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Meet the Poet Who Fled for Her Life After Protesting Against Burundi's President

Ketty Nivyabandi was a Burundian citizen, poet, and writer before President Pierre Nkurunziza's decided to run for a controversial, and possibly illegal, third term in office. She led protests against his move, and is now living in exile.

by Danny Gold
Jul 7 2015, 4:55pm

Activist Ketty Nivyabandi holds up her hands during a protest on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

Before the current political crisis engulfed Burundi, Ketty Nivyabandi was a Burundian citizen, poet, and writer. When protests and civil unrest broke out following President Pierre Nkurunziza's alleged illegal bid for a third term in office, Nivyabandi found herself entrenched in activism, fighting for what she says is the future of Burundi.

She has led women-only protests and demonstrations in the capital of Bujumbura, some of which were brutally supressed, during a time when many women were too afraid to leave their homes.

Most famously, she led a protest in the city center during the May 13th attempted coup by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, an antagonist of President Nkurunziza. After the attempted coup, police targeted many protesters, and particularly protest leaders and activists. Nivyabandi was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in neighboring Rwanda. VICE News caught up with Ketty in Kigali.

VICE News: In terms of your political activism, what have you been doing in Burundi the past few months?

Nivyabandi: I wouldn't even call it political activism, I would call it Burundi activism. I stood up and decided to raise my voice to speak for Burundi as a country, but not for any particular political party. I'm not a member of any political party or any specific association. I just love my country so much that I would be ready to do anything not to see it burn. So when the third mandate, the third term of President Nkurunziza came to the table and when he was officially announced as a candidate I knew just like thousands of other Burundians that this would take us backwards, that this may take us into a war. I felt that I was needed and that it was my responsibility, as a person and as a Burundian to stand up and do everything that I can, everything in my power to stop that from happening. That's the basis of my activism.

Police officers fire tear gas and throw other crowd suppression devices at a demonstration on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Protesters were demonstrating against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a controversial, and possibly illegal, third term in office. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

But right now we're sitting in Rwanda, can you tell us why you're here?

I began to mobilize women in Burundi. We organized women demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations in Burundi. The first one went rather well, the second one was brutally repressed by the police. Nonetheless, the women were very courageous. We stayed together and we were able to be in town at Independence Square. Symbolically it looks a bit like Tahrir square [in Cairo], and it's where our independence hero's bust is and represents our independence. The attempted coup of May 13th happened while we were demonstrating in town. Right after the coup anyone who was demonstrating was labeled as one of the collaborators, one of the coup-plotters. We were quickly labeled, especially as women, as people who paralyzed the city a few hours before the coup and right as the coup happened, we were really targeted. So I had to leave the country unexpectedly. I had to literally flee. And I came to Rwanda, where I was able to find safety.

So you were under direct threat. What's the atmosphere like in Burundi for activists, for anybody associated with the opposition?

Anyone who is against the third term, anyone who dares to speak publicly against this third term is at risk right now. This means that all activists that are still in Burundi (many of them have left), not just political activists but humanitarians, lawyers, bloggers, artists, musicians, anyone who has a different opinion from that of [President] Nkurunziza right now has to either flee or hide. If they are seen, they will be arrested. There are a huge number of arrest warrants going out to anyone, again, who is vocally against [Nkurunziza's] third term. You have to hide for your own life. Those of them that are still there live in a very difficult situation. They have to move houses on a daily basis, even their own relatives are afraid to have them in their homes. This is a state of terror that, again, anyone who speaks, lives under. It's a very difficult time.

A police officer grabs a protester at the demonstration on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

And it's not just arrests, right?

It's arrests. Some of them are tortured. Others are killed. One of the opposition members was killed on the streets of Bujumbura just a few days or a week after the coup attempt. Others are tortured. I personally know of people who are just civilians like myself, they are not involved in any politics. They haven't spoken publicly against anyone, but as they fled for Rwanda for safety, like thousands of other Burundians, they were stopped along the way by the police, or the SNR [National Intelligence Service], who look through their phones, or laptops, and if they have any pictures of the protests going on in Burundi, they will be taken aside, some taken to the SNR offices and have been tortured there.

