Margaret O'Donnell 2011©
The Hutu and Tutsi people live side by side in Burundi, Africa’s smallest nation. They intermarried for generations. Outsiders could not tell them apart, although some Burundians said they could be distinguished – something about the shape of the head, the length of the legs. But living together in peace was not an option for Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi in 1993, even though their customs, food, language, culture, and appearance were identical . Many thousands were murdered for their ethnicity, and many others fled in 1993 as refugees to Congo and Tanzania and beyond.
Pierre was a university graduate who worked in a car dealership in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, as an accountant in the head office. His father was Hutu and his mother Tutsi; both of them had been educated in France, and had returned to Burundi in the 1960s as part of the new urban middle class. In the 1993 presidential election, Pierre campaigned for the Hutu candidate, who would be the country’s first Hutu president. He gave campaign speeches from the back of a truck in neighborhoods throughout the city; after the speech, campaigners handed out bags of sugar and flour to the audience. It was the only way to attract and keep listeners. Pierre’s candidate won the election; many of the losing candidate’s supporters believed that his opponent won only through fraud. One of the prominent campaigners for the winning president was assassinated, then a few more, and then the new president was assassinated. Murderous mayhem took over the capital.
Pierre’s mother and sister were murdered in their house, and Pierre believed it was because of his campaigning. He went into hiding in a friend’s storeroom with his wife and young sons, and stayed there for weeks while battle raged in the streets. Was it Tutsis against Hutus, or vice versa? It was unclear, once the killing became indiscriminate. After weeks of hiding, Pierre and his wife decided to flee the capital in the night. They strapped food in blankets to their backs, stuffed cash in their clothes, and took their sons, ages 3 and 4, by the hands. They fled, street by street, hiding at every sound of gunfire or a truck, and made it to Lake Tanganyika before daybreak. Their plan was to walk at night north around the lake to Congo, where Marie, Pierre’s wife, had family. It was only about 50 kilometers, but controlled by Tutsi extremists, who were on the watch for escaping Hutus.
They kept to the side of the road that bordered the lake as the sun rose so they could hide in the thick bush if needed; Pierre went first around bends in the road so he could signal his wife when to hide. He heard a truck coming and turned to motion to her; he saw her and the boys disappear into the bush, and then hid himself. The truck stopped a few feet from him, and the soldiers crammed into the open truck bed got out to relieve themselves, resting their automatic rifles against the side of the truck. Pierre waited until they drove off, and when he couldn’t hear them anymore, he began to look for his wife and children.
To be continued next week…