Burundi, June 4 1997

I can not believe how we could have been so stupid. With all our years of experience, we broke one of the basic security rules: “Don’t go out at night”. Not only are we out at night. Worse, we are in the middle of the bush at night. In a part of the country held by rebels. Have we become too complacent with the constant security threat? Have we become too accustomed to danger?

This morning Mats and I left together with Toure, the WFP security officer, for a mission to one of the remote radio sites up country. The radio booster we installed there a couple of months ago, did not work anymore. It was a nice trip, over remote roads, twisting and turning in between the dense forest. We drove through villages and small stretches of farmed land, dotted over the hills like a quilt made of squares with different colours and textures. Several times we stopped to take pictures, forgetting all about time. The work at the mountain top was done in just a few minutes. The guards we paid to keep an eye on our equipment, had simply switched off the power as the cooling fans of the radio booster made too much noise at night. It disturbed their sleep. We stayed up on the mountain for a good hour. The view was just too beautiful. Simply breathtaking. The lush green hillsides below us, with plumes of smoke from the different villages. Birds of prey floated on the breeze high above it all.

On the way back, we gradually started to realize how late we were. The people in the second car had radio-d us that they would stay the night in one of the villages we passed as it was getting too late. We decided to still take the chance, and try to reach Bujumbura, the capital, before nightfall. Toure drove fast. The pickup slid left and right over the rough dirt road, jumping over the potholes. He took the sharp bends as if he was a professional rally driver. All in vain. The sun went down too fast. We did not want to put on our headlights as it would attract too much attention. We knew in this part of the country the rebels came down from their hiding places in the mountains, at night, to attack villages or military posts, or to ambush cars. Cars traveling late like ours.

At one point, though the open windows, we could hear the sound of machine guns and small artillery fire on the road in front of us. We did not see anything, but all of a sudden, a soldier had appeared out of the ditch besides the road and stopped us. He had an AK47 in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. We heard nervous shouting on his radio. He said a military lorry was ambushed a few hundred meters down the road and urged us to turn around. We had passed a village half an hour ago, and decided to drive back. Toure knew the doctors at the hospital there, so probably they would give us a bed for the night. We drove back, frustrated we would not make it to Bujumbura before the night.
A couple of minutes later, we saw short light flashes on the hill in front of us. Gunfire! Toure puts on the floodlights and in a distance we saw tens of people running over the road and in between the trees. Another ambush. We turned around again and stopped for a moment. There we were, stuck between two ambushes. Twice now, we had passed a small military post beside the road. We decided the best we could do was to stay the night there… It was not the best place. Small military outposts like these often get targeted by the rebels at night. But it was the least of two evils. Certainly staying alone in the car, by ourselves, in the middle of the bush was a worse option.
And now, we are sitting on the porch of a shack, in between tens of villagers and a dozen military. The villagers had done the same as we did: taken refuge with the military. All is pitch dark. There is no moon. We hear the remote cracking of machine guns in a distance, but the military are relaxed. They urge us not to make any light, though. No torches, no lights in the car, and when lighting cigarettes, cover it with your hands. Lights not only attract mosquitoes, but also the attention of the rebels. Mats and I are nervous. And angry in a way. Angry at our own stupidity. Our own complacency with security rules. We, of all people, should have known.
In the dark, the soldiers get us some beers and we drink in silence. From time to time, out of the dark, a patrol of two or three armed men appears and a new group leaves. They are guarding the small compound. They seem relaxed about the whole situation, as if they lived with this danger all their lives. It is part of their lives. Not so for us and partially not for the villagers, who are all around us. Mostly women, small children and babies. Even the babies seem to sense the danger and don’t make a sound. No crying, no talking, nothing..
In the dark, careful not to stumble over rocks, we make our way back to the pickup parked in front of the military shack. There is only one thought on our minds: ‘We hope this military post is not attacked during the night.’ If it was, we stood no chance.

I am mad. The adrenaline pumps through my veins. Mostly because of the anger. I guess I don’t panic easily. I just get frustrated and mad. Mostly at myself.

The sound of remote gunfire subsides. All of a sudden there is only the sound of darkness, of a night in Africa, with all its wonders. The crickets begin their play and the sounds of wild animals in the bush pops up now and then out of the pitch black world all around us. I hope the silence does not mean the rebels are regrouping around this military compound.

A feeling of fatalism comes over me. ‘There is nothing I can do about it. If it has to happen, it has to happen.’ I curl up in the back seat of our pickup truck, and try to sleep. Mats and Toure do the same in the front seats. I cannot sleep. Am bored. Cannot read, cannot smoke, cannot do anything but look into the absolute darkness. It’s probably best there is no moon tonight. It would make us an easier target. It also shows the stars more clearly. I can see the Big Dipper.

I wake up at first light. The villagers have disappeared already, back to their homes on the hills. Most of the military are up and about, lighting a fire to cook water, washing, or preparing for their day patrols. Their officer comes over to our car, and tells Toure the road is clear. We can travel to Bujumbura. ‘But please be more careful next time! Don’t travel anymore in this part of the country so late in the evening’, he urges us. Like we have not told ourselves that a thousand times over already…
We drive slowly towards Bujumbura. The border of town is only thirty minutes away. We were that close. That close to safety. I walk past the reception of the hotel, and go to my room. Don’t need breakfast, just want a shower and some sleep. I am thinking how lucky we were. It was a warning sign. To be more careful next time. Even more careful. Life is precious. Life is a string of random chances of luck and misfortune. Our time had not come. But how long will it take before there is a moment where our luck, our fortune will run out?

From the WFP emergency report the same week:
a) Three International Red Cross (ICRC) delegates killed in ambush north of Cibitoke on 4 June. ICRC suspends all humanitarian operations in Burundi. IFRC also stops distribution activities in northern Burundi due to insecurity.
b) A group of 85 French nationals evacuate from Burundi.
c) Massacre in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp in Butezi, Ruyigi province, leaves 50 dead, mainly women and children.
d) Further displacement of population takes place due to confrontations between military and rebels in Kayanza.
e) Refugees from Rwanda arrive in northern Burundi following reported death of 40 persons in an attack in Cyangugu Prefecture, Rwanda

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Anonymous,  01 February, 2007 14:00  

:-) still remember the night as if it was yesterday. We had already checked in an paid for the cosy room at the Novotel in Bujumburra. For sure the bed hmmm... seat, in the Nissan pickup left a lot to desire:-)


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