These are civilians we're talking about. These are not political activists. If this can be done to average civilians, just imagine what the case is for those who publicly speak out against the regime. So that, again, is the terror that we live in. A state of solid fear that compels anyone to leave the country, including those who are not involved.

The people who are fleeing are the most vulnerable people in Burundi. They don't necessarily have the means to survive in Rwanda. Some of them are in refugee camps. Some of them have fled with all of their belongings on top of their head. Or on their back.

These women flee with 5-6-7 kids. Some of them send their kids to the borders because they know they're not able to come. Sometimes they flee with no shoes, or with 1 clothing item. It tells you the state of fear that they are in to be able to leave their homes with their meager belongings and go to live in these situations. It's a terrible situation.

Demonstrators run from tear gas fired by police at the demonstration on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

This isn't exactly a new thing, though, of course we know that it's ramped up in terms of the election process. But this targeting of activists, of opposition figures…This has been going on for a while, no?

It has been, yes. For the past ten years, but especially the past five years. Especially during the second term of this presidency where opposition leaders have often been either put into jail, constantly being called to court, others have been killed, especially human rights activists.

One of our leading human rights activists, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who is close to 70 now and he's been in jail for months for denouncing, among other things, the killing of 3 Italian nuns. The director of African public radio, which was the most listened-to radio, was also in jail for weeks. The opposition parties have been dismantled over the past few years.

What the regime has done is that it buys a couple of people, a small group of people within the party and breaks the party into two. The other people form a new wing of the same party. That wing is legitimized, given full support by the government to run. The other wing, which is the real opposition, is put aside and told to be illegitimate.

Police officers use water cannons on demonstrators on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

And that's what happened with the National Forces of Liberation (FNL) [a main opposition party], right?

That happened with the FNL. It happened with another one of the opposition parties. With a large number of parties, that has been going on. It's basically like, if you were to transfer it to American politics, you have one of the parties in power, let's say the Republicans, buying off a bit of Democratic candidates or congressman, and they claim to have the real Democratic Party. And everyone else is illegitimate. So, that system has been put into place for the past 5 years and it has worked. So today, those who are officially in the opposition, the ones who are running against the president in the current elections are not the real opposition. They're twins of the opposition parties. Ghosts,or twins.

These are the kind of strategies that the regime has been putting in place for the past 5 years to ensure that the opposition is weakened. To be sure that anybody who is willing to speak up, artists, musicians, activists, humane rights defenders. All these people are weakened, so that the regime can go through again with a third mandate.

I spoke about artists, a lot of musicians have gone into exile, some of them were brutally beaten, called putschists in the recent months, and have had to leave. I think it's a new trend in the world and I think the world needs to begin to see Burundi as that. When you have a dictatorship, you sort of expect that kind of behavior.

When you have a democracy turning into a dictatorship, in 2015, under the eyes of the entire world. When we're tweeting and live-tweeting all the time, with live reports for the whole world, and we're on Skype and Whatsapp, it is a failure I think of the entire international community and of us all as human beings to allow this to happen. To not be able to use the technology that we have today to speak up against what's happening and to act. I think the world and the international community has spoken very strongly against what's going on in Burundi, many have issued all types of warnings, but at the end of the day, the regime has demonstrated that it is determined to go forward and nothing so far is stopping it.

Police use a water-cannon mounted on a truck to attack a demonstration protesting against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza seeking a third term in office on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

They [the ruling party] don't care?

They don't care. They're showing it. They've gone on with elections, legislative elections. While the UN, the African Union, and so many other bodies have told them not to do so. They've told them that the conditions were not there to have free and fair elections. They've gone ahead anyway.

It's sort of showing the impotence of the international community, in even handling a country like Burundi, that they're not doing anything.

