The Night They Bombed Uvira – Changing Arrangements

If you want to see the first post, click here

We headed for home, giving our park guide a lift on the way.  We passed a couple of recreational beaches close into Bujumbura, potentially a good spot for families to hold a Sunday Afternoon picnic, but in reality a more seedy den.  Recreation here was mainly for men to get drunk and pick up one of the over-made up girls on the highway.

 The guide lived in the northern suburbs.  In our big gleaming Toyota, we bumped over the potholed roads down a bunch of dull ill-maintained neighbourhoods, with the occasional house showing signs of pride and effort.  Perhaps the troubles and usual lack of money and opportunities exhausted people too much here to keep their properties maintained, or perhaps the landlords did not care.  But I found that while the exterior of the low houses were often terrible, the interiors were kept clean and tidy.  We were invited in by the guide and shown to his main room.  The windows were small and the room dark, but there were a couple of chairs and a sofa around a low table covered in bright white lace.  A couple of glass cabinets around the room showed off family trophies, mainly pictures, and we were introduced to his wife, many kids, cousins, mothers, fathers and grandparents, who were hanging around the house or passing through.

 We were offered a beer, but beyond that the hospitality was not common to me.  We briefly passed a few comments in both French and English, but Jerod and I often ended up talking amongst ourselves, not because we were being rude, but just we were left while our friend would talk to his friends outside, or his family in the back kitchen.  It was a shame it was such a large beer as it took us time to drink it, and we grew increasingly uncomfortable.  The major comment of this guy was why Kelly had not come down to see her godchild recently.  It was already growing dusky as we thanked him and moved outside to the vehicle.  It was not safe to stay in these suburbs too late.  The gleaming white Toyota had attracted kids and others from all over the neighbourhood and they crowded around looking into the vehicle.  But it was more with inquisitiveness than intrusiveness, and we were waved at warmly as we pulled away.  We had wound along several streets to reach his house, but rather than retrace our steps, we drove straight along our current route – the suburb had grid iron streets, and we finally lurched back onto a major road.  Although it was on the far side of where we wanted to be, it was the quickest route out of the township.

 The MV Liemba had reached Kigoma when we got home, but it was touch and go whether it would make Bujumbura in time for my trip.  When I woke up in the morning, Kelly again had been on the phone.  The Liemba was still in Kigoma.  Alan should take the next flight out or else be stuck in Bujumbura for another few days.  Time was short; I had to get to Kigoma and on to Dar es Salaam, each connection the only possible route for days either side.  So, with bags packed we had a hurried breakfast and we headed down to the airport.  Kelly’s Tanzanian maid, who she had hired when they themselves were based in Kigoma, was resigning from her post and heading home.  We were both on the same flight.  She had no passport but a rather ragged form which gave her leave to move across the border.  When we reached the airport, it was even emptier than before.  We were one of three flights that day.  One was going to Cameroon late that afternoon, and there was one to Goma in the evening.  I said my goodbyes to Kelly and Jerod; they had been absolutely splendid hosts to me, and we went through the checks; I helped the maid with her forms.  We were whisked through and we waited for an hour in the departure gates  Two more people were on the flight.  Nothing happened; no announcements, no action whatever, and I began to wonder if the flight actually existed.  Eventually two white pilots in the smartest uniforms came out and we were escorted to a rather old but serviceable 15-seater.  I waved to Kelly and Jerod who stood on the observation deck as normally as if you were anywhere else in the world.  Then we lifted off over the lake, down between the two escarpments and I left Burundi.  As with many countries, it possessed the rich tapestry of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, but the vein of unrest between the two races reared closer to the surface than the tensions I saw in many other countries.  Within six months, the situation had deteriorated; a UN aid worker was killed on the Tanzanian border and all but essential UN staff were moved out.  I had a second trip planned in the November of that year and was looking forward to explore this remarkable country more and get to understand its people better, but I never got there.  I hope one day it rests easier with its conflicts and more people can experience its incredible charms.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Mini Safari in the Delta

