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Last Updated: 08/11/2003
Bujumbura (July 7-13 2003): Terror, distress and helplessness
Chris Harahagazwe

"Today, it is exactly like in 1993. Nobody had thought of organizing relief services for survivors, casualties and the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. Other countries have professional disaster relief services. As for us, we vegetate in daily catastrophes and such services are inexistent.

“Woe to pregnant women!”, says the Apocalypse. The Holy Book should have added nursing mothers on the list.  

They break into a mad dash through the city of Bujumbura. Baby jolting from side to side on the back of the mother. Headlong rush of populations of the southern districts towards the north. War, it is men who start it but it is women and children who pay the heaviest price in terms of hardships. 

Many mothers lose their little ones in the confusion and the urgency of the flight.  In addition to the babies on the back, they pull their swarm of kids who are unaware of the spacing of births.

Bujumbura, a city whose breath is suspended at the rate of the bombs. The central market is shut.  Without notice. It deposits on the streets 20.000 panic-stricken people. As a result, there are huge traffic jams. Motorists’ nervousness adds to the danger of the fire and the steel that falls down on the city.  A woman shopkeeper of the Galerie Alexander shuts her shop and remains petrified in front of the door. In distress, a hand is on cheek. I revive her while joking. When you are overtaken by events, you shouldn’t be worried any longer. There is nothing you can do about it. The pretty lady gives a slight smile and is thereby revived in the etymological sense of the word. No need for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A city without economic activities is a dead city. 

Somebody has the bright idea of channeling the displaced persons from Musaga towards the Musée Vivant. Craftsmen’s solidarity gets going.  Women of the neighboring district, Kabondo, the Scouts and the Lion' S Club come to offer assistance.  They bring food but without pots or firewood. Rice and dry beans are hardly nourishing.  No blankets. And God knows if the nights of July can be fresh.  No latrines either. 

That’s the difference between craftsmen’s solidarity and professional relief.  After 10 years of war, one would be justified in hoping that the government of Burundi has modern relief services. Today, it is exactly like in 1993.  Nobody had thought of organizing relief services for survivors, casualties and the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. Other countries have professional disaster relief services. As for us, we vegetate in daily catastrophes and such services are inexistent

Displaced persons from the mountains overhanging Bujumbura flee the fighting and are settled in the Rwagasore mausoleum, on the top of the city. They alone are lucky. They receive relief assistance from professionals through specialized international NGOs. Doctors Without Borders sets up a medical unit.  Solidarités Internationales distributes blankets, drinking water and water cans. The World Food Programme brings food. 

This reminds me of the sad year 1994. Camps of Rwandan refugees set up in northern Burundi, where Interahamwe, of evil reputation, receive five-star assistance.  Burundian survivors of the 1993 genocide are superbly ignored. The High Commission for Refugees has no mandate for internally displaced persons. International NGOs were pleading political realism. One shouldn’t “drive one’s friends to despair”. In this case, the government of the day, organizer of the genocide.  Moreover, it will be maintained in power by the famous international community. As for the survivors of the 1993 genocide, they will be decimated by diseases, the cold, hunger and, finally, the deadly attacks of the rebellion on women and children precisely.  No international condemnation or legal action for these crimes against humanity. 

Saturday morning, after a night of hell under bombs, rockets and hails of bullets, I manage to get to the airport. I meet a long column of soldiers. A whole battalion, it seems to me, goes up to the front at Gikungu, East of Bujumbura. God, how young they are! Teenagers. Sad. Drawn faces.  Without the fighters’ banter that is seen with other soldiers in wartime. 

That reminds me that the brother of my housemaid was killed in Musaga.  He was 17 years old.  He had been enlisted in the army when he was 15 years of age because he had no more family.  Many among these young soldiers were less than 10 years old or were just 10 years old in 1993.  Their families had been decimated.  For ten years they have continued to die from the same causes.  The only family left to them is the national army.  With its chain of command and military solidarity.  But as the commanders have fallen in battle one after the other, soldiers have been doubly or triply orphaned. 

While in transit in Nairobi, I discuss with an official of the United Nations who had travelled in the same aircraft as me. Members of the FNL, he asserts, are workers in the city by day. They take arms at nightfall. He informs me that their leaders work in international NGOs.  So true, he insists, that the Secretary-general of the FNL has been transferred to Afghanistan by his NGO.

Without any diplomatic trick, an Egyptian diplomat asks me what they still want since they have a Hutu president. A Russian doctor of the United Nations received a rocket in his house.  He decided to flee at night.  Right in the high-class Kiriri District, on the hills of Bujumbura, he finds himself face to face with a group of rebels who scoff at the muzungu (the white) and lets him proceed. 

I left Bujumbura in utter distress.  Dumb with terror.  Crushed by distress and helplessness.  Even the boldest and most blasé ones, for once, were depressed by the turn of events. Those who still have enough psychological resources for hazy political speculations wonder how the government of Burundi could make fun of the suffering of the population by signing, in Arusha, peace agreements with nonbelligerents.  With political parties that have no military forces. 

Chris Harahagazwe is from Burundi and is a professional translator (English-French-Spanish)from Brussels "Institut Supérieur des Traducteurs-Interprètes Lucien Cooremans"(1975-1979). Freelance translator at COMESA Court of Justice in Lusaka, Zambia (2000 to date). Freelance translator with COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) 1997-2000 in Lusaka, Zambia. Former Information Director at Burundi Foreign Affairs Ministry (1980-1985). As such, delegate to several UN General Assemblies, OAU and Non-aligned Summits. Founding member and former Secretary General of Burundi Human Rights League "Iteka" (1992-1993). Human rights activist and relief for Burundi war victims activist.