I cry, not for Nkurunziza, but for the lives he broke
I cry for the country we could have had these past five years, for the blood that could have been spared, for the memories families could have built.
On 25 April 2020, exactly five years after Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term, I attended the virtual screening of a new documentary. The Forgotten of the Great Lakes, directed and produced by Burundian filmmaker Joseph Bitamba, looks at the use of rape as a weapon of war, following survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and then Burundi.
The Burundian survivors interviewed share one thing in common: they all lived in neighborhoods that actively protested against Nkurunziza’s third term in 2015 and were raped by security forces in retaliation. One woman’s testimony will haunt me forever. She does not wipe away her tears and her voice breaks as she describes how policemen and members of ruling party’s youth militia – the notorious Imbonerakure – burst into her home. They gangraped her, in front of her children, before trying to force her teenage son to rape her too. When he resisted, he was shot on the spot. He was left for dead, lying on top of his mother’s body, but survived his wounds. From that moment on, however, he was unable to look his mother in the eye. Having witnessed her violation and been forced to participate in it, something deeper than his physical wounds had been broken in him. He left home without saying a word a few days later, never to be seen again.
When the news broke on 9 June that Nkurunziza had died, aged 55, my initial reaction was shock. It felt unreal, almost staged, a plot twist that befits literature, not real life. But slowly the shock began to fade as notifications exploded on my phone. Numbness cooled my veins and left me frozen, in a state I still can’t quite describe. I imagine what I am feeling is only a fraction of what these rape survivors felt upon hearing of his passing.
Tradition in Burundi is deeply respectful of the dead. One does not speak ill of the deceased, certainly not in the early days. A seven-day national mourning period has begun across the country. My family and I prayed for the wife and children Nkurunziza leaves behind tonight. But I shed no tears over his untimely death.
My tears, instead, are for the lives forever bruised and haunted by the pain his regime caused. I cry for the country we could have had these past five years; for the blood that could have been spared; for the memories families could have built together; for the amputated limbs of our young protestors; for the elderly who walked kilometres to end their lives in refugee camps; for the million little broken pieces so many of us have become.
When Nkurunziza came to power in 2005, the air was full of possibility. A newly-elected president from the long oppressed Hutu majority was democratically acceding power, ending a decade of war. He promised change and social justice measures such as free primary education and maternity care. As a journalist at the time, pregnant with my first child, I covered the elections with enthusiasm at a new pan-African radio station. Independent media was flourishing, civic space was guaranteed, and there was an exceptionally open environment for political debate. Despite decades of politically induced ethnic tensions, Tutsis and Hutus alike seemed to believe in a new beginning for the nation.
Things deteriorated slowly over Nkurunziza’s first term. Corruption and extrajudicial killings accelerated in his second. Then, in 2015, he announced he would run for a third, despite the constitution’s two-term limit. This prompted days of widespread protests. On 13 May, some soldiers carried out a failed coup. Soon after, the regime cracked down heavily on protesters, journalists, government opponents and activists. Many were imprisoned. The rest, including my own family, went into exile. Renaissance FM, the radio station I had helped start, was burnt to the ground.
For many Burundians, waking up to photos of hand-tied, dead bodies stuffed in street gutters became the new norm. Human life lost value and family WhatsApp groups discussed murder and disappearances in the same breath as weddings and births.
For exiled families like my daughters and I, the past five years have meant being torn from our lives and the innocence of childhood being forever halted in its course. I dedicated all my energy to bringing the regime’s crimes to light. I hoped, above all, that African states would break ranks from one of the worst dictatorships today. To put things in perspective, the notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is estimated to have killed 3,200 people over 16 years. By 2018, it was estimated that Nkurunziza’s regime had killed 1,700 people in just 4 years.
State violence is not new to Burundi. Nkurunziza followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, including those who murdered his own father in 1972 and those he fought to overthrow with his rebellion. He was the product of a cycle of impunity, which is at the root of Burundi’s recurring crises. It pains me that his sudden death robs us of another chance to install a culture of justice and accountability so essential for lasting peace.
