Things are so uncertain here that this update may become outdated between the time I finish typing it and when I hit publish. Nonetheless, here’s the latest:
My son likes to tell people that when his mother tells a story, she likes to start with creation and move forward slowly. His hyperbole is impressive but here’s the point: I can weave a good yarn; I can make a short story long.
And this is probably the most difficult story I have ever told, for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s complicated and politics are not really my forte. Secondly, it’s personal. Each person experiences his or her own version of reality, right? That’s why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell different versions of the same story. In fact, you can read another version here that is quite different from my own. Same story, different perspective. Thirdly, it’s sensitive. It’s a government story and I am a government employee, so by that necessity, it’ll be the somewhat sanitized version. Honest, but sanitized. And lastly, I’m trying to make this a one-size-fits-all story: one in the same story for those of you who keep up with the news, those of you to whom I’ve spoken recently, and those of you who are coming in from the cold, so to speak.
Now I don’t plan to start exactly at creation for this one, but it does deserve a little backstory, a little place setting. In this recent blog post, I presented a simplistic explanation of recent Burundi history and the current political situation. If you don’t know much about current events here, you should pause now and read that post to get up to snuff on the political climate here and now. That post was written towards the end of March. I’ll pick up here on April 25th, interweaving the story with my own personal challenges, events, complications, and perspectives; otherwise you could just read the news on Twitter, and this would simply be redundant.
In the days leading up to April 25th, rumor had it (keep in mind that rumor is currency: it’s all we ever have to go by) that the ruling party’s congress would meet that day and announce it’s presidential candidate. This was the inevitable moment we had all been waiting for. It was also the day of the Around The World 5K, which thankfully went off without a hitch, just hours before the fateful congress.
As expected, the congress met late in the morning of April 25th, and also as expected, the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD announced that the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, would seek a third term. (If you don’t know why that’s a problem, google “Nkurunziza third term” and you’ll get a plethora of commentary explaining it.)
And also as expected, forecasted, predicted, and dreaded, on Sunday morning, April 26th, the protests started. Anti-third term protesters took to the streets in true African style–throwing rocks, burning tires, marching, and generally causing an unorganized, uncivilized ruckus. And the Burundian National Police responded with water cannons, tear gas, and firing shots, mostly in the air, at least on this first day. (Did you know that what goes up must come down and people have been killed from bullets fired into the air upon their return to earth? That hasn’t happened here, but it can happen, and a bullet landed on the bath mat of one of our co-workers. Thankfully, she wasn’t home.)
So what was that first Sunday like for me? I was sitting on my porch and I heard gunfire. It seemed close. Now maybe if you’ve lived in the inner city of one of our more dangerous US cities or worked in a war zone, that would’ve been a commonplace occurrence for you. But for me? Not so much. If I’ve ever heard that before in my everyday life, then I’ve blocked it out, because that’s the first time I ever remember experiencing the sound of live gunfire nearby.
And here’s the thing: it’s not like we have on the ground newscasters relating all the events in real time with camera footage and reliable information (think: Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore during a hurricane). So we have NO idea what is really happening. I’m not saying it was shakin’-in-your-boots-scary, but disconcerting nonetheless.
And to add to the disconcerting feel of it all, Randy was packing to head to Wyoming later this same day. In multiple telephone conversations with his mother, he had sensed that his father was going downhill rapidly, and I had encouraged him to go. In an unforeseen act of unfortunate timing, his plane was leaving in just a few hours. You can imagine the stress he felt leaving me (and Quandary) behind. (His famous quote was that he was more worried about Quandary than me. Fair enough, as you will see.)
