(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.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Field Trip

A little over a week ago I was fortunate enough to fit in time for a trip to the field. As I mentioned previously, it was a longtime in coming. While I think staff are generally understanding of the circumstances that have prevented me from coming sooner, I do appreciated that over time they begin to feel abandoned, that there is an excessive focus on Bujumbura and not enough towards those out implementing the activities – our raison d’être.

I get it. I remember back when I was a Field Coordinator in Tanzania. You’re in the grind all day long, day in and day out, and you wonder sometimes not only if the efforts are appreciated but also whether the focus of the organization is really where it should be.  Is it truly on the people that we serve or have we become what NGOs are often accused of – organizations focused on their own existence (fostering careers, raising funds, etc.) rather than on serving people who are in need.

I remember having a technical advisor who came to visit us in Kibondo. I think he spent about two weeks with us supporting out youth and livelihoods activities before returning to New York. A couple weeks later I received an email with his trip report. There were a few things about it that took me aback. In fact over time the report has sort of become a symbol of what to avoid in this work. One thing he did was include loads of activities with deadlines that he had not discussed with my staff or me. Needless to say, I got pretty angry. That’s a serious no-no (and it’s disrespectful).

I was graciously offered up some boiled cow hooves for a little appetizer. I mean, how can you pass that up...
The other problem I had with the report was that it was 95 pages long. Yep. Graphs. Footnotes. Rambling. I figured out quickly that though this was the result of a visit to our field site, it was ultimately not about our activities and beneficiaries. It was about him, impressing his supervisor and probably his career. I ended up making a pretty big deal about it and it was the last I saw of him.
Anyway, back to my trip. I went to Makamba for parts of two days.  One focus was to talk to the team and get an idea of what was going on in the province. I need to know how the security situation is evolving get their participation in the brainstorming as to how to position ourselves to better support a potential return of refugees from Tanzania. 

Nice spot. A bit off the beaten path. Very clean given the water is drained and replenished every few minutes.
The second day involved a teambuilding activity, including a trip to a hot springs and a nice lunch. Though it previously was our largest office, in recent years activities have declined there and it’s now the smallest. So the event was a bit more intimate with around twenty or so staff.

Amazing spot at the southern tip of Burundi. Fishing boat cruising past. Tanzania border off in the distance.
While I was traveling with the team I was receiving text messages regarding an assassination attempt in Bujumbura on the head of the army. You never know when this things happen if they will be some sort of trigger for instability. For a period of time some roads were blocked off, including of course the one where the attack took place – the road I needed to take getting home. Fortunately the road had been cleared long before I was back in the capital and I was able to return without incident. 

On the way home. Massive, lethal landslide from earlier this year. Not much progress on repairing the road.
Since things generally ok for travel, I will likely to carrying out similar visits to other sites over the coming weeks. I have some catching up to do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I’ve been told that if I ever stopped what I am doing to pursue something a bit more mundane, that I would be bored, that I enjoy the rush of what I do. As time goes by I tend to increasingly dispute this theory. It’s not only that I have kids (and that certainly does make me more risk averse), but it’s also about dealing with the prolonged uncertainty of the security situation and the fatigue of being tense for extended periods. It’s less like barreling down a steep single track on a mountain bike or attacking a precarious ski slope (which I love) and more like running a series of marathons in bad neighborhoods.

I’m currently in Rwanda. I just arrived for my regular visit. The team is smaller now since we recently had a project end. Nonetheless, it’s important that I come to support the team, possibly even more so than before. And the fewer meetings give me a chance to get some things done.

As the title suggests, we had a little break-in at our Bujumbura office a couple weeks ago. I normally would have dwelled on it more at the time, written a blog posting immediately and made a bigger deal of it but the pace of life seems to get away from me and I'm simply forced to move on to new dramas. It’s hard to spend too much time on anything to be honest. You have to deal with things as they come, respond as necessary and just move forward. 

This particular drama began between 2 and 3 in the morning. I, strangely, was fast asleep. Since we returned from the US I’ve slept better than I have in a long time. Part of it is that both girls are now in the other room but for whatever reason, the light sleeping that has been my nature for years has at least temporarily given way to frequent nights of deep, unfettered slumber. 

On this particular night my phone rang and I didn’t hear it. That’s a new thing for me since I normally awake at the sound of a pin dropping (or distant gunfire). It’s not that I needed to respond to the situation immediately. We had people doing that. But I would have been informed earlier of what I would witness a few hours later. As I pulled into the office compound at around 7am I knew immediately something was up. The guards had somber faces and the front doors of the admin building were open. Because I normally arrive before any of my staff, I tend to be the one that unlocks the doors.

Once inside it was apparent what had happened without anyone saying a word. The reception area was trashed. Papers were everywhere. Chairs were overturned. Drawers were on the floor. A couple of police were chatting with my two security focal points. I was briefed on what had happened and then I made my way to my office to see the damage there. It wasn’t as bad but in addition to breaking the door lock, the bathroom door was shattered. Apparently they’d rounded up the six guards who were on duty, tied them up and locked them in my office loo. The door was eventually broken open to get them out, thus creating the mess.

one of the two desks in the reception area

In all, four rooms were broken into in addition to the reception area. They made off with a safe and some other small equipment. They notified the guards they were looking for a document and that they would kill them if they didn’t find it. This would explain the rifling through the drawers. However we have no idea what they could have been after besides money and electronics. So far we’ve been unable to think of what sort of document that could have such value that they would make such a huge effort.

where it started

The attack began by the piercing of a hole in the compound wall. Once big enough for a human to pass through, around twenty armed men entered and began by rounding up our guards. They seemed to know: a) where to bore the hole in the wall and b) which building to target. It’s likely that someone internally had provided them with information. We think maybe it was someone from the guard company but we don’t know. 

