Thirty minutes west of downtown Bujumbura, past the flat, empty swamp lands of Gatumba, along a little two-lane road, is the border between Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
When I asked the taxi driver to take me there, he asked why I wanted to go.
—I just want to see it, I said.
He faked a smile and shrugged.
Truth was I wanted to see something other than the Bujumbura the New York Times’ travel section describes as “a freewheeling city of palm trees and colonial-era Art Deco buildings,” an unexpected oasis for expats—great restaurants and nightclubs, charming hotels—smack in the middle of war-torn central Africa.
Burundi is at peace now, but flash back to 1996: for the third time in a decade the government is turned upside down: the president has been overthrown in a military-led coup, even as it is still reeling from the murder of its two previous presidents—one in 1993 and another in 1994. The coup prompts the international community to impose economic sanctions. GDP falls by about 8 percent. The Burundian franc plummets. The government institutes fuel rationing, and all over the countryside, civilians are caught up in a brutal and bloody battle.
Since independence in 1962, ethnic and political conflicts have resulted in five wars in Burundi, left tens of thousands massacred and close to two million displaced or fleeing to neighboring countries.
Burundi has enjoyed several years of relative calm since holding its first successful post-war democratic election in 2005, but at the time of my visit, the international press was describing the country as dangerously close to the brink.
The International Crisis Group, for example, warned that tensions could escalate in the run-up to communal, presidential, then legislative elections, which began in May and continue through September. Opposition parties face harassment and intimidation from police and the ruling party’s youth wing is dangerously volatile, the report said.
Looking out the window of the taxi, I wondered: Where is this Burundi? And if I get away from my hotel, away from the familiar restaurants, offices, and cafes, and just drive, what will I see?
There were—technically—two lanes on the road to the border, but my taxi driver drove straight down the middle. There are always streams of bikes and people, loaded down with mattresses, grass, charcoal, but it was more crowded than usual. The further we went, the thicker traffic became.
Then we saw it from the road: what looked like thousands of people were gathered around a huge stage on a grassy field next to Lake Tanganyika, many wearing tee-shirts and baseball caps with the acronym CNDD emblazoned on them in red. (The CNDD—National Council for the Defense of Democracy—is the political party of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza.)
We parked and got out. It felt like the fourth of July. There were flags everywhere (not the Burundian national flag, but the CNDD flag)—fluttering outside shops, draped across the hoods of pickup trucks, strung down peoples' backs like capes, on tree branches and the sides of buses. Young men were talking into loudspeakers, cars were decorated with balloons, groups of men and women were running in step together singing. The rhythmic stomp of their feet against the dirt was like a drum beat. It was buoyant, electric.
I took off my sunglasses and tried to look inconspicuous, which was ridiculous and impossible, especially with a band of barefoot kids following me, giggling. People gave me sideways glances and whispered as I edged my way toward the stage and watched as a man in a black cowboy hat talked forcefully into a microphone, his voice rising and falling like waves in a storm. He began to chant, his fist in the air—Shirira! Shirira!— and the crowd started chanting too. Their voices carried like a shockwave through the open air, reverberated like an insistent, pulsating eruption.
I looked at my driver. His face was grave and strained.
We turned to leave, and in the car, I asked him about the slogan they were chanting. What does it mean?
—It’s to make people afraid, he said.
I shook my head: I don’t understand.
He scratched his chin, and looked out the window. “Comme allumer,” he said. “It means to light up. To set on fire.”
I called a Burundian friend back in town and told her breathlessly: We must meet! You won’t believe what I saw!
She was unmoved: Don’t be fooled by all those people, she said. They are poor, they are given tee-shirts and food. Just because they are there does not mean they support the CNDD.
She told me that “meetings” like the one I’d seen were a dime a dozen in Bujumbura—there was nothing special about the rally I’d happened upon. And this specter of violence I'd read so much about? Unlikely, she told me.
"This is the problem: foreigners come here, and they see things and are told things, but they don't know how to interpret it. Most of what you read in the newspapers is wrong."
The art of reporting is more difficult than is generally assumed.
It's twilight and I'm sitting outside my hotel room at Ubuntu, watching a pair of cranes prance across the lawn. The air is filled with the rustle of palm trees, the quiet murmur of conversation and clink of china from nearby tables. Lake Tanganyika is just across the street. Its cool, silvery vastness conveys a tranquility that belies Burundi’s troubled past.
Then I hear it again—the pounding of feet and faint, distant chanting. I turn my head but I can’t quite make out where the sound is coming from.
Beyond the lake, the Congolese mountains, normally a tower of massive gray solidity, are obscured in the clouds, hidden.
(Nkurunziza was re-elected for another five year-term in June, with 91.62 percent of the vote. Observers praised the calm surrounding the election, but the government was heavily criticized for limiting freedom of expression. All six opposition candidates boycotted the vote following complaints of fraud in district elections in May.)