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.