 The Ruzizi, like many river deltas, split.  The Petit Ruzizi formed the border with Congo.  A couple of miles to the east, the Grande Ruzizi formed the border of the Ruzizi National Park, a small area of forest along the coastline.  Jerod knew one of the guards well; Kelly was a godmother to one of his children, and he managed to persuade him to come with us to guide us around the park.  He was a bit reluctant at first as he and his fellow guards were having a Sunday afternoon binge and playing cards, but a few US Dollars put him right.  The bush started as acacia and similar scrub near the road, but became more tall grass and reed as we got closer to either the lake or river.  There are no lions or elephants in this park, but there was plenty else to see.  At various vantage points along the way, we could watch hippos bathing and crocodiles basking on the huge silty sandbanks midriver.  Around them many bird species waded, pecked mites from the backs of the hippos, or flew around in a generally agitated state, as smaller birds are often want to do.  The river’s perpetual flow brought along huge amounts of detritus; logs, reeds, plastic, much of it snagging on the bankside vegetation.  A flock of weaverbirds had made their nests in the dead branches of a tree wedged into the silt; their delicate baskets waving in the wind.

 The ground became boggier as we drove on, and the pitted track we were on was difficult to traverse in places.  Jerod nearly flipped as we stuck at the bottom of one hollow.  Not because the four-wheel drive could not get us out eventually, but because we had stopped right next to what looked like a huge mousehole in the reeds, about seven feet high.  It was late afternoon, about the time the hippos began to think about grazing, and these mouseholes were the ways they tromped back and forth from the river.  If we stayed here too long, we might have an encounter with one of these beasts.  Most people when asked would suggest crocodiles are the worst animals to meet, but hippos account for more deaths in Africa than any other large beast.  Although they can get aggravated and with their huge gaping jaws can do a lot of damage, quite often it is just because they will lumber into you while you are boating, or wandering through a riverside path, or having a picnic at a nice looking beach next to a lake, or stuck in a Toyota next to one of their favourite roadways.  More than once did we hear some crashing in the bush while we tried to extricate ourselves.  Fortunately, the mud was relatively hard and Jerod eased us up onto firmer ground.

 A large look out post was situated just where the ground got too wet to drive on.  Although I crashed my head on one of the wooden beams on climbing up, it didn’t spoil the view.  Bujumbura was a tiny speck on the horizon, dwarfed by the escarpment below.  The reeds gave out to the wide blue lake beyond, and to the west, thick reedy scrub obscured the Petit Ruzizi river and the border with Congo.  I found it a little strange that Jerod was at his most relaxed in this park, so close to the border, with deep scrub that could harbour hundreds of guerrillas at any turn.  But his logic was sound; few people lived close to the border, the agricultural land to the north was mainly commercial, well organised and with fewer settlements than elsewhere in the country.  The land to the west was a potential threat, but Congo generally was at war with itself, and apart from a full blown invasion along the main road, which we would get wind of very easily, there was little chance of intrusion from over the border.  So, this little patch of silt was one of the quietest and most peaceful corners of the whole country, and Jerod enjoyed to come here to relax and unwind – nowhere else, even at home, did this for him.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Lazy Sunday

Sunday morning I continued to work, Jerod watched a recording of Saturday’s Chelsea match; despite not having been to the UK, he had developed a taste for British soccer and decided Chelsea was his team.  Woe betide you if you said anything against them.  I was getting prepared in a way for my departure to Tanzania on Monday.  The intended route was via the MV Liemba  – the general purpose ship that travelled the length of Lake Tanganyika.  I was supposed to overnight on the boat down to Kigoma.  My problem was the boat’s schedule could win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  It was no surprise when Kelly radioed the project office in Kigoma and there was no sight of the boat reaching there on Sunday morning from the south, it looked increasingly likely it would not reach Buj by Monday afternoon.  The alternative was a new route opened up by a small commercial plane company, which flew back and forth along the northern lakeshore.  Mamert was brought in to order the tickets, and I packed my bags, because I was likely to fly early on Monday morning.

 Jerod had relaxed from his agitated state, and his repeated search of the embassy radio waves and several phone calls told him the Third World War was not about to break out in the rift valley.  He had few opportunities to get out of Bujumbura – he never went on Kelly’s field trips; he had never even been to Gitega.  Kelly had to be careful, as although Jerod was employed on the project as web page designer, part time, it would look strange if Kelly’s boyfriend followed her around on business, and I also think Kelly knew how his undiplomatic tongue could cause problems at inopportune moments.

