Voice from a killing zone

Burundi radio station keeps its head while all about them are losing theirs

Published July 31, 1996 10:35AM (EDT)

two years ago, after ethnic hatreds in Rwanda boiled over into a
genocidal rampage that left a half million people dead, Brian Rich, an American aid worker, arrived in the neighboring central African country of Burundi to teach rival Hutus and Tutsi tribesmen the gentle art of conflict resolution.

Rich was a little late. When he pulled into Bujumbura, the capital, he found a largely unreported civil war between Hutus and Tutsis already had devastated the countryside and torn the national fabric into ethnically cleansed pieces. With both sides understandably reluctant to leave their enclaves, let alone discuss their problems, Rich abandoned the idea of holding theoretical seminars and instead created a place where people could meet, talk and, more importantly, be heard throughout the country.

That place is Studio Ijambo, a talk-radio program that airs twice a week on Burundi's state radio and whose news reports and public affairs programs provide a badly needed counterweight to the Tutsi and Hutu hate radio broadcasts that have inflamed emotions and nudged Burundi to the brink of another genocidal war.

"The idea was to create a project that would get
Hutus and Tutsis
to collaborate across ethnic lines," Rich explained in a telephone interview from Studio Ijambo. "We wanted to give them something to do everyday in which they would have to confront the issues of ethnicity as a component of their society."

In the past three years, more than 150,000 Burundians have been killed in an escalating spiral of incendiary propaganda and ethnic massacres. In the wake of last week's coup, and unconfirmed reports of new bloodshed, the United Nations reported today that a fresh wave of refugees was heading toward Neighboring Zaire.

Radio Democracy, the voice of Hutu rebel forces fighting Burundi's Tutsi-controlled national army from neighboring Zaire, routinely brands government soldiers as "bloodthirsty vampires" and accuses them of slaughtering Hutus in their hillside villages.
Less inflammatory but just as one-sided, Burundi's state-controlled radio, known locally as "Tutsi Radio," refers to the rebels as "genocidal killers" and government soldiers as the "forces of order." The Tutsis, who represent only 14 percent of Burundi's 6 million, have long had a stronghold on the country's military.

In creating Studio Ijambo, Rich brought together 20 Burundian journalists and staff -- 10 Tutsis and 10 Hutus -- as an experiment in communal cooperation. That experiment looked especially shaky last week when the Tutsi-controlled army overthrew the country's Hutu president and installed former Tutsi military ruler Pierre Buyoya. A few hours before the coup, the army cut off the studio's electricity and telephone lines, making broadcast impossible. Meanwhile, a mob of some 5,000 Tutsi extremists brandishing nail-studded clubs surged past in the street, calling for death to the Hutus.

"It looked like everything we had worked for was all going down the tubes," Rich said. "We felt totally powerless." Rich also had to contend with tensions among his Hutu and Tutsi staffers who began to distrust what the other was reporting. But Studio Ijambo made it back on the air, a relief for diplomats, Western journalists as well as ordinary Burundians who rely on the program as one of the few credible sources of news in the country. "Even when massacres have occurred, we don't take sides," says Rich, a representative of the Washington-based aid organization Search for Common Ground, which has received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development for the radio project.

With staff tensions still running high, Rich has been careful to send out Hutu and Tutsi journalists in pairs to corroborate information. In the wake of the coup, they checked out rumors of killings in Bujumbura and the surrounding countryside and found they were not true, dampening international concern that a genocidal war was underway. "Both sides respect us because we never report anything we haven't seen," said Rich. "We check things out very thoroughly, and only when our information is absolutely credible will we put it out."

Rich acknowledges that government controls have kept Studio Ijambo from being as hard-hitting as he would sometimes like. As a result, many programs focus on non-controversial topics like health and education. But unlike on state radio programs, ordinary people -- secretaries, vendors, shepherds -- get a chance to voice their opinions. And because they can do so anonymously, they
participate without fear. "What we're trying to do is foster the sense that ordinary people can have a say in what goes on around them," Rich says.

When Studio Ijambo does address explosive issues like army abuse of civilians, it is liable to get censored. One program on violence featured ordinary Burundians urging the government to negotiate with the Hutu rebels. For Tutsi leaders, such talk is tantamount to treason, and under government orders, those voices were cut from the show.

However, Studio Ijambo manages to get such programs out
by feeding them by telephone to a Swiss-run radio station in Zaire, whose broadcasts are heard inside Burundi. "We collaborate with both sides," says Rich. "One way or another, we get the
information out."

"We're engaged in a process, a longer-term process, of trying to reform the way information is accepted into this society."

Quote of the day

How times change - I

"There is no discipline at the paper. The editors and reporters drink too much. They publish nothing worth reading."

-- Theodoros Giannikos, a director of Pravda International, on the closing of Pravda, the communist paper founded by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1912. (From "Russia's Purveyor of 'Truth', Pravda, Dies After 84 Years," in Wednesday's New York Times).

How times change - II

"If Richard Nixon were to come back to life today and become a member of the House, he'd be the most liberal member of the Republican Caucus."

Grover Norquist
, president of Americans for Tax Reform. (From "Nixon's Legacy Hovers Over GOP In Election Year," in Thursday's Wall Street Journal).

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------