Richard Wilson's blog

richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot UK

Archive for the ‘Titanic Express’ Category

LRA rebels demand $600,000 from international donors in exchange for ‘peace’

leave a comment »

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has been running an excellent series of articles on Uganda’s notorious “Lord’s Resistance Army”, and the various political manoevres being made by the group, and its supporters, to enable it to evade arrest by the International Criminal Court.

Media coverage of this issue tends to focus on claims made by the LRA, and some religous groups, that peace could have been achieved long ago if the group had been granted a blanket amnesty for their crimes. Less well publicised has been the fact that, in addition to demanding, as the price for any peace agreement, impunity for their various acts of mass-rape, murder, torture and mutilation, the Lord’s Resistance army have made repeated demands for large sums of money.

Back in 2006, the government of Southern Sudan admitted paying the LRA $20,000 in exchange for a promise to stop attacking Sudanese civilians.

In August last year, the LRA demanded a further $2 million from international donors, which they said they needed for, amongst other things, flying 500 people to meet LRA leader Joseph Kony, and sending fact-finding missions to South Africa, Sierra Leone and Argentina.

In February of this year, the LRA demanded that the Ugandan government should provide a “golden handshake in cash and kind in recognition of all the LRA delegates and their efforts in brokering peace”.

Now the IWPR reports on the publication of a letter, ostensibly from the LRA lead negotiator David Matsanga, stating that: “the JUBA PEACE process is under siege and there is a danger of it collapsing due to the lack of Funding from the donor community…”

More chillingly, the letter adds that the “cost of war in the region will be much, much higher than the funds that are currently needed by Chief Mediator Dr Riek Machar to complete the Juba Peace Process”.

The IWPR reports that the LRA spokesman recently told the media that:

“We need about 600,000 US dollars to prepare [for] the meeting in Ri-Kwangba and also to carry out negotiations”.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 1, 2008 at 9:02 am

Remembering Gatumba, four years on

with 2 comments

The most heart-wrenching account of brutality that I’ve ever heard was the testimony given by Janvier Mudagiri at the August 2006 commemoration of the attack that had taken place at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi two years earlier. Janvier recounted how, after the initial onslaught, in which the attackers hunted down and killed every Banyamulenge Tutsi they could find, everything went quiet. A little while later, a group of men returned, calling out that they had come to rescue whoever was still alive. Janvier, who was hiding in the ruins of the camp with a group of children, realised quickly that these were not rescuers, but killers, bent on finishing off what they had started. But amid the chaotic situation, he was unable to stop a number of the children from running out towards their pretended rescuers – and could do nothing but watch as they were gunned down.  

This year’s commemoration event, which is being organised by Ubuntu, the international peacebuilding group founded by those who lost loved ones at Gatumba, will take place at the office of Amnesty International UK, on:

Saturday 16th August, from 1.30pm.

The full address is:

The Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA.

A number of the survivors will be joining the commemoration, and Ubuntu campaigners will be discussing both the ongoing struggle for justice, and the measures that need to be taken to stem the flood of lethal weapons into Central Africa.  

Written by Richard Wilson

June 24, 2008 at 10:08 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

Time Magazine names Alexis Sinduhije as one among the top 100 most influential people in the world

with 4 comments

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.

Alexis went on to found Studio Ijambo, before moving onto the project for which he is most famous, Radio Publique Africaine.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 2, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Burundi politican jailed for calling the President an “empty bottle” (and inciting armed rebellion)

leave a comment »

Here is an odd story. Back in 2006, when I wrote this article for Comment is Free, Burundi seemed to be sliding towards dictatorship, and the prevailing view was that Hussein Radjabu, then Secretary General of Burundi's ruling party CNDD-FDD, was at least partly to blame. 

Radjabu had made a number of open threats against the independent media – describing journalists who criticised the government as “talking skulls” on one occasion – and was widely believed to have been behind the arrest and torture of several prominent opposition leaders on the bogus pretext (no evidence was ever produced – the giveaway sign of a conspiracy theory) that they were jointly plotting a coup. He was also suspected of orchestrating a number of unexplained killings, together with a botched attempt on the life of the award-winning journalist Alexis Sinduhije, and of using kickbacks from a number of corrupt business deals to fund his own private militia.

But in early 2007, ruling party members voted to oust Radjabu from his position, and he was then arrested. The instability continued, however, and when I met some CNDD-FDD members who visited London last summer, it was clear that Radjabu's influence was still casting a long shadow. One of those I spoke to, Senator Mohammed Rukara, told me that unknown assailants had fired shots at him earlier in the year, and many believed that Radjabu's associates were behind the attack.

The BBC's latest report suggests that Radjabu's fall may alienate Burundi's Muslims. As ever, it's very hard to know how you could evaluate such a claim or find evidence for it. I'm generally sceptical of the presumption that a community as a whole will inevitably feel victimised simply because someone who happens to belong to that community has been found guilty of a crime and prosecuted. While Radjabu and his allies may try to paint this case as an attack on the entire Muslim community, this doesn’t automatically mean that every Burundian Muslim will share this view.

What the reports on this case don’t seem to mention, regrettably, is that some of the fiercest and most high-profile opponents of Radjabu have also been Muslim – not least Senator Rukara, who is a leading member of Burundi's Islamic community. 

But the story does seem to highlight the irony of Burundi's topsy-turvy judicial system. The charge for which Radjabu was jailed was "plotting an armed rebellion", and – most heinously of all – calling the President an "empty bottle". The fact that he is also suspected of orchestrating torture, assassination, and mass-killings seems to have played no part in his prosecution and conviction. And there is no sign yet of any justice for the victims of Buta, Teza, Muyinga, Gatumba, Itaba or the Titanic Express.

, , ,

Written by Richard Wilson

April 5, 2008 at 4:00 pm

From “Titanic Express” to “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

with 2 comments

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” is a very different kind of book from “Titanic Express”, but there are some common elements. Both, in their own ways, centre around a search for the truth, personally and politically. Both also look at how we can distinguish what’s true from what isn’t – or at least how we can tell a reasonable assumption from a completely nonsensical one – and why it is that these things matter. And both look in some detail at the issue of conspiracy theories, and the damage they can do.

In “Titanic Express”, the conspiracy theories I came across were often all-encompassing – so much so that at one point I was told that my sisters’ killers suspected me of being part of some devilish global plot to discredit them. And in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, many of the most disturbing delusions I looked at – such as the belief that HIV doesn’t exist or is harmless, seemed ultimately, again, to rest on the belief in some conspiracy or another. What I wasn’t able to do in “Titanic Express” was to look in detail at the features that define a conspiracy theory, what it is, psychologically, that attracts us to such ideas, and the tools that we can use to unravel them – so it was great to have a chance to go into these questions a bit more in DGFA.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 3, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Titanic Express

with one comment

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.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 3, 2008 at 9:57 pm