 But he had one place where he liked to go to, and he shared it with me that Sunday afternoon.  We headed off in the Landcruiser through town, fairly quiet, and headed past the office, but instead of heading towards the airport we went west and crossed about two thirds of the tiny north coast of Lake Tanganyika.  The view along the length of the lake, a view only possible from land in a few places, was stunning – the tunnel effect of the two great escarpments was exaggerated and you could see the earth’s curve as the lake disappeared over the horizon.  The north end of the lake is a huge delta for the sediment-rich Ruzizi river, which has its head waters in northern Rwanda and Lake Kivu near Goma on the border with Congo.  Both Rwanda and Burundi are densely populated, and the steep slopes, high rainfall and bare slopes on farms contribute to a huge amount of erosion.  The silts fills the river Ruzizi and it disgorges at the entrance to the lake – the speed of the water dropping off when reaching the huge body of water and the power which keeps the sediment suspended dissipates.  The load gradually builds up to land and much of the northern shore of the lake is this fine sandy silt, no bedrock.  Eventually this sediment would fill the lake, Bujumbura would no longer be a port, a huge fertile valley will extend south to the border with Tanzania.  But since the lake itself is up to 800m deep in places, it will be a good few centuries before that happens.

Ruzizi Delta

Ruzizi Delta

The Ruzizi River did not only discharge sediment, but many bodies of Rwandans caught up in the massacres of the 1990’s had also floated down the river.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Famous in Burundi

 Another alternative to the dance troupes was a dancing play performed by some older men; despite the bad PA and my appalling French, I could follow the story which was trying to show how people should plant their crops; there was a good diligent farmer, and a bad, lazy farmer and…well, you can guess the rest.  But there were some genuine slapstick fun and again the crowd were very appreciative.

 A third event was very exciting.  A dug out canoe race had been started in the next village, and we awaited their arrival.  These four-men crews cut through the water at high speed, and the race was very close as they approached the hard.  The race was not won till they had grounded their boat and all four men had reached the stage.  There was a tight race for first and second place and then a gap before the others arrived.  Even the last crew got a rousing cheer as they finished.  The prize giving was bizarre, after announcing the winners, and prizes were given to each man, each of the other teams and all their members were presented with prizes as well; truly the taking part being more important than the winning, and they certainly provided some great entertainment.

 The minister and various other dignitaries spoke, there was a superb drumming routine from our boys down the other end, and a few more troupes did their now familiar routine.  And then it was over.  The minister was taken up into the village to meet with the chiefs.  We hung around the stage chatting with some people, until the local village boys started getting a little too enthusiastic at asking questions of us, and demanding money, pens, adoption and the like.  So we ambled up among the throng, all happy and cheery, chairs and tables being taken back – all the props under the stage had been provided by villagers from their houses.  The sense of privilege at being so warmly involved with what turned out to be both a local and national event was almost overwhelming.

 Kelly and I were invited to sit with the minister’s meal.  This was not quite the honour you might think, there were about a hundred people at this feast.  Under a grove of huge tamarind and baobab trees, we sat in massive circle.  The ladies of the village, still wearing the brightly coloured dresses and wraps ( I recognised some of them as the dancers we had seen previously) , went round the circle handing out ice cold sodas.  But by the time they had come back and opened each one individually with a  single bottle opener they were lukewarm.  An American I was chatting with offered them his Swiss Army knife which was gratefully accepted but he never saw it again.  Then a series of trestle tables were perched precariously on the roots of the trees and overloaded with a range of local foods – some beautiful fish from the lake, cassava, sorghum, corn cobs, nuts, breadfruit, pork ribs and chicken parts, and once the minister’s table had filled their plates, we were all allowed to take our portions.  It was a fantastic meal, and I was happy for the most part just to sit in amongst this vast gathering and watch the social graces of a Burundian feast.  The plates and waste (there was little) taken away, we sat, the polite conversation gradually dying out around.  Everyone with other things to do, and more interesting places to be, but due to social protocol, unable to leave the ring until the guest of honour, the minister, decided to leave, and he was in deep conversation with the chief.

