Burundi: memories of a coup as a young journalist
The news of today’s coup in Burundi brought back memories of a similar coup in 1987. It was long before social media and mobile phones, so I only realised something was awry when, driving back into the capital Bujumubra, I found a log across the road.
Not much traffic today, I thought, as I drove round the obstacle. As I reached the centre of town I saw groups of soldiers outside the post office and radio station and suddenly realised what must have happened.
It was a largely bloodless coup that brought to power Major Pierre Buyoya (pictured above), who later governed as a civilian. I was one of three foreign journalists who happened to be there – the others were a Dutch reporter for a farming magazine and a Russian who was covering a chess championship. We were the International Press Corps and we had no way of getting our story out because all the telephone lines had been cut.
Eventually I managed to get to a telex machine in the post office but after I had tapped out a few lines a soldier cut the connection. I was having trouble at my hotel too as a young man who introduced himself as Hyacinth began to call up to my room and follow me around, saying I should be careful who I spoke to as people might do me harm. I was quite young and foolish in those days and it took me some time to understand that he wasn’t warning but threatening me. I moved hotel.
Luckily I had a Burundian friend who whisked me around on the back of his motorbike to interview civil society activists and underground opponents of the coup. After 10 days – an age in today’s time frame – the airport reopened and I rushed to get on the first plane with a dozen cassette tapes carefully hidden under a false bottom in my bag.
As I walked across the tarmac, relieved to be leaving at last, a gendarme stopped me and forced me into an airless office. Slowly, oh so slowly, he started going through my belongings. The plane was preparing to take off and I invented a husband and baby in Nairobi, where I lived.
I had to get back to them, I said, it was urgent. He slowed down his search even more. After what felt like hours he gradually put my clothes and books back and I breathed again – he hadn’t found my tapes and I wouldn’t be dragged off to a Burundian gaol.
As the steps were about to be wheeled away, I ran across the tarmac and just made the plane. I might be 10 days late but I would get my story out after all.
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