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.