 Finally, just when I thought my legs would fall asleep, he rose, we all rose with him and allowed him to get into his huge black limousine (no way was he going back by boat) and he sped back to town.  We too made our excuses; Kelly was still below par with her cold and did not want to stay out too long.  We headed back along the coast road and were back in Bujumbura by late afternoon – I think if I had taken the boat option I would have been out there for another day!

 I had some work to do, to write up this section of the trip and make some adjustments to the programs for the GIS and design a few datasets, so the rest of the day was taken up with that.  That evening, Jerod, Kelly and I went down to the Lake Tanganyika, a little restaurant on the Avenue de Plage.  As we walked into the bar, the barman pointed to us, and said “ You were on the TV just now”.  We had watched two cameramen at the World Environment Day festivities and the main Burundi TV station had shown extensive coverage in the evening.  Despite the problems in Uvira, the tension between the Hutus and Tutsi’s, the country had the same cosy parochial feel of many African countries, where because little happens, everybody knows everything that does happen.  We had a good meal there.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Let the Celebrations Begin!

Activities were well under way.  A large covered shelter had been set up opening to a wide stretch of sandy ground.  The villagers had been out since early morning, clearing the litter around the village, cleaning the fish scales and guts from the hard, and there had been a tree planting ceremony.  They were all standing around this square of ground waiting for the entertainments to start.  But we had to wait for the boat, which was nowhere to be seen.  While we waited, Kelly introduced me to some people, some of whom I had seen before but who were now in suits, so I hardly recognised them.  A boat appeared on the horizon, it wasn’t ours.  I looked around at the stage.  On two sides the locals waited patiently, some chatter but mainly quiet.  At the bottom, a row of huge drums, and a bunch of enthusiastic teenagers dressed in Kung Fu type outfits, complete with Bandanas.  To their right were several troops of schoolchildren and their guardians, each troop dressed in different uniforms but with a similar theme.  They wore grass skirts (though most were thin enough you could see their shorts through them), they had different coloured t-shirts on, one troop were wearing “The Pope in Burundi” T-shirts commemorating his visit of seven years before.  And on their heads they wore the tops of gourds, the stems sticking up like antlers.

The Boat Arrives

The Boat Arrives

 Eventually the boat rounded the point to the north of the village, and it gradually grew larger.  However, when it got within a hundred yards, it was realised there was nowhere to dock, and no transfer boat had been organised.  A series of wooden canoes, a couple of outboards and another small craft went out to assist, and it was a curious sight to see all these VIPS in their finery, suits and dresses, scrambling unsteadily off the ship into these craft to be paddled ashore.  A minister, several senior civil servants, foreign dignitaries and local expat staff, all lumbering into these rustic craft and getting their trouser legs and dress fringes wet when coming ashore.

 The entourage progressed up to the stage, and took their seats and the ceremony began.  It was very well orchestrated, the drummers would introduce each piece with a brief set of beats, very catchy; a series of rolls from the band, three huge beats from the leader followed by a final flourish from the band.  They repeated it every time, but you never tired of it and it gave cohesion  to the whole affair.

 One after another, a series of dance troupes would come bouncing out.  Most of them were boys and men in their grass skirts, and the dancing was fast and furious, a lot of stamping, elbows and shaking of the hips.  Each time, a series of solos would be performed, an individual would come forward, and dance even more vigorously, pulling all sorts of faces, pulling tongues, rolling eyes and grinning or grimacing in turn.  It amused the crowd enormously to see a small boy pulling faces five feet away from the great Minister.

 Just when this series of displays became repetitive (it seemed every school and youth group had to do their dance for the ensemble), a different item would come along.  One was a beautifully graceful dance by a series of ladies, dressed in brightly coloured wraps, two people to a design.  They waved their hands and swivelled their hips, and sang an enchanting song.  My only concern was that one of the ladies, with a similar wrap and a flower behind her right ear,  was not a lady at all but a teenage boy.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – World Environment Day

In the end they did go, and David came back with a big grin on his face, his own personal fears conquered for the sake of a great experience, and a bit of a coup for the project that he was able to make much needed contact with the Congolese scientists.  They had travelled down to the border with Africa, but the Land Rover was not allowed into Congo, so they had to clear immigration and then walk a few hundred yards the other side to pick up taxis.  These were no ordinary taxis but motorbikes with special pillion seats to take you into town.  They went to CRH, the centre for Hydrology, a vast building dating back to King Leopold’s time, which the project had helped to re-resource.  It was a bit stop go, the war in Burundi, then in Congo, meant supply lines were fragmented and there had been some looting of equipment from the centre.  But it was getting there and a lot of basic infrastructure work, rebuilding, painting and the like, had been completed.  The only disturbing part of the centre was a small concrete pool in which a couple of crocodiles were kept as pets.  Far too small for these creatures, and with poorly maintained water, it seemed cruel to keep them when there was an enormous lake just yards away.

