Today’s prison fire in Burundi was a preordained massacre

Gitega prison

In 1963, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was published. At that time, Baldwin wrote, “There is a limit to the number of people any government can put in prison, and a rigid limit indeed to the practicality of such a course. A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay.” A bill is coming in. A year earlier, in 1962, Burundi declared its independence from Belgium as well as its separation from Rwanda. This morning, at 4 o’clock, the Central Prison of Gitega, located in Burundi’s political capital, Gitega, `experienced’ an electrical short circuit which started a fire which, as of now, killed at least 38 and injured at least 69. That was no accident; that was a massacre, preordained and inevitable.

The Gitega prison, built by Belgians in 1926, is supposed to house a maximum of 400 people. At the time of the fire, according to the most recent count, there were 1539 `residents’. A building crowded to that extent, pandemic or no, is a death sentence. None of this is new or unexpected

Here are the numbers for the Burundian prison system, all from October 31. The prison system consists of 11 prisons and two juvenile facilities. The prison population was 12,749. The prison system’s official capacity was 4,194. At 297.5% of capacity, the entire system is a catastrophe, a fire, waiting, destined, to happen. Of that population, 50%, 6,245, were remand prisoners, people awaiting trial.

Since 2002, the number of women prisoners has risen every year. In 2002, 216 women were incarcerated. That made up 2.5% of the total prison population. In 2002, for every 100,000 Burundians, three women were behind bars. In 2021, 836 women were incarcerated, and they were lodged at the Gitega prison. This year, women comprised 6.7% of the Burundian prison population. This year, for every 100,000 Burundians, six women were incarcerated. Where are the women? Increasingly in prison.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Burundi did not have confinement as a form of punishment or justice. The Germans brought prisons in the late 19th century, and the Belgians expanded on that, increasing the number of detained individuals by essentially criminalizing the native populations. Every year, more and more people were incarcerated, some having been convicted, others for administrative purposes. All were `native’ and therefore guilty. This was the system that built Gitega in 1926. Gitega was `the new prison’. Prisoners were separated by race, gender and social status: four dormitories were reserved for indigènes, including one for women; one dormitory for chiefs; four cells for European or Asian prisoners. The prison immediately exceeded capacity, and so was enlarged. It exceeded capacity again, and so was enlarged again. Finally, in 1947, it was expanded to its current size, capacity 400. Gitega has been fatally overcrowded ever since.

According to historian Christine Deslaurier, Burundian prison history has moved from “a mode of punishment to … trivialisation.” At the beginning of this century, the Burundian prison system celebrated its centenary “with the greatest indifference.” Today, that trivialization, that indifference, exploded in flames, and left scores of dead and maimed behind. A bill is coming in, is anyone prepared to pay?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: DW / AP)

To the children of Burundi: Forgive us

Burundian activist and poet Ketty Nivyabandi has been organizing weekly Black Monday events to denounce the assault on democracy in Burundi. Last May, she said the Burundi crisis was a global crisis of democracy: “Our responsibility as global citizens is to ensure that this doesn’t go on. That this is stopped as soon as possible. Urgently. We need to act urgently.” Instead, the world chose to forget. Looking over the so-called humanitarian summit last month, Burundian activist Marguerite Barankitse noted, “At this summit, nobody is mentioning Burundi. Syrian refugees are a problem for European countries – but Burundians are not a problem immediately. Burundi is far from Europe. But what is ‘far’? It’s a ridiculous word. We are never far. We are from the same humanity.” Burundian women, like Ketty Nivyabandi and Marguerite Barankitse, keep trying to educate us about humanity and democracy. We refuse to listen. This week over 200 students were suspended from school for defacing pictures of Burundi’s president. Earlier in the month, over 300 students were sent home for the same crime. Of the earlier group, eleven were arrested. Six, three boys and three girls, were released because they are minors. This Monday, a court approved the continued incarceration of five … for doodling. We need to act urgently.

