On the Rwandan Border

Stephen Smith

When you arrive in a country on the brink of mass slaughter, it’s bad enough to find that, thanks to the airline, your luggage has goes missing. But you know you’re really in trouble when the airline gone missing. In the finch-loud hall of Bujumbura Airport, Burundi the unstirring arrivals board read annulé for three days. By the time we were reunited with our things, thanks to an intrepid Air Cameroon pilot, the clothes we stood up in were standing up by themselves. As an infrequent flier to this sultry capital on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, I was unable to determine how far the non-appearance of the national carrier was linked to the monstrosities in Rwanda, a couple of hours’ drive to the north. What I kept thinking about instead, I hope not unconscionably, was a matched pair of Ronald Searle plates for one of Geoffrey Willans’s Molesworth books, showing a Gaul marching on Rome and a Roman marching on Gaul. What one pencil-sucking hack at the poolside of the Bujumbura Novotel was heard to call Rwanda’s ‘ethnic cocktail’ could also be found in Burundi, albeit in different proportions. Since independence from Belgium in the early Sixties, the country has suffered at least five spectacular bouts of bloodletting – one more than Rwanda. Indeed, had the South African elections taken place last October instead of in April, it would have been from Burundi, not Rwanda, that journalists stopping over after the inauguration of President Mandela told the world about the Hutus and the Tutsis. Then, as now, weeks of disorder followed the violent-death of a Burundian President. Among many barbarities, kinsmen of the dead President, a Hutu, assembled a group of schoolchildren at a petrol station in the central highlands of Burundi. The Tutsi scholars were separated from their classmates, corralled in the building, and burnt to death. Among the perpetrators was their headmaster, a Hutu.

With the demise of another Burundian leader in the plane crash which also accounted for his Rwandan counterpart, a fresh round of murder was now underway in Burundi, over-shadowed by the carnage among her northern neighbours. At first sight, this was a different kind of killing. Not the furtive despatching of members of one ethnic group by those of another but a ‘responsible’ measure undertaken in the interests of national security and acknowledged with hair-raising blandness by the Burundian authorities. With the sanction of the Comité de Suivi – a kind of war cabinet – army death squads had been going into the northern quartiers of Bujumbura. These essentially Tutsi units were under orders to relieve the inhabitants of mainly Hutu districts like Kamenge, Citiboke and Kinama of their firearms, for fear of reprisals for the summary removal of a second Hutu from the presidency in barely six months. A senior Western diplomat (to use the accepted camouflage) confirmed that there had been casualties.

‘Twos and threes?’ I asked.

‘Mores, Unfortunately it’s always mores,’ he said, gazing at the city from the refrigerated eyrie which the expatriate community maintains on a mountainside above the lake. In fact, Amnesty International claims that the toll runs into hundreds. The shanties are still officially off-limits, but in Kamenge we saw several homes showing unmistakable signs of the structural damage that only automatic weapons inflict. I don’t know how much resistance the occupants of one house we saw were able to offer the soldiers, but I doubt if it was a match for whatever it was that left entry-marks in its masonry the size of small soup plates. Two people died on the premises, their former neighbours told us.

Tension was rising in the city. There were reports that the Burundian Government now backed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and was supplying the rebels with arms. It was rumoured that the Comité de Suivi’s disarmament’ programme was in effect the suppression of an attempted coup. I received phone calls from people outside Bujumbura who wanted to know about the fierce hand-to-hand fighting they imagined I was witnessing from my hotel window. In fact, I was watching a crowd of men gathering on the street. For more than an hour, the gendarmerie in their blue fatigues and white accessories, other uniformed men in peaked caps and ordinary passers-by in civvies pressed up against a Renault which was ticking over beneath an advertisement hoarding for Amstel beer: ‘plaisir raffiné, plaisir partagé’. In that city, on that morning, nothing would have been less remarkable than to have seen the driver dragged from his seat and beaten up. But a remarkable thing happened instead. As if they had suddenly remembered there was somewhere else they had to be, the crowd of men melted away. Still, I could see why airline companies might not be hastening to bring visitors to Bujumbura, for all the ungainsayable allure of a European film season at the city’s cinema.

As with all fortuitously-located billets that fill up with journalists just as every other paying guest is cancelling his booking, the atmosphere at the Novotel began to grow edgy. (Usually, reporters in places such as this twit each other over the alleged porousness of their flak jackets: now it was the mooted uselessness of our respective brands of proprietary antimalaria prophylactic.) In these circumstances, I welcomed an invitation to lunch from a Portuguese expat who lived at the Hotel Tanganyika. An Art Déco lodge suggesting an English provincial fleapit surreally relocated to the breakwater of the lake, the hotel had a view clear across to Zaire. There was grilled fish and French bread on a deserted verandah. Birds hang-glided on the thermals rippling the air above a solitary Hockney palm. Luis waved his fork at the table next to ours. ‘The Prince of Burundi was sitting right there when they killed him, in ’62 I think,’ he said. ‘That was the first time any of this happened.’ Luis had spent most of his life at sea. He used to recite poetry to his bored or baffled shipmates. ‘My favourite is Blake: “the tigers of wrath and the horses of instruction”. It’s very suitable for this country, I think.’

