Monday, June 29, 2015

Seen in Buj #1 - Terrifying Dinosaur Bird

These guys hang out at Ubuntu Residence, a tasty restaurant/bar/hotel (aren't they all?) in Buj. They are giant and terrifying, especially for me, a member of a generation that came of age as Jurassic Park was coming out. It is a grey crowned crane, which just happens to be the national bird of Uganda.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Day the Students Came Over the Wall

In the aftermath of President Nkurunziza's announcement that he plans to run for a third term, the University of Burundi was closed due to political turmoil. The day after the closing, hundreds of students turned up in front of the U.S. Embassy, saying they feared for their safety and had no place to stay.

The Embassy told the students it would attempt to bring up their plight with the Burundian government and the students set up camp in a construction site adjacent to the embassy, seemingly satisfied that the embassy's security cameras would keep them safe from hassling by government security forces.

By the time I arrived in Burundi in late May, the students had become a fixture on the road to the Embassy, sitting on rocks and chatting, listening to the radio, browsing their smartphones. Their numbers had dwindled to 150 or so, and some were even setting up tents and tarps to shield themselves from the mosquitoes and the elements. Because they predated me, their presence seemed normal to me, and we'd often wave to each other as I drove past into the Embassy.

However, their presence was not normal and it wasn't to last. On June 25, the police showed up to clear the students out. The confrontation had the potential to turn into a human tragedy right outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy. However, the students evidently had other plans. I say evidently because once events got in motion, those of us working in the Embassy were told to stay away from the windows. The rest of the drama unfolded for me as it did for the rest of the world - through accounts and photos posted on Twitter.

According to Twitter, the students climbed over and under the Embassy's gates to enter into the outer parking lot, and approached our guards peacefully with arms raised. This wasn't Benghazi in 2012 or Tehran in 1979. This was more similar to the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960: seemingly well-planned and certainly peaceful.

The Embassy was able to help find a more permanent safe situation for the students and they left peacefully at nightfall. I lived through the first newsworthy event of my career the way I've lived through most newsworthy events - in front of my computer screen.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Hippo Hole

Friday is a fun day in Buj.

Many people only work half days, President Nkurunziza plays soccer with his buddies, and right next door, some of the muzungus from the embassy gather at the old cercle nautique, which we've dubbed the Hippo Hole.

The Hippo Hole used to be the main marina of Bujumbura, where colonial Belgians docked their yachts and sailboats for weekend excursions on Lake Tangyanika. Now, it hosts two or three old speedboats and a restaurant/bar that has reliably been empty since I've starting coming. Granted, since the crisis started, many establishments in Bujumbura are pretty empty, as many expats were evacuated after the coup and a lot of Bujumbura's middle class left for Kigali until things blow over.

We always sit on a rickety platform that I'm sure was built in the 1950s or 1960s. One can order a cold (or warm) beer, enjoy the breeze off the lake, squint at the setting sun, and watch for hippos.

Because the marina is shallow and hippos apparently don't swim as much as they seem to bounce along the muddy lake bottom, the Hippo Hole is a great place for hippo watching. They usually come out in the afternoon to bask, dine, yawn and burp. The slightly smaller mammals on the rickety platform above do the same.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Coup d'Etat

On May 13, I woke up in the beautiful L'Auberge Del Mar after a wonderful date night with Hannah in the beach side town where I would go surfing in high school. I had turned off my phone for the night, and when I turned it back on the next morning I had a message waiting for me from my boss:

"Hi Bryan, you are no doubt aware of what happened today in Buj..."

What? I blindly groped around for my glasses, hopped out of bed and pulled up the news. While on a trip out of the country, the president of Burundi had been overthrown in an apparent coup d'etat. Rumors abounded. The president's plane had been turned back trying to get back into the country, people were dancing in the streets, the police had all deserted their posts.

And for maybe the first time, the events of some place very far away impacted my life in a very significant way. A flurry of emails followed my boss' as I tried to figure out what this would mean for my arrival in Burundi, which was only seven days away. I quickly realized that plans can never firmly be drawn in this business. The day following the coup saw gun battles in the streets of Bujumbura and all commercial airlines diverted their flights to Burundi. This was enough to trigger a partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy, sending family members, non-essential staff and private American citizens out of the country by charter flight on Sunday.

I ended up arriving in Burundi on one of the first flights back into the country the following Friday. The coup had failed, the president was the same, but my life sure wasn't.