Monday, April 07, 2008

Back in Burundi

Listening to Boris, holed up in a sweatbox hotel I haven't set foot in since 1994, when we launched relief operations in SW Rwanda just after the genocide.

That was before Burundi's serious problems started, and it was considered the more stable of the two countries. Even in 1994, before the war commenced here in earnest, I recall our jeep breaking down in the center of Bujumbura in a torrent of flashfloods and rainfall. I got out to look under the hood for five minutes or so, then scrambled back into the dry interior to wait out the downpour. Looking around inside I realized that the lurky loiterers who'd materialized around the jeep had also managed to clean out everything inside it--while it was fully locked!

I got back out of the car and trudged ankle deep into the immobile, drenched crowd to see if any of our goods were visible in anyone's hands, carts or atop their heads. Everyone I passed had clearly witnessed the theft, and now either stared at the ground or averted my gaze when I stood before them. Some smiled and looked away. Clearly some sort of game was going on. No one offered any information, or even acknowledged me as I moved between them, rustling and poking among their belongings in search of my own. Their deliberate passivity and blatant complicity was infuriating in a way I'd never before experienced.

That was my second time in Burundi, and I've since worked here off and on at least 7 or 8 times over the years. And I've since had many more things stolen -- each time the takings dig deeper into my resources! So I'm familiar with the silence, the pretending-it-didn't-exist while still in full stare mode that Burundians indulge in so shamelessly at the expense of other people's troubles.

That jeep incident was the first time I'd been dealt a full dose of the well-known Burundian trait people here call 'solidarite negative': never disclose anything to betray a member of a group, even an accidental group (a crowd at a market), because your disclosure will be remembered and brutally avenged. A warm and fuzzy place indeed.

I got here today at noon and met immediately with an old Burundian friend and colleague to download recent political developments and hear where the country was heading. Little appears to have happened since my last visit in late 2006, except that the ruling political party has split, creating a dysfunctional breach.

More on this as my visit unfolds...

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