Time Magazine names Alexis Sinduhije as one among the top 100 most influential people in the world
I’ve just had a text message from a Burundian friend, telling me that Alexis Sinduhije has been named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Alexis is nominated among the list’s “Heroes and Pioneers” by Christiane Amanpower, CNN’s chief international correspondent, and is placed at number 36, just ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s great that such a major news outlet is giving this recognition. I know of no other journalist in the world with such a track record of fearlessness in the face of brutality. Whether by speaking out against the abuses of Palipehutu-FNL, highlighting the involvement of the elitist Tutsi government of Pierre Buyoya in the murder of the WHO official Kassi Manlan, or blowing the lid on CNDD-FDD’s attempt in 2006 to jail the entire political opposition on the basis of a bogus conspiracy theory, Alexis has been tireless in speaking up for the truth, and opposing injustice.
Equally, outside of the African media, and the reports produced by Amnesty, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres, his work – and the life-and-death issues involved, have been a fairly well kept secret.
Alexis Sinduhije’s account of the aftermath of the 1993 assassination of President Ndadaye is still one of the most moving that I’ve ever read. I quoted from it in the final chapter of Titanic Express, and I thought I might include an extract from it here. The full version can be read by following this link.
For me as a journalist, the cycle began all in one moment on the night of October 21, 1993 at two o’clock in the morning. The army, dominated by a Tutsi majority, attacked the palace of President Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye was Burundi’s first Hutu president and had been democratically elected, in sharp contrast with his Tutsi predecessors, who had seized power through military coups. At around two o’clock that morning, mortar shelling and automatic weapons fire woke the entire city of Bujumbura. I got out of bed and began making phone calls.
Nobody knew what was happening. I was working as a reporter for the state radio station, Radio Burundi, and had just begun to work as well as news editor for an independent weekly called La Semaine. I made a few more calls, but still got no reply.
I said to my wife, Diana, that I thought it was either a military coup or an attack by members of Palipehutu, the radical Hutu party that had been banned from the recent elections. When I turned on the radio, there was no sound. I knew then that it was a military coup. With great difficulty, I convinced my wife that I had to go cover the story… As I left my house, I saw that our Hutu neighbors were also awake, and tense with anger. Many looked at me full of hate. I understood that the situation was going to degenerate into violence, but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be…
One of my childhood friends, a Hutu named Gashira, saw me and asked, “You Tutsis, why are you so arrogant? We elected our president and your soldiers killed him.” The question troubled me. It is true that I had brothers in the army, but I wasn’t responsible for their actions. I was surprised and afraid at how ready he was to include me among those who were responsible.
Over the next few days, everywhere emotion took hold of reason. In the eyes of the Hutus, the Tutsis were guilty. I hadn’t really answered Gashira’s question. Although we were of different ethnicity, we both lived in the same neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital, so I couldn’t see why he spoke of arrogance… I headed toward the palace. It wasn’t easy because the army had blocked all traffic and the Presidential Palace was more than 6 kilometers from Kamenge. I decided to walk.
After more than an hour, I reached a hotel called the Source of the Nile where foreigners stayed and which was adjacent to the Presidential Palace. Troops were everywhere. Thanks to a soldier I knew, I got access into the palace courtyard, where I found a group of soldiers pillaging the house. They had already emptied the presidential refrigerator, and were drinking and celebrating. They asked me if I wanted some champagne. I replied that I never drank before sundown and it wasn’t yet midday. One of them told me that I was missing a unique opportunity to taste champagne. We all burst into laughter. Champagne is the drink of the rich in Burundi, and then only the extremely rich… They had raided the president’s residence to drink it.
The palace roof was riddled with holes, windows were shattered, and the southern walls surrounding the palace were destroyed. “That was from a shell fired from a tank,” the soldiers explained to me, laughing. I asked if there were any dead among the president’s bodyguards, and they burst out laughing again. They replied that the bodyguard was comprised of soldiers, and that they wouldn’t fire upon their colleagues… They confirmed that… the president had died at 10 A.M. in a military camp in Musaga, 6 kilometers south of Bujumbura.
I knew that the president’s death would have grave consequences. I remembered what Gashira had said to me, but now I pretended to support the soldiers’ act. In reality, deep down inside, I hated them because I thought of the thousands of Tutsis who would end up paying for it. I was convinced that the Hutu officials in the countryside would pit the Hutu peasants against the Tutsis. Then soon after, I learned from military sources that the situation was, in fact, turning catastrophic.