Perhaps the greatest irony in Nkurunziza’s death is his dismissal of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent rallies in support of his successor Evariste Ndayishimiye, who won presidential elections just three weeks ago, he claimed that God had purified Burundi’s air and that no masks were necessary in his blessed land. One of the last acts of his government was to expel World Health Organisation representatives and dismiss the need for preventative measures. Although the official cause of Nkurunziza’s death is a heart attack, rumours abound that he had contracted the virus. His wife, Denise Bucumi, was airlifted to Kenya for treatment days earlier, a luxury most Burundians cannot afford to dream of. He leaves his country at high risk, with some of the poorest health infrastructure on the continent.
Those who were close to Nkurunziza or directly benefited from his rule grieve him today. It is their right. But his death should not sanitise his life. I am holding space for a different loss, for the deaths which are not reported and for which flags will not fly at half mast. I mourn the tortured, the imprisoned, the impoverished. Nkurunziza may find peace in death, but his victims will live with the wounds of his rule for the rest of their lives. My heart goes out to them. May a new dawn rise for them and for the Burundian people as a whole. This is the hard work that awaits us all.
This is just so traumatic. That people can decide to be so inhuman as to lose a sense of humanity is something that still baffles me. Like what would one gain by such a senseless system of torture on the helpless citizens.
But I find a lot of similarities in Nkurunziza’s evil acts with those of Jean Francois Duvallier of Haiti. Both made themselves the supreme beings, used the militia groups to crudely silence voices of dissent. With the unfortunate effect that women lived to suffer the most, as men never remained alive at all.
This is an incredibly powerful and beautifully written piece.
From God we all come and to Him we shall return.
Ketty you represent many people all over the World.
For Burundi and Africa your story and view point is priceless.
Burundi has had its fair share of trauma coming from all sorts including bad politics.
We now know that Burundi is bigger than one man.
Let peace and development prevail in Burundi.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world “- I don’t see anywhere where white people constantly say “black people, black people, black people but we black people create these platforms where we think we can constantly condemn another race, call them racist and still don’t see that we are being racist ourselves! We all need to change attitudes!
Being Kenyan and having been of age during the Rwandan Genocide, I have always wondered where Burundi went. It is important to have a governmental system that holds people to accountability. Never tire of doing the right by your country men. Lord knows, we need people like you here in Kenya. God be with you.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, now departed, might as well be one of the most misunderstood figures of our time. The “misunderstanding” is a deliberate outcome of a deliberate effort to discredit him, as well as his inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the pervasive and highly oiled propaganda machine enabled by his fascist predecessors and neighboring Rwanda. Ms. Ketty’s passionate writing can be viewed in this context–that of denying the “silent majority” that forms this country’s voice. Such a predisposition and determination to bend progress (for Hutu and Batwa) is undoubtedly empowered by historical privilege. For a comparison, think of white South Africans who cry that the ANC is pursuing a policy of genocide against them. That anti-Nkurunziza propagandists gain widespread audience and credence without placing their complaints into a historical context is the tragedy of our time.
Mistakes were made during Mr. Nkurunzia’s rule, but no government can completely avoid missteps. Most observers, including Mr. Nkurunzia’s strongest critics, agree that his first two terms were quite successful and monumental. Senator Krueger, a former US ambassador to Burundi, has described him as a “Nelson Mandela of our time.” Such a description is not just lazy pontification. Mr. Nkurunziza inherited a state that was widely dilapidated and destroyed by years of Tutsi-led apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Even the strongest critics agree that he was largely able to unite Hutu and Tutsi people, which would have been previously unthinkable. His efforts towards educational equality are almost unparalleled in recent times. Consider this: when Mr. Nkurunziza left to join the rebellion in the 1990s, a majority of his Hutu classmates were exterminated at the National University of Burundi. In fact, the Tutsi government of Micombero killed Nkurunziza’s Hutu father.
How does one address deep-seated historical injustices when a group that was previously no more than vassals find themselves in charge of the state? Most examples we have in history are hardly neat. Burundi’s neighboring Rwanda at one point had close to one million people in jail. Mr. Nkurunziza insisted Burundi couldn’t look back. He was acutely aware that pursuing historical injustices would jeopardize his power balance. This might perhaps be his greatest mistake. How else would one explain that Mr. Pierre Buyoya, the Tutsi butcher of tens of thousands of Burundians, is now an African Union envoy in Mali, and lecturing present-day Burundi on democracy? Of course, Mr. Buyoya and his accomplices, who never faced any scrutiny for their past crimes against humanity, were always going to undermine Mr. Nkurunziza’s rule.