 They also went to see one of the bomb craters in Uvira, they missed buildings by yards and apparently the only casualty was a policeman that had been knocked off his bike as he cycled past.  But the raid did make both the CNN and BBC World News broadcasts that day.

 It was the weekend; and I always enjoyed my weekends abroad, especially when they were in the company of good people like Jerod and Kelly.  David had headed for the UK and Kelly very formally invited me to join her on the Saturday to attend the World Environment Day 1999 event for Burundi, which was taking place at Gitaza, a fishing village about forty miles south of Bujumbura.  I always wondered why she asked me in the way she did, as if I might have some other pressing social engagement in this hostile foreign country that I had never visited before, but I was pleased to be asked and went along.

 I take the view of my father on excursions.  Get on with it, don’t organise it.  As long as I have a wallet in my pocket, a set of house keys and some means of getting myself around..oh, and a good map, then I want to be on my way.  But most other people I meet want to spend ages getting ready, and it not only means putting physical items together; a lunch, cagoules, three changes of clothes, walking boots, umbrellas, sweets etc., it also seems to mean making a lot of phone calls, and spending the first two hours driving around town seeing to a load of errands.  It gets quite frustrating.

 On this day, I had two options, I could either go on a boat down to Gitaza or come in the vehicle with Kelly.  I decided to go with Kelly as I wanted to see some more countryside.  We first went down to the Port, one of those curious moments when you look like you are at the seaside until you remember that all the water is fresh.  We watched a host of people board this sizeable ship, the RV Tanganyika Explorer, owned by another multinational project – the Lake Tanganyika Research Project which dealt with fisheries more than anything else.  Then we drove off round the town running a whole series of errands.  About an hour later we reached the edge of the southern suburbs and headed along the main road along the lake.  The views once more were spectacular, the hills to the east were less steep and were packed with fields and settlements, the little bays to our right were full of fishermen, bathers or launderers.  We passed a village which tries to claim, as they do in Ujiji, that this is the point where Stanley met up with Livingston, and they have a metal sign to prove it.  We easily overtook the boat and arrived at Gitaza well ahead.

 Gitaza was hardly a village.  After you crossed a small river, there was a bare slope leading down from the main road.  Fishing boats were hauled up here and there were some shacks.  Fish were obviously sold from here or directly from the boats as they were pulled up onto the hard.  To the south there were a few houses and farms, but it hardly looked more densely packed that the countryside we had already passed through.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Conspiracy Theories

 But the curious thing about an event like this, is how out of place it is, and how other normal things go on all around.  A minimal amount of traffic drove around the streets, no mass movements of military, the occasional ambulance probably making a routine emergency pickup for a heart attack victim.  But still we kept our eyes peeled, me especially as I thought  that I had been left out of the excitement.  But then we started to wonder about what was happening in Uvira.  What had they hit, had there been casualties?

 Then, still only about five minutes after the attack, the lights along the airport road came on.  Conspiracy theorist Jerod started making all sorts of connections; Burundi had instigated the raid and this was going to be the culprit aircraft landing at Bujumbura.  David and I poo-pooed the idea suggesting it was probably just a scheduled landing.  Jerod was sure no planes landed on a Thursday night.  The runway lights came on.  We waited and we waited.  It was a good quarter of an hour when a small prop-plane, its navigation lights flashing dropped out of the sky from the north and landed.  To add to Jerod’s theory, it seemed the formalities in the airport were dealt with quickly and the runway lights, the street lights and the airport building lights were extinguished in minutes.