Thankfully, Randy arrived safely in Denver and made it to Thermopolis near midnight on Monday, thanks to the help of Adam, Ian, and his brother. He was able to visit with his father for a few minutes that night and spend the next day with him before his dad drifted into a coma. He died in the early morning on Thursday, April 30. I am ever so thankful that Randy was able to be there, and to have spent those last few precious moments with his dad.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (well, Bujumbura, really), we are settling into our new lives: uncertainty and its friend and constant companion-fear, hungry for realtime news, knowing the protests are going on every day–riots, tires burning, streets blockaded, protesters pushing to get to downtown, police responding with gun shots, tear gas, water cannons–and yet our embassy-bubble life widely unaffected. The protests (or manifestations, as they are called in French) are concentrated in certain quartiers, which are easy enough for us to avoid when traveling between the embassy and home. It was surreal. For me it was like knowing something was going on in another country, another continent, far, far away, and having to remind myself it was actually right in my back yard. Life went on as usual, going to and from work everyday, but with a palpable tension in the air, and a real fear of how things would develop. Stores started closing early. Schools closed simply because no students showed up–parents were afraid to let their kids go. The university closed, and six hundred students sought asylum outside of the embassy gates. (That is an accurate statement, but it seems worse than it actually was. They were peaceful and quiet and stayed an appropriate distance from the walls, never threatening us.)
One day I was standing near the windows in my office and I did hear gunfire really close. Suddenly the “duck and cover” alarm, which we hear every Friday morning during our weekly drill, sounded, and I yelled to my staff: this isn’t a drill! The protesters had made it to the side entrance of the embassy and the police had fired rounds into the air. However, it was over as soon as it started, as the police pushed them along, and they were gone. (It’s important to note here that we at the embassy, or even as Americans, have never been the target. Unlike in other countries of unrest, this isn’t about us.)
As things continue to ramp up, it suddenly hits me that I have to mobilize for a memorial service across an ocean and a couple of continents during an unstable time when it is likely they will be reluctant to let me go. (Bujumbura has no medical services that meet Western standards, so I’m kinda it. Me and a plane to get you outa here, so you can imagine their reluctance to allow my departure.) To make things worse, the following Monday, when I am attempting to prepare to leave on Wednesday, many of our locals, including both of my health unit staff, were unable to make it in to work. Public transportation had stopped, and even for those with cars, certain neighborhoods were blocked. The front office (embassy-speak for the ambassador and the second-in-command–the deputy chief of mission, from whence all decisions flow) told me that if my staff couldn’t make it in, we’d have to re-think my presence at the funeral. We negotiated and scrambled and made some arrangements and at 10:20 on Wednesday morning, May 6th, I was cleared to get on a flight later that afternoon.
It was a grueling week. Five flights, 30 hours of flying, dinner, an hour drive to sleep at Ian’s, an hour and a half drive back to Adam’s in the morning to meet up for a six hour drive to Thermopolis, a burial service, a night without sleep (a full eight hours and I never fell asleep once), a memorial service, another night of fitful sleep, another six hour drive back to Denver, one day in town filled with a few more complications not fit for this blog post, and another long-haul flight back.
(Optimistic people like me always like to look at silver linings, right? As bad as all this was, and it was about to get way worse, there were silver linings. I met my future daughter-in-law and spent Mother’s Day with all my children. I’m beyond thankful for these surprise blessings.)
You can imagine the shape I was in when, about twenty minutes before we were due to begin our descent into Bujumbura, the pilot comes over the loudspeaker and announces that we will not be landing in Bujumbura. The airport was closed. We would be going on to Nairobi and all of us destined for Bujumbura were to stay on the plane. I honestly can’t remember if it was at this point, or after we landed that he told us there had been a coup d’état in Bujumbura, but I do remember quite well the sinking feeling of oh crap! that settled down around my exhausted body and mind. Now what. Exactly why the front office did not want to let me leave: I was now officially “caught out”. There was a closed airport between me and my job.
The next ninety-six hours were not fun. And this story now diverges into two lanes: what was happening to me and what was happening in Bujumbura.
Without going into too much gory detail, while my husband was in Denver mourning the loss of his father, and my dog was in Bujumbura in the care of friends, I spent two days at the US Embassy Nairobi suffering through a roller-coaster ride of no information, conflicting information, and misinformation, then two days in Kigali, Rwanda, trying to figure out if and how I was going to get back to Bujumbura.