Lastly, some specific reference to Ketty’s allegations. I imagine that most of them, if not all, are actually accurate. But there goes the dangers of a single story. In 2015, over 200 Burundian policemen were killed. I tried to imagine what would happen if a handful of police officers are murdered by “protestors” in the US during the ongoing strife. Very few can disagree that the response would likely be very heavy handed. States have a hard time responding to peaceful protestors. When provoked by violent uprisings, states respond in heavy-handed ways. 2015 undoubtedly changed Mr. Nkurunziza, it also changed Burundi. Now that Mr. Nkurunziza has exited the stage, newer possibilities are on the horizon.
Ketty thanks for audest of writing such a wonderful piece am sure may people have and will read about it and maybe get a lesson from it..there are so many people out there who are victims of such ruthless leaders I pray that this comfarts and gives them psychological peace of mind.
All leader should learns that’s karma is abitch people may not get to u directly but some how u will pay for you’re deeds dying at 55 is punishing enough what is not worse like you’re children reading such a piece of work when you’re Dead
This article is deliberately historically myopic and a bitter self-centered tantrum by a privileged ar-chair activist. Actions have reasons and causes. And they all lie in Burundi’s painful history 1962-2004 when a million bodies littered this country before Nkurunziza became president. Through his goodwill a peace deal was signed in 2003 and the country began to recover from its nightmare. 2015’s mini crisis with 400 victims on both sides had its reasons and Nkurunziza was not the cause, just the scapegoat. 400 dead is just one day of massacres that Nkurunziza and his people were victims of in 1972 and 1993-2003. Nkurunziza, national hero and architect of Burundi’s peace who unlike the regions’ other leaders sacrificed himself and his reputation for his country and was leaving office willingly despite having the right to continue.
The “guys” who caused the 2015 insurrectional movement are the ones to be accountable not the President. We all know political reasons behind that violent movement supported and funded by “western powers” who didn’t want him and his regime to continue. He barred their corridor to “Katanga” in DRC for their minerals robbery from DRC. He also established strong relationships with China and Russia. He supported different emancipation movements around Africa continent. He was acclaimed as an examplary panafricanist by many Africans. All of these elements didn’t please the West.
Of course they are people who died when he was in power, but he shouldn’t be held accountable for every single death, including ones caused by outside factors.
The passing President had done a lot on reconciliation side and education. We all know long uncertain periods Burundi was rising from. If you doubt, go to countryside and ask how many didn’t finish their high school studies, didn’t attend universities, or didn’t pursue fields they wanted because they feared of being executed simply because of they were created. Ask how many people didn’t know if they ever succeeded or not the national exam done at the end of primary school (Concours National).
Burundians needed to heal first their long wounds. Development is not an overnight even, and we couldn’t just jump into an economic boom.
May the late President, the Unifier, the freedom fighter and brave Rest In Peace. Indeed, “The tomb of a hero reposes in the hearts of alive ones.” My prayers go to the immediate family of H.E. Nkurunziza, the government of Burundi, his origin political party and all Burundians.
Hello Horja,Ofcourse charity begins at home and that is a fact.
Interesting that I do not see where in Ketty’s article she referred to any race, black or white.
Ketty appeared to be reflcting on her own suffering and fellow Burundian’s trauma perpetrated by Nkurunziza whilst he was in power.That wasn’t hard was it?
Who killed Ndadaye and were they ever convicted or handed to the ICC? As a southern African and student of recent African History I know the injustices that have befallen the Burundians and completely ignored by the world. Unfortunately most people are ignorant of the real butchers in Burundi.
Jacob Ndashimiye,You have written a novel!!Not sure if it it was all worth the space.You seem to be condoning evil acts and Nkurunziza sympathizer.Very absurd.
Eliseus,You sound terrible!I would not mistake you for an imbonerakure.The reason being given your view point.What would stop you murdering your own people or joining in on a ganga rape of the defenseless.
The evil that men do follows them. It is a global culture not to celebrate death and our sympathy to the family of the deceased President. What happened should serve as a cautionary measure that God lives and that there is an indirect price for evil doers. Governance is not about heaping mayhem on the people but about leaving a land mark in the hearts of the people that you meant to serve. A public servant should be humane and demonic.