 Jerod was running on high octane and radioed the warden once more to give him an update.  The warden came round later that evening and looked out with his night vision binoculars (he must have nearly blinded himself when he scanned past a Bujumbura streetlight), but there was nothing to see.  Kelly rose with all the disturbance, she had slept through the whole thing, and, like me, was a little disappointed.

 Nothing more happened that night, but we all went to bed charged up.  David and Kelly were due to go to Uvira to check out the Congo part of the project the next morning, and now, that trip was in jeopardy.  Kelly was still all for it, Jerod was dead against it, suggesting that war could break out at any time.  David was in two minds and again, let Kelly make the decision.  We determined to wait till morning to see what the situation was, phone Uvira and find out some more details.

 Kelly was on the phone and radio well before I rose next morning, and had pieced together some story.  Four Fertiliser bombs had been dropped on the town; one had fallen on a street, two next to some buildings, the fourth had fallen in the lake and not exploded.  No-one was killed but there were some injuries.  There had been no major uprising in the streets, no rioting or looting, and the Congo army had not invaded.  It was an opportunistic raid.  Fertiliser bombs are supposedly the easiest things in the world to make, get a common or garden oil drum, fill with a combination of agricultural fertilisers that are readily available, drop them out of the main door of a small plane and away you go.

 Kelly was keen, almost gung-ho to travel to Uvira, Jerod was set against it.  Both David and I had the same feelings but from opposite standpoints.  I was in many ways relieved not to go, but a bit disappointed that I was not to see Congo for myself.  David was very worried about what he might be walking into, but excited by the challenge.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – The View from the Terrace

It seemed that there was potential for a flare up at the barrier if people could not make it through, but the system seemed to work.  We dropped our people around town and headed home; Kelly contacted the UN office to tell them we were all back and accounted for.

 David and I were full of our trip and when Jerod crawled out of his little den where he designed web pages he was bombarded with our experiences.  Kelly was not well.  Partly, she was exhausted; David and she had been at a big project coordination meeting in Nairobi a week before, she had then had to look after us and she was overworking.  Some bug that got inside of her feasted on her weakness and before dinner she lay low in her room.  David and I shared a few beers on the terrace, and after a while Jerod came up to join us, we had some dinner and returned to the easy chairs to discuss the world in general.

 The view at night was equally spectacular as in the daytime, but very different.  The main city streets in the centre and affluent suburbs were well lit; the neon signs on the Source du Nil Hotel, a glorified knocking-shop so I was told, mingled with other lights around the main market area.  To the north, the road to the airport was well lit, but the lights only came on when the road was being used.  Across the lake, a series of orange lights marked out Uvira, a sort of sister city to Bujumbura some fifteen miles away, because although they lay in different countries, Uvira’s road links with Burundi were better than with distant Kinshasa, Uvira derived its power from the Bujumbura side of the lake, and there was much coming and going between the two.  To the south west, where there should have just been lake, was a whole city of white lights.  They sat there strangely, appearing and disappearing.  Jerod explained that they were the lights used by fishermen out on the lake to attract fish.  And there were thousands of them, mostly Congolese in this part of the lake.

 Here, then was the arena for a most bizarre set of events which we watched from that terrace as if at a cinema.  Relaxing after our adventures in Gitega,  we had our feet up on the brick wall in front of us, the smell of basil wafting over us.  Jerod was coming up with his usual theories and opinions on African life, David was at times trying to taunt him, other times teach him, and I put my incoherent tuppenceworth in whenever I thought I hadn’t said much for a while.  I spent most of the time looking out over the scene.  Which is why it is bizarre that I never saw what happened next.  I must have just glanced the wrong way, or had my nose down a beer bottle.  I cannot remember now.

 “What the fuck was that!” shouted Jerod.  Both he and David were upright, straining their eyes out towards the lake.

“That was a flash, it was definitely a flash”, said David

“That was a bomb, they are fucking bombing Uvira”

“ Are you sure?”

“God, there’s another one, it’s an air raid”

“ I didn’t see it” I said, the disappointment already present in my voice.

“Yeah, “ Said Jerod, “that was a bomb”

“It was a big orange plume, just went whoosh, rightup, “Said David trying his best to describe it too me.

“Who would do that?”