(More silver linings? In Nairobi, I had lunch with a colleague from Abuja who was also in town, and in Kigali, I spent the entire day with my precious Brooke, and ate Mexican food.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Bujumbura again), things were happening, the details of which I’ve only pieced together in the weeks following my return. Here’s what I’ve been told:
Wednesday, May 13th, the day I was to land, while Nkurunziza was attending a summit in Tanzania, there was an attempted coup d’état, followed by massive celebrations. Then starting at 4:30 the next morning, there was unprecedented violence. Some friends describe huddling in their inner hallways while gunfire, grenades, and explosions literally rocked their walls. The coup attempt had officially failed.
Following this ordeal, my co-workers also suffered poor communication while the embassy made decisions on their (our) future. Eventually it was decided that all family members, non-emergency personnel, and people who needed to leave for family or personal reasons would be evacuated to our official safe-haven, Kigali, Rwanda, on a charter flight scheduled for Sunday morning. No pets allowed. Somehow a couple of determined folks worked very hard to arrange for the embassy’s six dogs (including Quandary) and three cats to be brought overland to Kigali. I still don’t know how they made that happen, but thankful they did.
As for me stuck in Kigali, it was determined that I was to head to the airport, along with 11 marines and two other people who were caught out, and return to Bujumbura on the charter flight that was evacuating everyone else. (OK, not everyone, but almost everyone. Talk about feeling like I was crossing the picket line. Or going the wrong way on a one-way street.) I was able to say a quick good-bye to the second group of evacuees in the airport who were boarding the plane we had just arrived in, but the first group included people who have since moved on and I will likely never see again, some of whom were good friends.
Today marks four weeks since my return on that charter flight. We who remain at the embassy have settled into that horrible phase: the new normal. My husband is in Denver, unable to return even if he wanted to, as the embassy remains on “Ordered Departure” status per the US government for the foreseeable future. My dog is in Kigali, being cared for by strangers, to whom I am very grateful. There are about 16 of us, considered emergency personnel, continuing to work at the embassy, all without family, pets, and many of our friends and previous co-workers. This results in an increased workload and a decreased workforce that lacks the usual support systems. We have no sense of the future–not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, nor when the “Ordered Departure” status might be lifted and our families return. Since part of my responsibility within the embassy is mental as well as physical health, I question the sustainability of this current new normal.
As for our city and country, we teeter along in a steady state of stressful uncertainty. The airport re-opened a few days after the embassy’s frantic evacuation as well as the land borders. Life resumed some sense of normalcy, although many, both locals and expats, have fled. (Silver lining? The internet is better.) Today, the last of my non-embassy friends left town. I still drive to work every day, and have now started to venture out to stores and restaurants in certain parts of town, after two weeks of traveling only between work and home. The economy has tanked, and this in the third poorest country in the world. The protests continue in fits and starts. Many protesters have lost their lives in the melée. An opposition party leader was gunned down in the night near his home last weekend. There is no independent media. No one knows what will happen, and the prospects for peace are slim. The electoral calendar has been re-scheduled, but there is slim hope that elections can be free, fair, transparent, and credible. And then what?
While I admit that my main concern (and the subject of this blog) is for myself, the reuniting of my family, and the mental health of my charges at the embassy, my heart breaks for this country and its people. They have come so far in the decade since the end of their horrific and prolonged civil war. They are beautiful, hardworking, honest people in a breathtakingly beautiful country. They are on the road to democracy, freedom, progress. But the seemingly inevitable future is bleak. Please pray for Burundi.
In sum, I want you all to know that I have always, and continue to feel safe and unthreatened, albeit lonely and isolated at the moment. My heart breaks for Burundi, and yearns to be reunited with Randy and Quandary. I long for peace for this country, and for our lives to return to the routine we had come to love here.
In three short weeks, I journey to Denver and then on to Telluride to celebrate Adam and Val’s wedding, and to enjoy precious time with extended family and close friends, for which I am over the moon thankful and excited. In the meantime, I hold on to these words that Jesus spoke to comfort his disciples:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
I’m thankful that Jesus has overcome the world, and I take heart that I know my final destination is heaven, but I could sure use some overcoming right here right now in Burundi.