Archive for April 2008
I first met Alexis Sinduhije in Oxford in the summer of 2002. He was visiting the UK to meet with international donors who’d been supporting his groundbreaking radio project in Burundi, Radio Publique Africaine. RPA distinguished itself by taking on ex-combatants both from the Tutsi-dominated national army and from the Hutu-led rebel militias, and training them to work together as journalists. Not only was this useful as an exercise in “peacebuilding”, it had also given the radio station excellent contacts with all the major parties to the conflict. With a growing reputation for exposing abuses and corruption on both sides of the conflict, RPA quickly became one of the most listened to radio stations in the country.
Over the years, RPA has repeatedly covered the “Titanic Express” case, but the most memorable occasion in my mind was the live interview that Alexis did with my mother towards the end of 2002, where she called for justice over the massacre in which Charlotte died. It was after this broadcast that we first heard about the leak of the FNL’s detailed report of the Titanic Express attack, signed by the commander of the battalion responsible, which is still one of the most important pieces of evidence we have of the group’s involvement.
During his career as a journalist, Alexis has been arrested and beaten up, had shots fired at his house, and been threatened on numerous occasions. Things became particularly heated in August 2006, when the ruling CNDD-FDD government falsely claimed to have uncovered a coup plot, and arrested senior politicians from every major opposition party. Alexis was openly incredulous, challenging the government to produce the evidence. In response, the authorities stepped up their harrassment of RPA and other independent media who echoed Alexis’s comments. But Burundi’s journalists had done enough to focus the international spotlight on what was going on, and within months the government had been forced to back down.
Alexis announced his candidature in December last year, but this is the first in-depth interview I’ve seen where he talks in English about what he’s trying to achieve. He has always taken a very strong line on the need end the culture of impunity in Burundi, by bringing to justice those on all sides who have committed abuses. In the interview above, he talks candidly about the need to bring to account the hitherto “untouchable” Tutsi politicians and army officers who orchestrated the 1972 genocide of educated Hutu, alongside those implicated in more recent crimes – and the dangers inherent in taking such a position. Alexis Sinduhije’s work has been admired by many people around the world and while it seems impossible to know what the outcome will be, I know that he will have plenty of well-wishers, both internationally and in Burundi.
Here is an odd story. Back in 2006, when I wrote this article for Comment is Free, Burundi seemed to be sliding towards dictatorship, and the prevailing view was that Hussein Radjabu, then Secretary General of Burundi's ruling party CNDD-FDD, was at least partly to blame.
Radjabu had made a number of open threats against the independent media – describing journalists who criticised the government as “talking skulls” on one occasion – and was widely believed to have been behind the arrest and torture of several prominent opposition leaders on the bogus pretext (no evidence was ever produced – the giveaway sign of a conspiracy theory) that they were jointly plotting a coup. He was also suspected of orchestrating a number of unexplained killings, together with a botched attempt on the life of the award-winning journalist Alexis Sinduhije, and of using kickbacks from a number of corrupt business deals to fund his own private militia.
But in early 2007, ruling party members voted to oust Radjabu from his position, and he was then arrested. The instability continued, however, and when I met some CNDD-FDD members who visited London last summer, it was clear that Radjabu's influence was still casting a long shadow. One of those I spoke to, Senator Mohammed Rukara, told me that unknown assailants had fired shots at him earlier in the year, and many believed that Radjabu's associates were behind the attack.
The BBC's latest report suggests that Radjabu's fall may alienate Burundi's Muslims. As ever, it's very hard to know how you could evaluate such a claim or find evidence for it. I'm generally sceptical of the presumption that a community as a whole will inevitably feel victimised simply because someone who happens to belong to that community has been found guilty of a crime and prosecuted. While Radjabu and his allies may try to paint this case as an attack on the entire Muslim community, this doesn’t automatically mean that every Burundian Muslim will share this view.
What the reports on this case don’t seem to mention, regrettably, is that some of the fiercest and most high-profile opponents of Radjabu have also been Muslim – not least Senator Rukara, who is a leading member of Burundi's Islamic community.
But the story does seem to highlight the irony of Burundi's topsy-turvy judicial system. The charge for which Radjabu was jailed was "plotting an armed rebellion", and - most heinously of all – calling the President an "empty bottle". The fact that he is also suspected of orchestrating torture, assassination, and mass-killings seems to have played no part in his prosecution and conviction. And there is no sign yet of any justice for the victims of Buta, Teza, Muyinga, Gatumba, Itaba or the Titanic Express.
“Don’t Get Fooled Again” is a very different kind of book from “Titanic Express”, but there are some common elements. Both, in their own ways, centre around a search for the truth, personally and politically. Both also look at how we can distinguish what’s true from what isn’t – or at least how we can tell a reasonable assumption from a completely nonsensical one – and why it is that these things matter. And both look in some detail at the issue of conspiracy theories, and the damage they can do.
In “Titanic Express”, the conspiracy theories I came across were often all-encompassing – so much so that at one point I was told that my sisters’ killers suspected me of being part of some devilish global plot to discredit them. And in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, many of the most disturbing delusions I looked at – such as the belief that HIV doesn’t exist or is harmless, seemed ultimately, again, to rest on the belief in some conspiracy or another. What I wasn’t able to do in “Titanic Express” was to look in detail at the features that define a conspiracy theory, what it is, psychologically, that attracts us to such ideas, and the tools that we can use to unravel them – so it was great to have a chance to go into these questions a bit more in DGFA.
My first book, Titanic Express, was published by Continuum in 2006. It takes its title from the bizarre name of the bus that was ambushed by Burundian rebels in December 2000, close to the capital Bujumbura. One of the 21 victims of the attack was my elder sister Charlotte, who had been working as a teacher in neighbouring Rwanda. Her Burundian fiancé – another Richard – who was travelling with her, was also killed.
It took over a day for the news of Charlotte’s death to reach us. More or less from the moment I heard it, I was consumed by an overwhelming desire to know what had happened to my sister in the last moments of her life. But as time went on, this developed into a much wider interest in the chaotic chain of political events that had led to her death. The Titanic Express massacre was just one among hundreds – if not thousands – carried out by ethnic extremists, both Hutu and Tutsi, in Burundi since the current conflict began in 1993. Yet I’d known almost nothing about it until it had a personal effect on me. One of my reasons for writing the book was to try to make some record of the lives that had been lived – and lost – in a largely forgotten part of Africa.
Although this was always going to be a niche book, the response was immensely heartening. Titanic Express was covered sympathetically in several mainstream newspapers, including the Times, Sunday Times, and Independent, among others. Equally gratifying was the reception it got from many of my Burundian contacts. While not everyone agreed with my recounting of Burundian history – some deny, for example, that a genocide was committed against the Hutu population in 1972, and there was some disquiet over my criticism of the involvement of the current Rwandan government in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the disagreements were much milder than I had expected!
Since Titanic Express was published, I’ve continued to campaign on the issues raised in it, and later this year I hope to be involved in an event in London marking the fourth anniversary of the August 2004 Gatumba refugee camp massacre, which was another of the cases I highlighted in the book.
One of the most moving independent reports about the Titanic Express case was written in French by a Burundian journalist, writing under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals against his family, who interviewed the mother of Charlotte’s fiancé back in 2005. I made a rough translation into English and, not knowing what else to do with it at the time, published it on Indymedia here.
Operating clandestinely from a base in the West Country, my cousin, Tom Wilson (aka “Freeze Puppy”), has been doing some intriguing musical things for a couple of years now. Grainy footage occasionally shows up on Youtube, and further evidence of the man’s activities can be found at this Myspace page.