“It’ll be the Kinshasa government”

Jerod leaped up out of his chair and headed for the stairs

“I’m going to get on the radio, we might get scrambled”.  Ever the drama queen  Jerod, but I was afraid that this time he may have been right.

We followed him to the stairs, I kept my eyes peeled on the lake but there were no more orange plumes.  As we went down the stairs, we were brought to a sudden halt when, from across the lake we heard “Boom”… a gap….”Boom Boom”.  Three explosions had travelled across from Uvira and hit our ear drums.  If other residents of Bujumbura had not seen it, then they all knew about it now.  Jerod listened to his two way radio, no clicks or codes to get out.  He phoned the local American Embassy warden, a rather strange American-abroad type, who although he had the best communications and information networks at his fingertips, never quite knew what to do with it.  He knew little as to what was going on now, but after all, it was barely three minutes since the attack.  We went back upstairs to watch events…if any events were to happen.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Colonialism and Dashing for the Barrier

I won’t bore you with the meetings, but they were enjoyable chats and I learnt a lot about what data were available (little) and what capacity there was for GIS (little) and what ongoing projects could assist the Lake Tanganyika Project  (none).  We all came together at about 1:30 for lunch in a lovely open air restaurant on the edge of town.  The temperature out of the sun was cold, but it was still good to go al fresco, and we enjoyed a local meal.  But the service was so slow, it took half an hour to get  a round of sodas, that were finished in five minutes.  The food arrived about 2:15, and Kelly was already getting nervous.  It was over an hour’s drive back to the escarpment top and we had to be through the barrier by 4:30.

Lunch in Gitega

Lunch in Gitega

We chatted comfortably for a while; not only were there a bunch of technical and scientific staff there, but the heads of the institutes were present, not for me, but for David and Kelly.  David asked , for sake of conversation more than anything, whether they felt better treated by the Belgians or the Congolese.  Judging by the stony silence followed by some pointed questions like “What do you mean?” it was quite clear that they viewed neither regime with pleasure, and independence, for all its war torn troubles, was a far preferable state.  Despite this, the connections with European institutions were strong, and in a way I have found repeated across the world, the French in particular have a rather paternalistic influence on their former colonies even today.  One example of this form my own work was in map making.  In the former English colonies, while the British Ordnance Survey kept an eye on the maps, the surveying was fully under the control of the country involved.  All maps were copyrighted in the country itself and it was up to the Surveys Departments to decide how to best use it.  In Burundi, the maps were still produced and stored by the Institut Geographique or IGEFRANCE.  IGEBU, the Burundian equivalent was incredibly underfunded and had little control over what it could collect.  One major achievement of the Lake Tanganyika project was to rebuild some of the capacity to do the job, but of course, once the project ended, the level of activity and capacity dropped drastically once more.

 The conversation never really picked up from there, and although we parted on good terms, a little of the atmosphere had been lost.  But I loved Gitega, its prospect and situation, the people there and the potential for some decent scientific work to be done away from the daily intrusion of politicians…unfortunately not realised due to a lack of funds.

 It was well after three when we set off back to Bujumbura.  Africa drove as fast as possible.  I tried to take some photos as we moved but they came out as curious blurs.  We were making good progress when we returned to the road block we had been at in the morning.  A new shift had come on.  They took longer over the perusal of our passports.  They handed them back to us, but held on to Africa’s ID card.  They ordered him out of the vehicle.  Africa’s cool veneer vanished in an instant, and as he dropped down out of the Land Rover, you could see from his short stature that he was a Hutu being pressured by a Tutsi guard.  Even Kelly did not intrude on this situation, and she had become an honorary Burundian after working there for so many years.  A colleague of ours from the University of Bujumbura who was travelling with us, managed to have a discussion with the guard and found out that the date on Africa’s ID had expired.  It was a stupid oversight, and Africa could have been in big trouble, and us too.  Fortunately, the situation was diffused; possibly because of our UN status, or partly because the guard wanted an easy day, and we were under way again, but we had lost a further ten minutes.

Dashing back along the road

Dashing back along the road

 Africa really put his foot down and we actually arrived at the village at the top of the escarpment around 4.  The scene was much busier than in the morning, everyone rushing to get to the right side of the barrier on time, and a whole load of vendors trying to sell you any manner of stuff.  They forced their baskets up against the windows and screamed prices at us.  One of the specialities of the village is strawberry growing, and Kelly wanted to get some, but the crowds at the main junction were so vast, that we judged it unsafe to open the windows and Africa inched the vehicle towards the barrier.

