Burundi was absolutely mind blowing and eye opening for me. As a white boy from a middle class home in Sweden. The beautiful and kind people I met. Their culture. All the delicious food I had. Their obsession with beer. People may say they drink heaps of beer in Germany or UK, but let me tell you this; it’s nothing compared to Burundi. They lo-hove beer! It becomes somewhat more evident there, since it’s the single one alcoholic beverage which they consume. No gin & tonic. No Cosmopolitan. Beer, period.
A lot has happen since I last wrote. I’m for instance officially the proud owner of a cow! Never thought I’d own a cow in my entire life. Her name is Mokunzi. It means friend in Kirundi. I got her from Gilbert (the UN solider I mentioned in the last post). We paid her a visit last week and she’s gorgeous! Yet another reason for me to return to Burundi.
There’s music everywhere here in Africa. In every street corner. Every home. Every bus. An eternal beat, which never seems to end. Haven’t used my iPod since I got here. I love it.
It was eye opening to see how people live in a place, which lack most of the organization and infrastructure you take for granted in the Western world. For instance, there’s not a single traffic light in Bujumbura. You just go. Hope for the best. But for Burundians, it’s life. Nothing remarkable about it. At first glance you may think they’re all mad. But when you think about it again you realize they operate more or less completely without any help from public services. No government to help you with whatever inquiry you may have. Education. Healthcare. Merely to fix a bloody hole in the ground outside your house. Who’re you gonna call? The government? Hahaha. You might as well call Ghostbusters. Pick any Burundian and hen would outdrive any Swede. Simply because hen learned the hard way.
I come from a place where you as a citizen, feel like the government is on your side. Working for you. Taking responsibility. You trust your decision makers. This is a story of nuance of course. You should obviously never cease to criticize your government. I’m talking in general terms. My point here is that Burundians are able to handle the chaos in which they find themselves without much help. Can you imagine the capacity, which people who learn to cope with their unprivileged life situations, would reach if they only got the chance to improve their situation!?
Makes me wonder what I am doing to take full advantage of my own life situation? What am I actually capable of? Using all my effort. And truly committing to it?
I remember sitting in Vugizo surrounded by kids touching my hair and skin. I imagine it must be a peculiar feeling for them to pull their tiny fingers through straight thick blonde hair for the first time. Kids pressing their small fingers on my burnt muzungo skin watching with excitement how it turns from red, to yellow, then back to red again. Laughing at me. Their skin is black. Nothing happens when you press down on it.
This may sound strange, but to be honest, it’s actually equally fascinating for me to be surrounded by black people all day everyday down here. It’s something I’ve been deprived more or less all my life. Growing up in a suburb to Stockholm, which completely lacked people from different backgrounds, I never got to know someone called Mohammed. Become familiar with black Afro hair, absorb the culture of Islam or dance to African rhythms as a kid.
Actually, now that I think about it, there existed people with non-Swedish backgrounds in my school. However, the board decided to put all of them in the same class. Just like they never heard of the word integration. Today, I cannot for my life comprehend how they got away with it? Why didn’t other adults intervene? It must be the most counterproductive way for a society to evolve. It creates fear for a person who doesn’t look or think in the same way as you. This fear can easily be transformed into hate, due to a lack of understanding.
The only kids without Swedish background I encountered were the kids whom stole our mopeds or crashed our house parties. These assholes got to represent the entire immigrant population for my friends and me. What was we supposed to think? We didn’t know a nice guy called Mohammed. We never got the chance.
I’ve talked earlier in this blog about the ”table” in front of you with options to choose from, in this case my options were very limited. It made me come to conclusions, which I today feel ashamed about.
When sitting there, surrounded by kids whom never seen a white person before in their life, mesmerized by my looks, it dawn on me that I’m as fascinated by them as they are with me.
A few days ago I left Bujumbura for Kigali, Rwanda.