The desperate events in Rwanda have led to a huge influx of refugees, most of whom belong to one or other of three groups, though these are easier to distinguish on the page than in the reeking confusion of the border camps. The first group are Rwandan Tutsis, the survivors of the mass extermination carried out by Rwanda’s mainly Hutu militias. The more evidence that emerges about these slayings, incidentally, the less they suggest the kind of Heart of Darkness-incarnate savagery that we may secretly yearn to ascribe to them. Toasting the engagement of the BBC’s man in the region, Roger Hearing, with a bottle of champagne which, a proud best man, I had resourcefully procured one night, I swallowed hard as he told me of witnessing killings at Rwandan Government checkpoints in the first days of the crisis ‘There was no passion. It was like an industrial process, or a cull,’ he said. ‘These people were just lined up at the roadside, and there would be a guy with a club or a machete methodically working his way through them.’

The second group of refugees are Rwandan Hutus. They have escaped a backlash at the hands of the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front. Finally, there are Burundians, homeless for the second time in six months, who have returned to their country after abandoning it at the time of last year’s strife. Aid workers estimate that there are now as many as a million displaced people in Burundi, all told.

Once night a hotel bellboy appeared from behind an arras with a message for me: ‘Mr Smith? It’s the President.’

‘For me?’ I heard myself say. ‘On the phone?’

‘No. Reception.’

I made my way doubtfully to the lobby, suspecting that I would not find Mr Sylvestra Titibantunganya, the interim President, and that the best I could hope for was to be patched through to an opportunistic or perhaps threatening member of his staff by the hotel operator. Well, I was half-right. There was no sign of Burundi’s chief executive. In his place was a personable young couple – he in pinstripes, she in a tailored suit – who told me how happy they would be to arrange a meeting with their boss, the President, for me. I had only to say the word, so I did. I also said: ‘By the way, how did you know my name?’

‘Someone saw you coming through the airport,’ said the young man, flashing what certain other periodicals would describe as a dreamy smile.

I had a call from the young man the next day. The crew and I were to go to Gitega, a town a hundred kilometres from the capital, where Mr Titibantunganya was holding one of his Peace and Unity rallies.

When we introduced ourselves in Gitega, we were given an escort – a four-wheel drive packed with muscle. Its crew led us to a villa at the end of an avenue of sun-blotting bamboo. Heavy doors breathed open, and we entered a half-furnished state room. There was a three-piece suite in some sort of beige pelt, several bongo drums and a brace of lifesize statues of men toting long, pointed sticks. Bent over a small desk was a small figure in a brown suit, his Acting Excellency himself. Mr Titibantunganya was putting the finishing touches to the speech he would presently deliver from the stands of Gitega FC. He was no more than five foot six tall, and didn’t have the high cheek-bones of the Tutsi people. In short, he was a Hutu. And yet he was also the man who had authorised the fatal ‘disarming’ of Hutus in Bujumbura by the Tutsi military.

I asked him about the killings in Kamenge.

‘It happened that some people died,’ he said, ‘some houses were destroyed and property was looted. But we feel the task was well managed. There are no more shootings in Bujumbura now. People can walk to anywhere they choose in the capital, and even the markets are open. We believe that the act of disarming civilians has helped to restore peace. If we had not disarmed them, we would find ourselves losing, for example, five hundred soldiers or two thousand civilians.’

In the light of this incident it didn’t seem sufficient simply to ascribe the Hutu-Tutsi conflict to tribal difference. Some journalists were filing that tribe, or race, was not the issue: that it was a political problem. But politics looked like the tribe problem by other means. The Tutsis, despite being in a minority, were disproportionately well-represented in the Burundian élite, as they had been since colonial days. However, a foray into Western-style democracy in the Nineties had produced Presidents belonging to the majority Hutu people. Mr Titibantunganya was one beneficiary of this process. Perhaps, looking at what had become of his two immediate predecessors, Mr Titibantunganya had calculated that it was prudent to throw a few Hutus from Kamenge to his Tutsi ministers and top brass, who even now awaited him on the Gitega kop. On reflection, it seemed that even if it was insufficient to ascribe the entire Hutu and Tutsi problem to tribal difference, it was at the very least necessary to take it into account.

I asked Mr Titibantunganya about the refugee crisis on the Rwandan border. Did he fear it would pitch Burundi into a new phase of bloodshed involving the two races?

‘My impression,’ he replied, ‘is that Burundians have realised that killing each other is not right. This has happened in Burundi several times and we feel it’s unfortunate that it’s happening in Rwanda. As far as I’ve heard from Burundians, most of them are praying: “God forbid what’s happening in Rwanda will cross into Burundi.” We’re working with the UN and the other authorities responsible for receiving the refugees to make sure that when they arrive in Burundi, they feel free and safe, so that nobody can bring what’s happening in Rwanda to Burundi.’

We followed Mr Titibantuganya to the football stadium, in a convoy of 4x4s. A crowd of up to ten thousand had mustered in the drizzle, apparently of their own volition. Burundian drummers performed a composition entitled ‘Dance for National Reconciliation’, which was nothing like the stoic Soviet yomp I had feared. The Acting President produced the notes which we had seen him polishing. He told his audience to strive for harmony and resist the compulsion to settle tribal scores. An aide was at his side with a brolly, and he was flanked by two more carrying tan valises which, we gathered, contained lightweight but bulletproof body armour. At the first sign of trouble, the presidential luggage would pop open and unfold to the floor, like the flashier type of credit-card wallet. I wondered whether the Acting President would still be alive when my story appeared – I’m wondering it now as I finish it – and what odds you could get in Burundi on the horses of instruction.