I think there needs to be a serious conversation about the efficiency with which the international community handles these types of situations. I think we need to open our eyes to reality that if this is going on under the eyes of the world and nothing is being done so far, we have to rethink the entire peacekeeping ambition of the international community. We have to have a serious and deep conversation because I can assure you, that if this is happening in Burundi, a tiny country with almost no natural resources and no critical interests for anybody within the international community, nothing is going to stop it from happening in another country, with larger interests, and therefore maybe larger damage potential.

This is some of what I wanted to touch on. I don't want to slight Burundi, but you look at a situation like Egypt where it's becoming a dictatorship and there are horrible things being done, but Egypt has strategic [value] to the West. There's the fight against terrorism, the alliance with Israel and all these sorts of things, so you can see why the world is paralyzed with Egypt. I'm not excusing what Egypt's doing, but you see why they [the international community] is giving Egypt a lot of leeway, whereas Burundi, like you said, there's no strategic interest, there's few resources, and still nothing is being done. It shows complete impotence.

Absolutely. and I think this is why, really, the conversation needs to be held at a large and very high level: either we change the way we deal with this situation and we change them drastically, or we admit that we are no longer able to maintain the peace. And we stop claiming that we can. And we let each country deal with it's own problems. This goes beyond Burundi.

Of course it's huge for the people of Burundi, but it means a lot for Africa first of all…We have a lot of elections going on in Africa this year. I can bet you the rest of the presidents of these African countries are watching, and they're taking tips. Right now this is class 101 on how to turn a democracy into a dictatorship. It's a dangerous trend for Africa as a whole but also for the world as a whole. I think we need to also begin to cover it that way and show that this goes beyond just Burundi.

Protesters hold up their hands at the demonstration on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

We're seeing a transition period before our eyes right now going from sort of a democracy to a dictatorship?

I think we are already in a dictatorship. If independent media is not able to broadcast, or to work freely, if human rights activists are not able to do their job and move freely around and report on the abuses that are being held, if human rights abuses are in fact being held under our very eyes, such as a few days ago in Mutakura [neighborhood in the capital], where civilians were slaughtered allegedly while police were searching for insurgents and political opposition members. Children were killed. These things happen, and people get away with them.

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. 

Protesters run from police at the demonstration on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

One of the things outside observers may think when they look at Burundi and this area of Africa over the past 20 years, and they're going to look at this situation, and if they're not paying attention too closely, they're going to look at it and try to instill some kind of ethnic component onto the conflict. Do you think that's accurate?

It is not accurate and anyone who does their homework will figure out that it's not accurate. Most of the opposition leaders today, who are denouncing Nkurunziza are from the same ethnic group as he is.

People who have spoken up against him from his party such as the second vice president of the country, is from the same ethnic group as him. The president of the national assembly is from the same ethnic group as he is. The leader of the FNL, which is right now the leading opposition party, is from the same ethnic group as him, Hutu. Our leading human rights activist is a Hutu. All these people who are being very vocal against the third mandate are Hutus, so this is not an ethnic issue at all. The people who are protesting, who have been protesting were all a mix of Hutus and Tutsis.

However, where it becomes dangerous is that the Nkurunziza regime, in its attempt to stay in power, has tried to use the ethnic line, tried to position this as an ethnic problem, saying that the protesters who are in the streets come from a Tutsi neighborhood, which is wrong. It's absolutely incorrect. So they have tried to use that to get the majority of people to line up with them by saying "hey, this is one ethnic group against us"

But it's not working. It hasn't worked so far, the people are smart enough to see beyond that, and I think frankly the Hutu population is the one that has suffered the most over the past 5-10 years under Nkurunziza leadership. They have formed the majority of the country so they have suffered the most.

Ketty Nivyabandi and other protesters hold up a white cloth during the protest on May 13, 2015, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Photo via Ketty Nivyabandi

It's like the quintessential power play for any demagogue trying to rally power is to make it about religion, make it about ethnicity, make it as sectarian as possible to rally people to his side.

Absolutely. And again, it shows the kind of leadership we are under. It shows a regime that is desperate for power, and will hold onto anything that may divide or may burn the country, but as long as they stay in power so it tells you more about the leadership itself than about the Burundian people. But right now the people are united, they are from all fronts. 

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