Although, both countries share more or less the same culture, language and ethnicities, the difference in between them is immense. Bujumbura is much more underdeveloped, dirty and chaotic in comparison to Kigali. I didn’t see a single trash bin in Bujumbura. You simply throw your garbage on the street. Kigali on the other hand, has spotless streets. Streetlights. Is more secure and acquire a level of modernity which Bujumbura dwellers only can dream about. (However, I don’t think I’ve seen nothing yet in contrast to Nairobi or Cape Town for instance). Rwanda is called the “land of a thousand hills” and I can nothing but concur with that statement. Even the capital is build entirely on hills. Kigali is absolutely beautiful. Reminds me of California somehow. Hills and red-ish tile rooftops.
The genocide committed in Rwanda 1994 is common knowledge to the Western world, but what many people don’t know is that there was genocide in Burundi as well. The genocide in Rwanda was tremendously intense with approximately 800.000 people killed with in merely 100 days. In Burundi on the other hand, the killing was not as intense, but it prolonged for much longer. A nearly two decade long civil war. Today, Burundi is still highly unstable. A major factor to why it’s lagging far behind its brother Rwanda.
In 1997, rebels attacked a school in Buta, which is located in the remote Bururi district. An attack, which lead to the death of 40 children. I got the chance to interview the pastor who at the time was principal at the school when the killing took place. His name is Zacharie Bukuru.
This is an attempt to shed some light on the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi and infuse some modern Burundian history. (I’m fully aware that in order to properly give an explanation to the factors, which lead up to the genocide and righteously go to the bottom of the terrible incidents which took place in the mid 90’s, you have to do research which goes back hundreds of years. I believe however, this is better than nothing.)
Democracy got introduced to Burundi in the beginning of 1990. A political climate, which was totally absent in the country previously. Political parties were established. However, not on the grounds of ideology but those of ethnicities. As a result, Burundi’s tribal lines became more tangible. Dividing the country.
In 1993, Burundians used voting ballots in their first democratic election. Ndadaye Melchior got elected president. A Hutu was in power for the first time in the country’s history! Tutsi had previously ruled Burundi for the past hundreds of years. This was possible due to Burundi’s is location, in the heart of Africa, far away from the coastline and surrounded by mountains. This meant that Burundi barely was affected by slave trade and it took relatively long time before it got colonized. In other words, perfect conditions for a kingdom to thrive undisturbed.
However, Melchior’s time as president was short lived. Merely three months. Tutsi rebels who feared their newly initiated inferior position killed him. This is when the shit hit the fan.
Burundi is in chock. People are afraid. Those who used to live side by side, turn against each other. The killing starts.
”The children were severely affected by this incident,” Zacharie explains with a deep concern in his face. ”Their families and others tried to separate Hutu from Tutsi, but I refused. In my school, children stay side by side. Hutu and Tutsi are just made up words. We are one people,” he continues.
Although it was a boarding school, many of the student’s parents wanted their kids to come home. But Zacharie insisted they would stay. That they would be safe and protected. He arranged for 30 soldiers to arrive to Buta in October the same year. To keep them safe. Burundi at the time was very unstable. Rebels mobilizing in the bushes. A dangerous political vacuum. Everyone on edge.
For six months Zacharie launched dialogues with his students about the importance of sticking together. Emphasizing they were one people. An attempt to create a generation without tribal differences. These conversations generated result and the school deviated from the rest of the country. As one unit.
Outside the school a brutal civil war was unfolding. Four years after president Melchior’s death, on April 30 1997, Hutu rebels reached Buta through the jungle. They came five o’clock in the morning. Students still fast asleep.
”I heard gunshots 10 km away the day before. I called for military backup. But they were too late” Zacharie said, covering his face in his hands.
The children were still in their beds when the rebels stormed the barrack. Some students managed to escape through the window when the rebels started shooting in the ceiling. However, most of them ended up under their beds.
”Come out from under your beds and line up in Hutus and Tutsis” a rebel demanded screaming.
The children of Buta refused. They stayed as one unit. Liking arms. Crying. Praying out loud. Asking God to forgive the rebels ”for they don’t know what they are doing”.
The provoked rebels decided to kill them all. Pulled their triggers. A massacre. 40 children at the humble age of 12. Dead.
Myself and Zacharie are sitting on the very spot where the killing took place 16 years ago. Today it’s a memorial site. A chapel with all the 40 children’s faces painted on the wall. Outside 40 graves lined up.
A very emotional feeling indeed. Makes me swallow hard.