What is the danger of the barrel of 500 or so pens in the hands of high school students? Ngūgī wa Thiong’o once noted, in a different context, “A time has come when silence before the crimes of the neocolonial regime in Kenya is collusion with social evil.” That was then, this is now. Why do the major powers not mention Burundi? Silence serves their interests. Police terrorize communities, and little notice is paid. Burundian journalists are forced into exile, and little to no notice is paid. Why? Silence serves the interests of those who actively pay no notice.

And so we are left with poets, such as Rwandan spoken word poet Samantha Teta, who wrote “LUNDI NOIR: poem for Burundian kids”:

Black Monday,
 Black like the day the jar of your childhood
 smashed on the floor of your mother’s breaking
 Black like the day you started packing fear
 beside your books before you left for school.
 Black like the day you wore terror beneath
 your uniform and were feed on hatred when
 Black like the day your wings were clipped or
 tied firmly on your roots of your mother’s agony
 the day they betrayed her trust.
 Sweet child it’s another black Monday.
 Black like the day you started carrying bricks
 of your breaking land in your belly while you
 carried food in your memory.
 Black like the day your lungs inhaled dust
 heavy with hopelessness and they exhaled your
 Sweet child it’s another black Monday.
 I know with the degree of fear, loss and grief you
 have lived with until today has probably forced
 you to grow up well before your time. I know you
 will understand what I am about to ask of you.
 Sweet Child, Think in Color. While Walls continue
 to tumble around you, allow colorful thoughts like
 a calm waterfall to soothe your mind.
 For insistence, think in Red. Red for the color
 of the fire of desire for freedom that was lit in
 you the day they put steel around your innocence.
 Think in Yellow. Yellow for when bananas think
 they are second to God and bear no good news
 contrary to their names. Child, bananas are slippery
 but eventually they rot and are thrown away.
 Think in Green. Green for life. Nothing lasts
 forever my dear. Peace, hope and love can be
 reborn. But they have to be planted and watered
 within you before they can flourish elsewhere.
 Think in Purple. Purple the Color of Hope. Hope is
 neither a happy nor a sad feeling. it’s a flame. No
 one can put out a flame lit within you. Hope
 sweetheart will give you the strength to believe in
 a better tomorrow. Hope will be the light in all this
 darkness. Hope will give you faith, strength.
 Think in Blue and White. You may not feel the sun
 right now but I would like to remind you that it was
 breed in your skin, sweet child YOU are the Sun.
 Think of blue and white for clear skies. Clear of the
 fog of death, don’t worry about the night. You
 are all the stars your mother needs.
 Think in Rainbow. Rainbows that come after the
 rains. Rainbow that has all the colors intertwined
 into one to make something beautiful.
 In the same way child, your people are different,
 they are so diverse but together you make a
 rainbow. We all do.
 Learn Unity is powerful, it chases away the heavy
 rains. It’s okay to be different, powerful to use
 that difference to build and complement each other.
 Better days will come, your scars will be the proof
 of your struggle, little warrior.
 I wish you never had to fight at all. I wish you had
 been allowed to be a child. I am sorry that I never
 could make my pen a sword.
 Forgive me.

(Image Credit: Ketty Nivyabandi)

Burundi “where living is an act of resistance”: Ketty Nivyabandi

Ketty Nivyabandi during a protest on May 13, 2015, in Bujumbura

In May, women brought the struggle for democracy to the Burundi’s capital’s city Center. In the first major protest in Bujumbura, the women protested much more than President Pierre Nkurunziza’s move to take a third term. They demanded peace, unity, democracy, and recognition of their own power. As Ketty Nivyabandi, Burundian poet and activist, declared, “We came here to express our distress. We, the women, we are made helpless in this country because women are always the first victims of conflict. We are always the first to be affected by the situation, and we are tired. We want respect from our nation, we want freedom of expression for all Burundians.” In the aftermath, Ketty Nivyabandi was forced into exile, but not into silence. She continues to express, demand, and organize. According to Nivyabandi, the Bujumbura has become more and more like Oran in Camus’s The Plague, “a city where living is an act of resistance.”