empty compound adjacent to ours

It wasn’t all gloom and doom, however. When I asked our finance controller how much we lost in the safe, he said not much. In fact he smiled and said probably three dollars. I know that we don’t keep much money in the office for just that reason but I didn’t realize that it was THAT empty. I should also say that the safe was huge. A few years ago when we moved it into that office it took about six rather strong men to lift it. The poor bandits had to get that heavy thing out of the office, out of the building, out of the compound and into a waiting vehicle. Then they had to transport it someplace where they would put tremendous effort into getting the door open. Only to find that it was empty. I can only imagine the expletives. Later than morning the controller came into my office with three dollars in his hand and announced that the loss was even less than we had anticipated.

the bits of wood that used to be my door
They also took an old laptop (hard drive completely cleaned) that I was procrastinating in donating and a no-longer-usable computer battery that I had recently replaced. Strangely, a small projector which was sitting on my desk (worth about $500) was left behind as was my scanner, computer screen and printer (??). For me it ended up being quite handy in that I was able to get rid of some obsolete equipment.

In any case, we all felt a bit violated. It’s never a pleasant experience to have something stolen, all the more when it’s such a large and dangerous force that carried it out. We found out that over a three-week period a number of other places in the area were targeted as well, also by a large group of armed men. So we’re hopeful it’s a one-off thing and they won’t be back. Nonetheless we’ve further strengthened out security, added/changed locks, added lighting, etc. As people always say in these situations, it really could have been worse. We were thankful that no one was seriously hurt. We clean up, fix things and move on. 

“It's a shallow life that doesn't give a person a few scars.”
-Garrison Keillor

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Brief Recap

I make some assumptions when I write this blog about what people know and what they don’t about the situation in Burundi. I don’t always pay attention to the fact that there are likely big gaps in people’s basic understanding of the situation in the country. It may contribute to making some of my comments even more puzzling than they would be otherwise.

So to recap, 2015 began with the increasing tensions surrounding the elections, particularly for the president, which at that time were scheduled in June. In the best of times such things are normally challenging but in this part of the world, it can be downright dangerous. An added twist to this situation was the potential of the standing president for a controversial third term. In the end the president decided to run and opposition to the decision mounted, not only outside his party but from within. 

Protests began in April. That's when things started to get interesting. Though they were generally peaceful in nature, the crackdown was often intense. Though in the beginning there were multiple parties and multiple opinions about the political situation, an intense polarization set in. There was concern, due to the country's past ethnic conflicts, that the situation might eventually gravitate in that direction. Fortunately the crux of the divide lay elsewhere. Though ethnicity is, and will continue to be, an issue in the country (as it is in many other countries), the political crisis had developed into a raw struggle for power. Some framed it as a fight to uphold the Arusha accords (a post-war agreement that was partially brokered by Nelson Mandela which has contributed to keeping the country at peace for over a decade) while those in power have framed it as a fight to protect national sovereignty.

Violence began to increase. One watershed moment came in mid-May when there was an attempted coup d’état by some of the military. The border and airport closed. Non-government radio stations were torched. The sound of gunfire and grenade blasts was frequent and at times intense. We all went into lock-down as the events unfolded. The coup failed and the perpetrators either fled the country or were tracked down, jailed and some of them killed. It was a rather scary time.

In the days that followed tens of thousands of Burundians would begin fleeing the country, first heading towards Rwanda and later to Tanzania and the Congo. Hundreds of expat residents would also flee the country as soon as the opportunity permitted. Most went north to Rwanda while others when on to South Africa, Europe, the US or other destinations. It appeared that the country could be heading for widespread violence. 

We chose to stay. I would need to stay and work regardless but we thought it was premature to send the family until we knew more about how things were going to evolve. We were able to track the situation closely and finally, at the end of May, Priya and the girls drove to Kigali. Over the next month and a half I would remain in Bujumbura and visit the family in Rwanda on a couple of occasions.

The protests continued for several weeks. Over time they became more violent as opposition frustration resulted in an increasing desire to move from throwing rocks to more lethal weapons. Needless to say, this raised the intensity of the conflict. Each important day that came and went (announcing the candidate by the party, the registration of candidacy, the various election dates, etc.), the tensions mounted. 

During this time thousands of refugees continued to flow out of the country. Noteworthy during this time was the flight of defectors from within the ruling party, some from the president’s inner circle. In addition to their statements against the president’s third term, some recounted concerns of an increasingly totalitarian regime and fears of persecution. 

By July the protests had lost steam. Protestors, identified by photographs and video, were being targeted, often during the night. The government accused them of being insurgents and connected to the putsch. The hunt was on to crush the movement. Likewise, however, opposition increasingly began to target ruling party youth wing members who were responsible for atrocities. It was a tit for tat that is continuing to today.

By August, with sporadic attacks continuing in supposedly opposition neighborhoods, the focus seemed to shift towards loftier targets. Assassinations of higher profile individuals on both sides further raised the stakes. People were being taken out for practical and symbolic reasons.

As we enter September, all the key dates have come and gone. The election "season" is starting to fade. The president has been inaugurated and the opposition, civil society and many foreign governments are refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the current government stating that the process was illegal. Very important and powerful Burundians remain in exile. Though uncertainty is still in the air, people are beginning to trickle back into the country. Most just want to get on with their lives regardless of which side of the fence they were on.  Fears nonetheless persist that the opposition may still mount some sort of attack but it's hard to predict what will happen. For now, we're here. It's not ideal but it's manageable. As is the case for everyone, we watch.

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, novelist, Nobel laureate (1918-2008)