 We were through soon after four and with much relief we dropped down the hill.  Every few hundred yards, we were met by taxis, lorries and motorbikes lurching as fast as possible up the hill in the other direction, and as we descended the increasing urgency of their lurching was plain to see.  We did pass some very close to Bujumbura, by which time it was twenty past.  There was no way to get to the top of the hill in time.

 “What happens to them?”

 “They just have to sleep in their vehicles on the roadside all night and pass through next morning”.

 It seemed that there was potential for a flare up at the barrier if people could not make it through, but the system seemed to work.  We dropped our people around town and headed home; Kelly contacted the UN office to tell them we were all back and accounted for.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – In Gitega

In amongst this wonderful natural world though, were the painful reminders of what the friction between Hutu and Tutsi had done to the country.  Everywhere were people with limbs missing, eyes out, huge scars across their faces, torsos, arms and legs.  The ages of the scarred ranged from very young to very old.  But what was most amazing was how young the population was.  Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and

Tea Plantations

Tea Plantations

fortunately it has enough natural resources to support most of them decently, if given the chance.  The birth rate is phenomenal, so that over half the country are under twenty years of age.  Added to this that many young men died during the conflicts, means that a large proportion of a generation, particularly on the male side is missing.  It is up to the younger brothers, the sons and daughters to try and pick up the life and livelihood of the household.  Rather than schooling, many were bringing income into the house through trades, retail and odd jobs, or by allowing the family to subsist from its farm.  Many was a time on that journey where we passed by a young boy, no more than eight or nine and only four feet high, with a massive machete.  The tool of the farmer, essential in this fast growing climate, was also the major tool for the atrocities here.  So easy to find, so easy to use; it slices through human flesh and bone as easily as a maize stalk.

 And then there were the rifles.  They were everywhere.  All along the road, we saw soldiers hanging around waiting for lifts, walking in and out of the roadside bush, sitting in bars drinking, gambling.  So many were just teenagers, they were hardly in control of their hormones let alone their weapons.  Kelly told us that there were huge numbers of soldiers in the country, not the crack troops I had seen in Bujumbura, but general farmers boys who wanted to kill whatever amounted to the other side, have the glamour and get better pay.  The problem was that although the wage levels existed, few wages were paid, and soldiers regularly deserted, taking their rifles and whatever ammunition they had with them.  Having lost out on any apprenticeship they could not learn a trade, the glamour of soldiering still outranked farming 10-1.  They drifted around, still in uniform, many of them getting drunk.  So you had thousands of young testosterone filled men, drunk up to the eyeballs with no money and no prospects, hanging around society instead of being in barracks.  It was a recipe for disaster, and highlighted why the security situation was so volatile here.

 We stopped at one road block and had to show our passports.  Africa did not have one, but showed his ID card.  We passed through without incident, but even so, our already edgy nerves were sorely tested in the few moments at that point.

 More evidence, as if we needed it, of the past troubles were up ahead.  A memorial cross stood on the side of the road, and behind a burnt out shell of a convent school.  The massacre of pupils and their teachers at this point, where they were barricaded in the school and burnt alive, still goes deep into the national psyche here.  In so many places Hutu worshippers might have been killed , or schoolchildren shot dead by their own colleagues.  We only saws a small amount of the residue from years of painful conflict that touched the whole country and everyone within it.

 We dropped down a little into a wide fertile valley, still thousands of feet in the air, where Gitega sat.  Not a particularly substantial looking town, but it did have a proper market and centre.  Instead of resting here though, we turned to a hillside to the north, where IGEBU and INECN were located.  We spent the remainder of the morning in meetings.  The offices were typical of many government institutions in Africa, in amongst long corridors with few people in then, were large rooms with a couple of filing cabinets at one end, a few dusty papers or maps hanging around, some maps on the wall, a poster dating from the 1970’s telling us to conserve oil stocks.  And perhaps a couple of pieces of automated equipment; a counting machine, a disused phone and even, perhaps, a very old 286 computer.