A month ago, on the 25th April the CNDD-FDD, the ruling party in Burundi, announced its presidential candidate for the upcoming elections scheduled for June 26. To nobody’s surprise the candidate was Pierre Nkurunziza, the current President who has already served for two terms. This decision was met with heavy protests in the streets of Bujumbura, also to nobody’s surprise. These were the two events that had been predicted and anticipated since long before my arrival in the country early this year. How things would evolve from there was anyone’s guess. But I feel like few people actually thought the protests would last this long, be this organised, and this determined. Now we have witnessed a month of protests, about 30 dead, hundreds injured. And on the 13th of this month there was the failed coup attempt.
In retrospect the coup attempt seemed amateurish and two days later Bujumbura was the same again. Except that nothing was the same again. Worries intensified and for some it seemed to alter towards some sort of stoic acceptance that things are going to get worse, there is no point in worrying about it even. One thing that did change is the assumption, expectation even, that now all the foreigners would leave, and many have, although being here, that still seems premature.
“You should get out of here,” my translator tells me during our meeting last week. “Aren’t you scared?” she adds, when I tell her I still don’t have any plans of leaving. I am a little bit taken aback by the question, but then give her the honest answer “no”. Worried? Sad? Angry? Yes, absolutely, constantly. But scared for myself and my personal security? No. “But you have never been through war” she continues. “Maybe that is why I am not scared” I reply with a feeble smile a bit baffled by the statement. I am firstly slightly puzzled by what she seems to be saying, that war is something you can “get used to”. Of course I can appreciate that you probably learn some survival skills during war like in any other crisis, but I would have imagined that it is not something a persons does not fear because they have been through it before. Indeed, I would have imagined the opposite. Secondly, I find it a bit worrying and daunting how she seems to be predicting civil war to re-occur. I examine her face for worry, fear, despair. There is nothing, nothing I pick up on at least, she just seems calm and collected. I also try to do the maths in my head, she is young, she would have just been a child and teenager during Burundi’s civil war; probably most of her childhood was spent in the shadow of war. And now this young woman sits opposite to me, advising me to leave the country because surely I am scared, the ever-fragile foreigner.
This conversation is still at the back of my mind the next day when I run into an acquaintance. He starts with the usual, “you are still here, aren’t you going to leave” conversation. When I ask him in return what his plans are he tells me he is not leaving the country no matter what. I am sort of expecting the same kind of justification as the day before. But this time it is the opposite. “I have spent too many years outside this country” is his response. This time the fact that having left the country during the civil war is the reason for not planning to leave no matter what happens this time. “If things get really bad in Bujumbura, I might go to the interior, but that is it”.
However, well over a 100,000 people have taken the decision to leave the country, a decision that no one takes lightly. The official numbers do of course only count people that have registered with UNHCR. There are also people with better means that have left the country but do not require the assistance from UNHCR. People that are not facing cholera or the many hazards that come with refugee camps but still people that deemed it not safe for them to stay in their own country. A lot of people seem to also have moved their families or part of their families outside of the city to the interior where the myth is that everything is calm and quiet.
I call it a myth because yes, there are hardly any violent protests there, no burning of tyres, no cries of an angry population and no brutal crackdown of the police, at least not that we hear of. However, I have been unsuccessfully trying to get data on where these 100,000+ Burundian refugees come from. There are probably good reasons why this information should not be public but based on what I can get, which is basically interviews in the media, they do not necessarily seem to come from Bujumbura. Some are titled as farmers and speak of the imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, threatening them at night to the extent of having them fearing for their lives and deciding to flee. Hence, certainly a percentage of refugees comes from the so-called peaceful interior.
I was therefore hesitantly enjoying my two day trip to Muramvya province at the end of last week. Yes, on the surface everything seems fine, there is no visual unrest, no gunshots during the night. Just calm and peace. But it feels like a fake peace, superficial, deceitful somehow. I don’t manage to enjoy it. In fact I am moody and bad tempered all my time there. Fake peace somehow feels worse than the unrest in Bujumbura. At least when I hear the gunshots coming from Musaga, one of the city hotspots, I know what is going on, no government official can try to tell me that there are no problems in this country. In Muramvya I could live in a lie and I wonder how big a proportion of the people outside the capital choose to live in a lie and how many are simply forced to out of fear. Carrying this experience, I am actually quite happy to be back in Bujumbura Saturday night. It feels like I am back to reality. I have only been back in the city a few hours when I hear about the assassination of Zedi Feruzi, the leader of the small UPD opposition party. According to witnesses, he was shot by men wearing Presidential Guard military fatigues. People are shocked and angry. Feruzi is buried the next day with protesters announcing intensified demonstration to follow on Monday. And as Monday arrives, there are also the first confirmed news of violent protests in Bururi in the south of the country. The myth might not hold for very much longer.
Gudrun Sif Fridriksdottir is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Iceland, currently conducting her fieldwork in Burundi.