I’d put earplugs in during the night, figuring that getting to sleep was hard enough with all the adrenaline coursing through my body from the previous day, but even with them in I was woken up at 420am by the sound of grenades and gunfire. After yesterday’s events, and the uncertainty with which the evening ended, it was bound to be another memorable day. And so it has proved to be.
My office is only 300 yards away, but it was a long enough journey to catch the mood of the population. Whereas yesterday afternoon thousands of people were dancing in the street, whistling, singing etc, now the few who ventured out looked despondent and mournful, and their faces couldn’t disguise the sense of deep trepidation of what might lie ahead. News outlets showed that there was a stand-off between army troops loyal to the President (whose whereabouts have remained a mystery up until now) and those seeking his overthrow. A divided army for any length of time would be truly catastrophic for Burundi, so we’re all feeling desperately on edge.
Radios, as I’ve already blogged about, play a huge role in Africa, and nowhere greater than in Rwanda and Burundi – in the past to devastating effect. So it was natural that most of the day’s key action took place in and around the RTNB (Radio-Télévision Nationale du Burundi). During the night, supporters of the coup had destroyed Rema FM whilst loyalists had trashed Radio Public Africaine and Radio Bonesha, so whoever had control of RTNB controlled the broad information flow to the whole nation. The last opposition radio of significance, Isanganiro, was put out of action later in the day. Facebook and WhatsApp had been cut off for the last few weeks but were now functioning again. So much of the battle is taking place in cyberspace in terms of information flow, much of it completely false, and breeding further fear. I must admit, some of the tweets I’ve read today – if they were true in terms of what plans are in the pipeline – are too horrific to contemplate. Hopefully they aren’t true, but time will tell.
Rema FM, pro-government, is torched by supporters of the coup last night
RPA, the most popular private station in Burundi, is now out of action
Bonesha FM, also private, wrecked by loyalists
One didn’t need to be anywhere near it to know a huge assault was taking place at the RTNB. Massive thuds and booms reverberated across the city as well as the constant rattle of gunfire. Everyone was glued to the radio tensely. Each side relentlessly claimed the upper hand and eventually the victory. Who had won? The BBC said one thing and other sources said the complete opposite (the BBC were right in the end!). By mid afternoon, it became clear that troops loyal to the President had triumphed at the RTNB. Those people I spoke to looked absolutely devastated. Their balloon had burst, and now their deep fear and uncertainty had been accentuated.
Soldiers outside RTNB during a lull in the battle
Meantime the water company REGIDESO’s reservoir was hit, so word was quickly spread to fill whatever containers were available as water would run out shortly. I saw that the Foreign Office had posted how ‘British nationals should leave if they don’t have an essential reason to remain’. Well, the borders are shut, as is the airport (hence the President turning back mid-flight late last night), so nobody’s going anywhere in a hurry, although latest statistics on Burundian refugees is now over 70,000. I can’t find out if Privat is OK after his scared phone call yesterday morning. Please God! Another friend, Jean, wrote to say he’s as home with his family and they have so little food left that he and his wife are holding back so the kids can eat. That scenario will be multiplied throughout the city and beyond with a population living hand to mouth and not having worked now for over two weeks.
I Skyped with Lizzie and the kids, back after their second day of new school, and they are loving it. Lizzie took Jos to the doctor regarding his breathing with the hope of not needing a bronchoscopy anymore. The Doc’s conclusion to Lizzie’s recounting of events was: “What a remarkable story!” Thousands of people have been praying, so I thank God for orchestrating this ‘remarkable story’, such that Josiah is healed and the family is now out of the country at this desperate time. I wouldn’t have liked the kids to have heard today’s noises, that’s for sure.
I went home for a snatched supper. Sure enough, there is no water. That could last a day, or a week, or a month – nobody knows. I have two big vats of water, and I think with all the uncertainty I’ll have to plan on only using what we have for drinking, which means no washing up (or minimal) or toilet-flusing (it honks already) or showers (but I always smell of roses!). We’ve complained throughout the year of only 3-4 days of electricity per week, but that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the prospect of no water potentially for weeks. Please no! We’ll see.
I’d already done several interviews during the day*, but Al Jazeera had asked to do a live televised one sometime after 8pm, so I had to get back to the office. There was a thunderstorm in the meantime so I hurried outside with ten pots and pans to collect as much rainwater as possible. I then walked back to the office – my rides on the motorbike are too ostentatious and nobody else in out on the road, so I don’t want to stick out more than necessary. As it happened, I slid along in the mud after the fresh rain in the dark, without a soul in sight except one guard hunched in the shadows. It felt eerie, and very tense, particularly with both thunder and gunshots as background noise.
*If you want to listen to any of the interviews, this one was on BBC World Service, this one on Premier Radio, this one on Radio 5 Live (16mins in, late last night) and this one on Al-Jazeera – all quickly out-of-date with new developments.
‘Charity Worker’ – slighty lame title, not the one I chose!
The cherry on the cake of surreal days was being interviewed on Al Jaz by the presenter Felicity Barr, married to one of my best university mates Paul, both of whom have visited us on holiday in France and at whose wedding I gave a speech! So I’ve done the interview and I’m about to run home. I feel frazzled and deeply anxious for the future of this beautiful nation. As guns are being fired nearby right now, Bujumbura’s population cowers in fear. Where on earth is the President? Who is in charge? What’s going to happen? Please God may peace be maintained!
What will these people do in the coming days as the balance of power has shifted back to the government…?