Wednesday, February fifth.
It was quiet when I got up. I stood for a moment outside looking over the beautiful landscape: scattered homes surround by banana trees, a cultivated lowland filled with beans and cabbage, flowering poinsettias in the yard, lush green foliage, and the chirping birds. What a great day to be alive. “Thank you, God, for life!”
Jim walked in as I am typing on the computer. “Bad News!” he says. “Oh no!” We listen to for the BBC news. “Five human rights workers killed in Karengera.” No details. Violence explodes with no warning. Karengera was the village I had lived in for six months two years earlier. It had been when the first Hutu returnees came flooding back across the border.
Jim and I were driving to Bujumbura, Burundi today. My visa was expiring so I needed to leave the country and reenter with a transit visa. We were heading in the general area of the killing. Burundi itself, is a powder keg. I went to the bathroom twice before we left at nine. Later, he admitted, he went twice as well. We were going to have clean bowels if we were to be shot.
We left about 9:00 A.M. Not to early but early enough that should we have trouble we can get into Bujumbura by mid-afternoon. It is a four-hour drive. To be stranded is to set yourself up for trouble or much worse. The border crossing went very well.
We picked up a lady at the border who had been out of the country on assignment for the World Health Organization. She had been working in Madagascar. She told us it was a holiday in Burundi…Unity Day…but there was not unity. Against our better judgement we were asked by armed military to take another couple of people. We did so, including a solder with his AK47.
As we drove through the southern edge of Nyungwe Forest, I noticed Jim was going as fast as he could safely navigate the twisting curves on this mountainous road. I check my seat belt. I noticed he had taken his off. He explained, “This section of the road had averaged a causality a day for the last six months up to about two months ago. He could get out of the care rapidly without the seat belt, especially if wounded.” Yes, my heart started to beat a little faster. Neither was I encouraged to see soldiers standing every half mile or so. The rear window was going up and down next to the soldier as he clicked the safety on and off his gun.
Both Rwanda and Burundi were administered from Bujumbura by Belgium in the pre-independence era. The city is laid out beautifully on the coast of Lake Tanganyika, just a trifle smaller than Lake Michigan. The city was characterized by wide boulevards, mountains in the distance, expansive construction, unlike the crowded village like setting of Kigali, the capital of Rwands. Jim, Annaka, and mself went to the Yacht Club to see if we could find some of his contacts.
Upon returning from sailing on the lake, one of his friends made an arrangement to visit a missionary couple, in their eighties, who have been living in Zaire and Burundi in excess of 50 years. On their compound thee were approximately 11,000 Hutu refugees. They had been forcibly removed from their homes by the existing government. Whole blocks of homes had been destroyed, shot up, and most of the young men killed or removed silently no longer to be seen nor heard from. I saw hovels where the wounded and ill were cared for, the places where soldiers had stood and open fired on the compound. I had a child hanging onto each finger, like we were Piped Piper with 80 children following us. It was another example of the hideousness of war. How often and how long?
I paid for the meal we shared with Jim, Yoost, and Annaka at the Restaurant Romantice. They were playing the 1960s music of my youth.
Later that evening we pulled off the internet the following report:
“In a further deterioration of the security situation in Rwanda, four employees of the UN Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda human rights observers were shot dead in the south west Cyangugu prefecture yesterday. A fifth died in the hospital later. The observers, three Rwandans, a Britain, and a Cambodian, were traveling in two clearly marked UN vehicles in Karengera Commune when ambushed by a large group of unidentified arm men. Kibuye, Gisenyi, Ruhengeri, and Cyangugu Perefectures, which border Zaire, have become increasingly unstable since the mass return of Hutu refugees from Zaire and Tanzania at the end of last year. Large numbers of ex-FAR/Interahamwe are believed to have infiltrated, concealing themselves among the returnees and possibly joining up with other ex-FAR/Interahamwe members hiding out in dense forest along the border. The four prefectures are well-known hot beds of Hutu insurgency, with the road running alongside of Lake Kivu from Gisenyi to Kibuye, said to be particularly dangerous.”
This is in adjacent to and part of the area we work. This is when I ask myself, Why am I here?