden of Eden; the gentleness of the fresh air is inexplicably beautiful.”
– Bishop André Pérraudin in colonial Burundi, 1955