Correction to This Article
In a previous version of this story, the incorrect French definite article was used for "la crise," and the cities of Bururi and Bujumbura were misspelled in photo captions. Both have been corrected. And the details box with the story included two incomplete phone numbers. Saga Residence hotel is at 011-257-22-242-225, and Le Kasuku restaurant is at 011-257-22-223-731.

After 15 years of civil war, Burundi's capital begins to bustle once again

By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Coming down the hill, we make like a runaway train. Perilous, it seems, is the only speed in Burundi. The bus is crowded, luggage and bodies toppling as we hug each turn in the road. Outside, the hills are like waves; the sky is tumbling with clouds; the brave boys on their wobbly bikes, steering sacks of potatoes and charcoal toward distant villages, veer out of our path. In a small hilltop town, we stop at a checkpoint; a rumpled policeman sitting on a folding chair tugs a rope across the road. Circling the bus are boys selling peanuts and hard-boiled eggs. They also sell rabbits, small skittish creatures with twitching noses that they hold aloft by the ears.

It is my third trip of the year to Burundi, a tiny, picturesque, often war-torn country in central Africa's troubled heart. A decade ago, when rebel groups preyed upon the roads, this same trip might have lured only the brave or the foolhardy. Now, instead, it's the bus driver I'm worried about. Boarding the bus in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, I thought he looked competent enough: a short, stout man in blue jeans and work boots, a father, perhaps, who valued his life (and mine). But for the next six hours I watched wide-eyed and white-knuckled as he laid his foot on the pedal and blasted the horn, schoolchildren scattering before us like marbles.

When Bujumbura, the capital, finally comes into view, I breathe a sigh of relief. (A pastor onboard, going me one better, takes out a leather-bound Bible and leads the passengers in prayer.) The descent from the upcountry highlands to the flood plain around Bujumbura is like falling into a frying pan. A blanket of haze covers the city. Sunlight flashes silver on tin roofs. From a distance, the city is gray; only when you get closer do the colors erupt: women like tropical birds, storefronts the color of blueberries, lemons, persimmons. The city is hot, chaotic -- a whirling crush of motorbikes and minibuses, the energetic hustle of traders doing brisk business on the side of the road.

Guarded optimism

Bujumbura is at peace but never at rest. Before "la crise" -- "the crisis," as locals euphemistically refer to Burundi's disastrous 15-year civil war -- this freewheeling, free-spirited city on the shores of Lake Tanganyika was known for its joie de vivre. Far from the isolated, impoverished life of the collines, Burundi's small hilltop communities, Bujumbura was a cosmopolitan city of colorful art deco buildings, palm-shaded avenues and magnificent cuisine inspired by the Belgian colonists. Despite its small size -- the population was just 200,000 before the war -- the city was brimming with confidence and sophistication. "In Buja," a Rwandan friend told me, "you would see people in restaurants doing this." He held an imaginary glass of wine to the light, sniffed it with a discerning nose and brought it to his lips.

But the city also revealed this country's deeper divides. Most of Bujumbura's neighborhoods were carved along ethnic lines, a divide that became entrenched during the crisis, when battles between majority Hutu militias and the Tutsi-dominated army razed whole suburbs. The elites sipping Veuve Clicquot at Chez André or dining at the stiff-linened Restaurant Le Tanganyika were invariably drawn from the educated class of Tutsis. The Hutus were excluded from the universities and the civil service. Even when peace reigned, it was tempered by resentment and suspicion.

Burundi's ethnic division, in which Hutus outnumbered Tutsis by roughly 6 to 1, mirrored the divide in neighboring Rwanda, and events in the two countries have long been intertwined. But since the region's poisonous ethnic politics reached a grim apotheosis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the fates of these twin countries have diverged. While the bloodletting in Rwanda passed in 100 brutal days, and the country then began on the road to a remarkable recovery, Burundi's violence waxed and waned for nearly a decade and a half.

Now, finally, after a long and winding road, international observers are guardedly optimistic about Burundi's future. The United Nations has praised the peace process ahead of this year's presidential election, confidently declaring that it has "entered a new phase," while South African peacekeepers have wrapped up their work, patted themselves on the back and retreated to the vineyards of Stellenbosch. Former rebel fighters are being reintegrated into civil society, while the most recalcitrant of the rebel groups has finally laid down arms and gone the very Burundian route of joining the government. (The current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is a former rebel.)

The optimism around Bujumbura is cautious but tangible. "The Burundian people are not ready for more war," a pastor tells me. Everywhere you see signs of a new normalcy creeping in: the cellphone shops stocked with the latest imports from Dubai; the arrivistes lingering over cappuccinos at a sidewalk cafe. At the posh Havana Club, a woman describes the modest hopes her countrymen share for the future as she sinks into a plush leather sofa.

"What people want is peace," she says. "To be able to walk in the city, to go to the hospital, to have their children in school." After the many long years of war, the allure of a more normal life glistens like a polished gemstone.

Even peace, though, has its limits. Burundi remains one of the world's poorest countries, largely buoyed by foreign aid. Outside the walled compounds of Bujumbura's ritzy suburbs, joblessness is rampant. What little prosperity has come with the postwar stability has rarely trickled down to the masses. Plum jobs and political appointments are reserved for the president's cadre. Even the lowest civil servant, or the headmaster of a village school, must prove his allegiance to the ruling CNDD-FDD party.

"Justice does not know about Burundi," a jobless man named Felicien tells me. "When I ask my uncle for the job, he says, 'What about your party? What about CNDD?' I say my party is freedom."

Unfortunately, freedom doesn't pay the bills. One afternoon, meeting me on the street, Felicien cautiously gauges my interest in gold and diamonds that a cousin has smuggled in from Congo.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company