It seems the late Nkurunziza’s propaganda machine is bent on misleading the opinion. 15 years of misrule left the country in economic and social shambles. He died while he was under investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Sadly his victims will never have justice unless the ICC can impound the immense wealth stashed in tax Havens to pay reparations to Nkurunziza’s victims. As the Panama Papers disclosed, Nkurunziza had amassed a fortune amounting to US$ 160 Million. At the demise of Nkurunziza, Burundi is left the poorest and the unhappiest country in the world. The cost in terms of youth lives needlessly destroyed is staggering. Contrary to the propaganda smoke screen we are reading here, he was opposed mainly by his own party leadership including the Vice-President IGervais Rufyikiri and Speaker of Parliament Pie Ntavyohanyuma and countless government officials. His own intelligence CEO, General Godefroid Niyombare, wrote to him a searing letter imploring him not to stand for an illegal third term. It’s only after loosing the support of his own rank and file that he started fanning ethnic hatred. Yet during his term he had ruthless killed his fellow tribesmen who adhered to opposition leader Agathon Rwasa. He resumed killing them in the run-up to the May 2020 elections that Rwasa is believed to have won. Burundi masses were yearning for change under the leadership of another Hutu president, Agathon Rwasa, to take them out the untold misery they live in. Their dreams were dashed by a stolen election from them. They are in for another 15 years of economic collapse since the same system remains in power.
For those who don’t know the author Ketty Nivyabandi, let me enlighten them.
Ms. Ketty Nivyabandi is a poet, top-notch intellectual (she amazingly masters English and French in equal measures), community leader cum revolutionary. On 13 May 2015, she managed to galvanise Burundi women from all walks of life: professionals, traders, employees, students, slum dwellers, millennials, who took entire control of Bujumbura city centre where men had failed at a great human cost. The courage of women rallied men from all of Bujumbura districts and the butcher of Bujumbura (as Kenyan cartoonist, Gado, eloquently summed it up) Nkurunziza was non-violently toppled only to be saved by a last-minute and unfortunate military coup attempt in the afternoon of that fateful day. Women, and African women for that matter, are a special breed. I had tears in my eyes when Rev. Alan Sharpton, at the Minneapolis Memorial for martyred George Floyd, paid tribute to the exceptional African-American mamas who single-handedly raise black families and build the nation just like in Africa. Ruthless Dictator Sekou Toure said when women took to the street against him: “If women are against us, we are finished.” Thanks to the tremendous courage of Burundi women, the Butcher of Bujumbura was finished only to be saved by an unfortunate military coup attempt. From there, Nkurunziza went on to kill the youth leaders one by one, dumping their bodies in the street, and when he finished them off, he moved on to civil society and human rights activists, one by one. When he missed by a whisker the famed Human Rights Leader Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa who miraculously survived a bullet in the neck, he killed his son-in-law and next Pierre Mbonimpa’s teenager son in retaliation for his survival and evacuation to Europe. Cruelty at diabolical level. Yet, during the civil war, nobody touched Nkurunziza’s family though he was commander of a guerrilla army that targeted mainly innocent Tutsi villagers without sparing even schools. His wife and children lived peacefully in Bujumbura. He didn’t have the moral high ground to spare the lives of family folks of non-violent opponents who opposed him peacefully.
Nkurunziza lived a life of lies to his very end. He lied he was a born-again christian yet he killed, maimed, tortured, raped, jailed and exiled thousands of innocent youths for the only crime of expressing peacefully their constitutional opinion. He lied that he was chosen by God while he was a monster from hell. He lied that God had spared and shielded Burundi from Covid-19 while he died of coronavirus. In all this tragedy, the EAC failed Burundi. The EAC was the guarantor of the Arusha Accords for Peace and Reconciliation, yet it indifferently let Nkurunziza butcher his own people. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. “
Prince, What do you mean by a public servant should be himane and demonic?
IDI, I am a Burundian, not imbonerakure! I am a Burundian who understands the history, where we came from and where we want to reach. There is no paradisiac State on Earth, let’s be realistic. Burundi is peaceful, know people who live in it. I am fed up with this propagandistic media that keeps insulting the image of Burundi and Africa in general.
[…] on 18 June 2020, the newly-elected Evariste Ndayishimiye vowed to follow in the footsteps of his late predecessor and “preserve and promote the independence, love of the fatherland and equitable development […]
[…] the newly-elected Evariste Ndayishimiye vowed to follow in the footsteps of his late predecessor and “preserve and promote the independence, love of the fatherland and equitable development […]
Just terrible all of these happenings.