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.