'You don’t see it easily but it’s happening, and the regime isn’t hiding it at all' - living the Burundi crisis

“If nobody is going to intervene, you’re going to see another Rwanda, of that I’m convinced.”

“I REMEMBER the day exactly,” she said in her delicate French accent. “I wasn’t at work, because there had been a lot of protests and a lot of tension, to the point that you couldn’t leave your home. Suddenly, we started hearing people screaming in the streets and I got a call to say that a coup had happened. The first thing we did was to run onto the streets and dance with everyone… we were so happy.”

Alida (not real name for security reasons) describes the day of the coup in Burundi which took place on May 13, 2015, an event that has changed her life.

Burundi had been in a state of unrest because of an announcement on April 25, 2015 by the ruling political party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), that the incumbent President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, would run for a third term in the 2015 presidential election.

The announcement sparked protests that lasted for weeks with over 37,000 people leaving the country at that time. While President Nkurunziza was in neighbouring Tanzania attending the 13th Extraordinary Summit of the East African Community Heads of State, which had been convened to discuss the situation in Burundi, army general Godefroid Niyombare said that he was “dismissing President Pierre Nkurunziza”.

A turn for the worse

For those in opposition to Nkurunziza’s third bid for power, the general’s announcement of a coup was a welcome one - but things quickly took a turn for the worse.

“After an hour of the coup announcement, we knew it had failed. My family is well connected”, explained Alida, “so we quickly found out, and then came the fear.”

She frantically began to call her relatives because she had heard that the police forces in the city centre got angry with the people who were celebrating and had begun to open fire.

Two of her family members got lucky. They had been driving towards the city centre at the time and their car had been shot at, fortunately they managed to escape and hide at a nearby hotel.

That night Alida stayed indoors and in the morning, driving out of the house, all that remained of the coup were barricaded roads, empty streets and smoking tyres.

In a matter of just two weeks following the coup the number of people who fled Burundi skyrocketed to over 80,000 – today it stands at over 225,000. Alida is one of those people.

Come the crackdown

Following the re-election of Nkurunziza in July, the government issued a warning that it would crackdown on those who opposed it.

Since then thousands of people have been arrested and bodies keep being dumped on the streets. The government justifies the killings of civilians at the hands of the police as retaliation against people who are attacking them and creating a problem.

Alida says that most of the people being killed are the unarmed civilians who were, or are, against the government. 

“You don’t see it easily – but it’s happening and the regime isn’t hiding it at all.  At the beginning of the crisis they were hiding – now, they go into the neighbourhoods, they take people out of their homes and kill them…because they have guns and the civilians don’t.”

Unable to find work in Burundi’s climate of crisis, and out of her family’s concern for her safety, Alida has moved to Kigali – her family scattered. One of her relatives, being Rwandan, fled the country in fear of her life because, Alida explains, “the government is using this crisis as an excuse to hunt Rwandese people.” 

Today, the country is still managing to function in a “very, very slow way”. People are scared, the price of food and goods has doubled, investors have run away, hotels and restaurants are empty and there is barely any life on the streets of Bujumbura past 6pm.

For her family, the fear is mostly of the insecurity that has risen across the city because of the loss of jobs and increasing poverty – people are being held at gunpoint and banks are even being robbed during the day, shortening their opening hours, and closing their doors at 4pm.

Financing the terror campaign

For now, her family’s interaction with the government is  limited to when officials show up to the businesses they own, that they worked so hard to rebuild following the civil war, demanding money. Their companies are held hostage to finance the terror campaign.

When asked how she sees this all ending, her answer is fear numbing.

“If nobody is going to intervene, you’re going to see another Rwanda [genocide of 1994], of that I’m convinced.”

Already there are signs of this happening. Mistrust is beginning to seep through society, “you have to check who you’re talking to, because you never know who is working with the government”.

She said that there are “a lot of people making a lot of money telling on those who protested during the crisis”.

Her concerns for her family are now at an all time high because the government is “creating an ethnic problem” that “nearly all the young people who are dying and being targeted are Tutsis”.  She says her family will be at particular risk “because with [ethnic cleansing]– you start above – the intellectuals, people with money.”

Falling apart

Alida’s experience is a unique one.

Her parents are successful business people in Burundi but their lives have been torn apart by the massacres, civil war and now this crisis.

When she was younger, her siblings and mother were forced to flee Burundi to Belgium when the civil war broke out in 1993 – later she returned leaving the children in Belgium under the care of some family friends.

Being wealthy and well-connected were two factors that have ensured Alida and her parents and siblings have survived.

During the civil war they were only able to get out of Burundi because of their expat friends who helped them get visas. “In times of crisis,” she explained, “first they evacuate their own citizens, they then avoid giving visas because there’s a high probability you won’t be going back”. 

Alida’s life over the next few years was characterized by moments of stability and anguish. They managed to escape a lot of it, but they couldn’t run away completely – from traumatic experiences of grenades being thrown into her home  - which, said, “by God’s grace didn’t detonate”, the impact of economic decline on their livelihoods or the annoyance of not being able to apply to universities because of visa problems.

For a time life had normalised in Burundi and Alida moved back, but now, it’s all falling apart.

*All names were changed to protect the identity of the source and the family.

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