In this season of bare life, silence is impossible: “It is impossible to remain silent in the face of all that’s happening in Burundi. We are a generation of Africans who did not live throught the struggle for independence, and we were too young to understand what was going on during the struggles for multi-party democracy. But today, we bear the responsibility to struggle for liberty in our countries. I feel responsible. I don’t want to look at my children, later, and tell them there was nothing I could do during this period in our history.”

Ketty Nivyabandi sees the current moment in Burundi as part of an African wave, “There is a wave blowing across Africa where a new generation demands greatness. We want excellence. We want leaders who deliver, and we want our laws to be upheld.” Call it Spring, call it harmattan, women’s protests have led to mass protests have led to hope and the promise of democracy.

For Ketty Nivyabandi, the push for expanded democracy is always already a push for democracy itself, and the “Burundi crisis” is a global crisis, “If the justice system, the judicial system, is not independent, and is not able to function freely, how is this a democracy? Democracy is not about going to vote. It’s not just about voting. It’s all the conditions that allow for the freedom of every citizen to express their views and to choose the way they’d like to be led. Right now there is no choice. Our responsibility as global citizens is to ensure that this doesn’t go on. That this is stopped as soon as possible. Urgently. We need to act urgently.”

We need to act urgently, because the very substance of peace is at stake: “My hopes for Burundi are as big and wide as the sky. But most of all, especially this year, I hope for peace. Not the kind of peace that is signed by a few, on a loose sheet of paper. The kind that sits in people’s bellies. A sense of freedom and possibility. The kind that secures and liberates every Burundian to be what they wish to be. All that artists and poets like me can do is to be so true with our art, that through it, Burundi is able see itself, and to keep stirring its heart alive.”



(Photo Credit 1: Ketty Nivyabandi / VICE) (Photo Credit 2:

In Burundi, the women demand peace, unity, democracy!

On Sunday, women brought the struggle for democracy to the capital’s city Center. This was the first major protest in Bujumbura, and the women were protesting much more than President Pierre Nkurunziza’s move to take a third term. They were demanding peace, unity, democracy, and recognition of their own power. Already many have likened this demonstration to the Burkinabé women’s spatula uprising last year, which helped overturn the government.

While the causes for the “current unrest in Burundi” are many, and familiar, the women brought something new to the national, and hopefully global, table. In their demands for recognition, they argued for the State’s responsibility to care about its resident, not just to take care of but to actively care for and about. Nkurunziza knew that his move to a third term, in violation of the Constitution and much more, would result in protests and then State repression, and he didn’t care. In Burundi the women see that as a failure of the State.

On Sunday, the women chanted, “We are the mothers. It is our children who are killed. It is our children who are in prison. We are here in the name of respect for human rights. We are here to oppose the third term.”

The third term comes after the recognition, after the mothers and children and deaths and imprisonment.

Beatrice Naymoya, one of the protest organizers, explained, “It’s not good for our country. You know the women and the children are the first to suffer. We’re asking the government and the international community to help us keep these two instruments intact: the constitution and the Arusha Agreement. Women decided to stand up today to say no to the violation of the constitution.”

Another spokeswoman, Elisabeth-Marie, added, “We are here today to support our brothers who are protesting the violations of our country’s fundamental laws.” As ever, the women take to the streets for themselves and in solidarity with all those who struggle for peace, unity, and democracy. That’s intersectionality in practice and in motion.

Ketin Vyabandiyaya elaborated, “We are tired. We want peace. We want respect for our nation and its laws. Our Constitution is sacred, as is the Arusha Peace Accord. They brought us peace after a decade of civil war in which we lost our sons and daughters. We never want that to happen again.”

Ketty Nivyabandi, Burundian poet, declared, “We came here to express our distress. We, the women, we are made helpless in this country because women are always the first victims of conflict. We are always the first to be affected by the situation, and we are tired. We want respect from our nation, we want freedom of expression for all Burundians.”

Despite the well-founded fear of brutal and even lethal repression, the women continue to organize. Having brought the first major demonstration to the nation’s capital, they are organizing another for next Sunday. Despite the fatigue and the fear, the women of Burundi are on the move, demanding peace, unity, democracy, recognition in a world where individuals and the State care.

(Photo Credit 1:  (Photo Credit 2: Getty;