13 May 2015

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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2 reader comments

  1. anon says:

    Full of admiration for people like yourself Ms Hilsum and forgive the clumsy use of words but your back story stands out more so than many of those your report on, hope ok to say all this. Justice [will] come about in this World through people like yourself and your other outstanding colleagues at Channel 4 News and in other parts of society

    maybe it is the back story and the way it can mould a person that marks out those who [will] change the world for the better, Those making the difference may never have the easiest journey in life, but without it would they be the people we need to make the world better?

  2. anon says:

    sorry to post here, tried to post on Jonathan Rugman’s blog but had some difficulties

    looking the other way as the Middle East bleeds to death is totally unacceptable. Please could you ask a military expert if it is true that nothing could be done to stop the IS armoured weapons? They could have easily being stopped from the air long before all this. Just replay previous footage from other wars to show how airpower can decimate armoured vehicles.

    the dreadful reality is that decisions have clearly being made to allow these countries to tear themselves to pieces,

    this has to stop, we can stop it..

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