Ruairi Nolan, Peace Direct’s Head of Research and Engagement, recently visited our local Burundian partner, Action for Peace and Development (APD). With this small African country in crisis, APD are continuing their efforts to campaign for peace even in the most challenging of circumstances.
The cobbled streets of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura are quick to clog with traffic during rush hour. But as our car turned from a small side street onto one of the main boulevards that criss-cross the city, we were met with an incredible sight: hundreds of cyclists hurtling down the hill, completely taking over the road.
They looked joyously happy – mostly young, many letting go of the handlebars, laughing at their own daring. With the sun shining and the green hills of the highlands as backdrop, it seemed a glorious vision of freedom in the midst of a troubled time for young Burundians.
Later, I told a Burundian friend about the incident. He laughed and said they were probably hired by the government to bolster attendance at a rally going on elsewhere in town. This is a common tactic, he assured me. The week marked a year since a failed coup attempt against the government, whose supporters were organising celebrations across the country. Many of those attending were part of the youth militia known as the Imbonerakure.
It was later reported that ethnic slogans were chanted at one of the rallies. In a country where more than 300,000 died in ethnic violence in the last civil war (1993-2005), any calls to divide people based on ethnicity are treated very seriously indeed. That evening, another Burundian told me of his fears for his safety as he travelled across the country, with human rights abuses taking places in some areas.
I’ll never find out what these cyclists were doing on that morning. Perhaps they were on the way to a political rally, or perhaps they were just celebrating the freedom of being on a bicycle with an open road ahead. But the incident seemed to me to illustrate the difficulties we outsiders have when trying to understand Burundi. It is a striking, beautiful country, filled with wonderful landscapes and people. And yet the current situation is so precarious and full of risks that even a scene so apparently full of joy carries with it fears that there may be something menacing lurking beneath.
Burundi is in the midst of a political crisis that has caused the deaths of over 1000 people since the first anti-government protests in April 2015, precipitated by the decision of Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for a controversial third term as president.
His decision was opposed by much of domestic civil society, including the influential Catholic Church, as well as many in the international community. They viewed it as a violation of the Arusha Accords that restored peace and stability in Burundi after the civil war, and included presidential term limits. Over 250,000 have fled the country (from a population of ten million) and the economy is suffering. Beyond the damage already done lies the fear that much worse could yet come: Burundi has a tragic history of interethnic violence, and both local and international observers have said that the warning signs for genocide or mass atrocities are in place.
Until recently, Burundi was considered a success story for peace agreements because of the way that the opposing sides in the civil war of 1993-2005 came together to agree a peace settlement. This ensured a division of power between political parties and the two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi.
The current political crisis has shattered hopes that the peace agreement signed in Arusha, in Tanzania, could provide a permanent solution to Burundi’s conflicts.
However, if we can draw any hope from the current situation, it is that the population of Burundi has largely rejected attempts to divide the country once more on ethnic lines. The killings that have occurred so far have mostly been the responsibility of the security forces, rebel groups, or unknown assassins.
Over the past couple of decades, countless Burundians have dedicated themselves to working for reconciliation and to bring together communities. The evidence so far is the success of such efforts has endured. There is still hope that Burundi can draw back from the brink of a much larger conflict.
My visit was to meet with Burundian peacebuilding activists. Over the past year, many in civil society have been targeted for attack and have been forced to flee the country. However, some brave groups remain and continue their work.
I met with Action for Peace and Development (APD), a youth-led peacebuilding group that Peace Direct has partnered with since 2010. The crisis has badly affected their ability to operate, making it difficult even for their team to meet.
As a volunteer organisation, they usually meet after they finish work in the evenings. Yet for the past year, a self-imposed curfew means few dare to stay out past seven in the evening.
Despite these challenges, APD have still been able to formulate a new peace campaign, working together with other youth groups and universities. The campaign includes media messages, meetings and rallies to push for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Their dedication, despite the challenges and dangers they face, is truly inspiring.
I had the opportunity to meet with other civil society activists as well, including a national network that reports on the crisis across the country. Their activists are able not only to report on incidents but also to respond to them: the network provides them with training in peacebuilding and mediation skills, so they can help defuse tensions or intervene on behalf of individuals.
One thing I was struck by was the determination of the network to work with all groups and sectors of society in Burundi. A crisis such as that in Burundi has a tendency to polarise, creating a “with us or against us” mentality that has made political dialogue so difficult to achieve. Yet the groups I met with are determined to work with all groups, bringing them together to find common ground.
There is often more space for dialogue at the community level than many might expect from looking only at the national level, where international efforts to push for political dialogue have foundered.
Bujumbura is a strange city to visit at present. During the day, it would be quite possible to miss any signs of crisis. The sun glistens on Lake Tanganyika, street hawkers sell everything from a bewildering range of fruits to the latest electronics, and boys in English soccer shirts kick footballs on any free scrap of grass. But dusk is brief this near to the equator, and the atmosphere changes just as fast. The streets empty as police checkpoints spring up. Once-busy bars and restaurants are trying to survive with just a few customers.
I am told that people are slowly adjusting to the crisis. Whereas late last year, the streets would be empty at 7pm, some people now stay out to 8pm or even 9pm. This isn’t so much a sign that the crisis has eased, more that people can only live under curfew for so long. They have to adjust, find space to meet and socialise.
As Burundians make adjustments to life in a protracted crisis, acts of brutal violence continue across the country. Over the past week alone, the network of activists have reported on incidents including the assassination of a former soldier, the murder of a suspected informer, the discovery of a stash of grenades, and a clash between a local politician and some soldiers.
One day in the future, Burundi will be at peace again, and a group of cyclists in the sun will be no more – and no less – than people enjoying their freedom. Burundi’s people have shown before their resilience and ability to recover after the most tragic periods of violence, and the country can still pull back from the current crisis. If it does, it will be down to the work of brave Burundians who find ways to continue to work for peace in the most difficult of circumstances.