In Burundi’s countdown to 2016, holiday cheer laced with apprehension

Burundi's government and opposition are meeting in Uganda this week, following a bleak Christmas -- the first since President Nkurunziza won a controversial third term. But with mediation stalling, many wonder what to expect in the new year.

Stephen Wandera/AP
Former Burundi presidents Pierre Buyoya left, Sylvester Ntibatunganya, second left, interact with US Special Envoy Thomas Perriello, right, with his Chief of Staff Berennan M. Gilmore, second right, during Burundi peace talks, at Entebbe State House about 42 kilometers east of Uganda capital Kampala, Monday , Dec. 28, 2015. Representatives of Burundi's government and the opposition are in Uganda for negotiations aimed at ending political violence. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision to run for election to a third term triggered the bloodshed, wasn't present at the opening ceremony Monday.

As international mediators gathered in Uganda this week to address the ongoing crisis in Burundi between government and opposition leaders, Catherine Boss watched closely from the capital Bujumbura, wondering if enough will be done for her husband to return from exile.

His work as a journalist forced him to flee several months ago after President Pierre Nkurunziza secured a controversial third term in office in July which inaugurated a deadly campaign against so-called enemies of the state. 

As her husband moves between the capitals of neighboring countries, Ms. Boss, whose name has been changed for security reasons, is left to answer her three children’s constant questions about their father’s whereabouts.

“All day, it’s ‘when will daddy come home?’” says Boss from a discreet location in Bujumbura’s Kinanira quarter. “If Nkurunziza leaves office, my husband will come back. But that won’t be tomorrow.”

Bujumbura is quiet this holiday season. The city is still reeling from “Black Friday” on Dec. 11, when a joint police and military operation killed nearly 90 people in retaliation for attacks by anti-government forces on military bases. Bodies lined the streets for days and eyewitnesses reported victims being bound and shot execution-style.

Thousands have fled Burundi since April when the crisis erupted as Nkurunziza bid for a third term. Opposition groups protested that he was violating constitutional term limits. But a court order allowed his campaign and he was re-elected in a disputed July vote.

Since then, tit-for-tat killings have been on the rise, worrying many Western powers, along with the United Nations and the African Union, that the violence could escalate into genocide and destabilize a region with strong memories of neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide. 

Earlier this month, the AU announced plans to send a peacekeeping force to the central African nation to protect civilians. That is likely to take place without Burundi's consent. Last week a former army general announced the formation of an opposition force with the stated goal of removing Mr. Nkurunziza by force.

On Wednesday Nkurunziza countered by threatening to fight AU peacekeepers if they are deployed to the country in his first public response to the AU's plans.

His comments, coupled with stalled negotiations, has left Bujumbura suspended in uncertainty as the Uganda-led mediation works to lay the foundation for ongoing peace talks in Tanzania in January. Instead, this year's holiday cheer has been replaced with fear and suspicion as many wonder what good tidings a new year will bring for the country.

Right now there's not much that looks immediately promising: local commerce remains at a near-standstill, and police and military continue to dot street corners and checkpoints along the main roads.

“People in town are afraid,” says Tony Miburu, a men’s store manager in the central business district, whose last name like many in this story has been changed for security reasons. He has seen a significant decline in Christmas sales compared to last year. “ Even if they have money, they won’t really come in and shop around and the money doesn’t circulate.”

'There was just no Christmas this year'

The tension has seeped into everyday life, including schools.

High schools students at a Bujumbura private school say they have been asked to refrain from talking politics on grounds. In the safety of their homes, they gossip about classmates who boldly write ethnically-charged posts on Facebook and Twitter.

They agree that it is better to be in school because, according to one 16-year-old, “things seems more normal that way. You just get used to it all.”

Boss is constantly on-edge at work, where she says ethnically-tinged discussions have increased. No colleagues in her government-run office know that her husband has fled, nor that he was a journalist covering the protests.

“Around the office, you can hear them say, ‘Tutsis are enemies,” she says. (A majority of her workmates are Hutu members of the government’s CNDD-FDD party). "And they’re always asking me, ‘Why do you live in Tutsi quarters?’ I just tell them I couldn’t find a house in another [neighborhood].”

Those who are still working are among the lucky ones. Bars and shops in the areas that saw heavy clashes in recent months remain shut. And local vendors have seen prices of their goods tick up as customers decline.

“There was just no Christmas in town this year,” says Gorethe Ntahombaye, who sells vegetables in the central produce market.  “The situation here is not normal. Many people fled. Others don’t come to buy. So this year I didn’t have the means for Christmas for my four children.”

Eric Ntezahorigwa, a taxi driver, says his client base has also dwindled because people are afraid to come out in the evenings to confront police checkpoints. “There is no work. At 6, the policemen close the main roads.” 

“They set up checkpoints stopping drivers, demanding documents and bribes. I was stopped by the chief of police and he did not even pretend to ask for documents. He just asked what I had in terms of money and phones.”

As residents adjusted to this new situation, members of Burundi’s opposition coalition, CNARED, insisted Monday that the AU make good on its pledge to send peacekeeping troops to Burundi.

The Burundian government continues to unequivocally reject the deployment of AU troops, maintaining it can keep the peace with its own armed forces. They reiterated their opposing stance on Monday by rejecting the January date for the resumption of talks.

In Bujumbura, “we don’t know what will happen next week even,” Boss says, wiping away tears. “I have no idea how old my kids will be when their dad will be able to come back.”

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