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)