a tale of two cities

Wednesday, July 16, 2008.

I want to point out something about Bujumbura – the one in the news and the one I live in. When the headline says, « Rebels launch mortars into Bujumbura, » those missiles will almost certainly not touch me, because that Bujumbura is over there, 10 minutes by car up the main road, in one of the neighborhoods like Ngagara, or Bwiza , or, of course, Kamenge. It would certainly not be where I am (three-minute walk to the U.S. Ambassador’s home) or where I will be (six-minute walk to the U.S. Ambassador’s). The Bujumbura I live in is one I have no qualms about being out in after dark. Though I’m not so cocky anymore to lie about the phone number in the back of a U.S. passport to call in a squad of Marines, I will gladly load up the mobile office, laptop and all, and walk the mile-and-a-half back to the house at seven or eight at night.

That other Bujumbura is one I’m starting to interact with more. On Saturday (July 12), I spent most of the afternoon in Kamenge. Kamenge is probably one of Bujumbura’s most notorious neighborhoods and one of its poorest. In the long history of ethnic violence dating back to the 60’s, Kamenge and its mostly Hutu population has always been a flashpoint. The police crack down there the hardest, arresting and sometimes killing residents suspected of ties to armed groups. Prior to and during the war, parts of Kamenge were entirely destroyed. The ‘Kamenge Riots’ of 1962 presage the massacres that were to come in 1972. Now the neighborhood is finally rebuilding and even diversifying, but its reputation remains.

When I am in Kamenge, people’s curiosity toward me is more aggressive, the stares a little more intense, the demographic more male. If I sometimes get irritated when people jeer at me in the city-center or cry out some variant of « China! », in Kamenge, I don’t have that luxury. To respond even emotionally to each person would take too much effort and time; to respond externally could lead to ‘misunderstandings’.

Kamenge during the day time is bustling and intense, but not threatening. In many ways, its activity is quite festive. When I interviewed some female ex-soldiers in the back of a bar on Saturday, only one person had to be chased away because he was a bit too curious. The bar’s name is the Good Wind, becaue the owner claims a special breeze blows out in front of the bar. And sure enough, there are only tables and patrons in front of his property. We talked about verifying whether there really was only a breeze on that spot, so I walked down the street, waving and yelling out to him that yes, there was wind here, too, and that maybe he should expand his operation. I was less interested in whether people were laughing at me or laughing because they understood what we were doing – to me, they were laughing and that was enough.

I returned to Kamenge a few days later, at night. It was around 7 p.m. when we (colleagues Joseph and Jean-Baptiste and I) turned off the main road and searched by moonlight for the home of one of the women I had met a few days prior. Pedestrians that appeared out of the dark night air, barely missing being hit, would rap their fists sharply against the car, signaling their displeasure. It sounded like small stones hitting us. In that narrow space, our tiny coupe felt awfully fragile. We found our host’s home when we rolled by it, and she ran after us and rapped her knuckles against the back of the car. When I opened the car door to step out, someone quickly led me by the arm over the inky moat in front of the house. Little kids in little or no clothing were running around near the remnants of a cooking fire. Our host lead us into the house with a candle that became the room’s lamp.

For about two hours, we talked about the women who have been left out or exploited by the demobilization and reintegration process. Our host told us stories of men who would « marry » ex-combatants to force them to receive their demobilization benefits only to steal the money and then abandon the women. Even with couples who were both ex-combattants, only the man had control over the money that husband and wife would both receive. The injustice was pretty clear, but our host cut through all of the morality, saying that yes, these problems were difficult, but if we could just have some work, we would be okay, because we have so much energy and we can do so much. We just need a chance to be useful. The conversation passed from me in English to Joseph who would translate into Kirundi. Each one of us took turns staring into the candlelight as we spoke.


As we drove away from Kamenge, I asked Joseph what would happen if I just got out and walked. « You would have nothing, » he announced, and I knew he wasn’t using the French meaning, which would be that I would have no troubles. At that moment, our car hit a rut and bounced violently. I asked Joseph what would happen to us if the car broke down. He said, « We would have many mechanics, and many people who would want to help. » Not so bad, I think, that’s very kind of them. Joseph continues, « They would help us and then help themselves to some parts. When they are finished, the broken part would not be our problem anymore. »


Book (P)review

I recently finished reading René LeMarchand’s Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide. Obviously, the title suggests depressing reading. But it was still surprising to me the sadness that I found from reading a book on the verge of events it cannot comprehend. The book was first completed at the close of 1993, and LeMarchand includes an epilogue that applauds the election of Burundi’s first Hutu leader in October of that year. But within months, he is forced to amend the preface with a passage that begins, « As this book goes to press, Burundi is again lurching into a grim spiral of ethnic violence on a scale reminiscent of the 1972 carnage. A month after the October 1993 coup by the military brought to a close the hundred-day grace period of hte democratically elected government of  President Melchior Ndadaye, as many as 100,000 may have died in an ethnic butchery in which Hutu and Tutsi seem to have reached equal status. »

I don’t think LeMarchand’s disinterested tone and sterile phrasings accurately convey his disillusionment but when compared to more exuberant passages, I can’t help feeling sad for him. He closes the book (pre-amended preface) with a naive near-utopian euphoria: « Yet there is no question that both the charter and the newly adopted constitution are important straws in the wind, if not yet beacons of hope. Perhaps the most hopeful sign on the horizon is the pervasive feeling among both Hutu and Tutsi that the horrendous slaughters of 1972 and 1988 cannot be allowed ever again to enter the realm of the possible. The bloodshed of the past has at least served one major purpose : however traumatic the learning experience, it is a permanent reminder that there is simply no alternative to peaceful coexistence. »

Explaining the implications of Melchior Ndadaye’s election, LeMarchand calls it a « seismic metamorphosis » for Burundi and an event heralding « one of Africa’s most remarkable democratic transitions. » But Ndadaye’s assassination, not his election, now stands as the critical moment that is remembered as a « seismic metamorphosis » for very different reasons.

Fifteen years later, at the end of a long civil war, it is somewhat difficult to read someone’s thoughts of what would happen next, knowing what did happen.

LeMarchand’s book is also prescient in another eerie way. He writes, « Like the previous ones, the 1993 crisis [in Burundi] is bound to have a catastrophic impact on Hutu-Tutsi relations in Rwanda…In the early 1960s, the demonstration effect of the Hutu revolution in Rwanda caused many Tutsi in Burundi to distrust Hutu elements; in 1993, the rape of Burundi’s fledgling democracy conveyed a similar message to the Hutu of Rwanda: The Tutsi simply cannot be trusted. »

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