You might not have heard of Burundi until this week when it hit the world headlines, but if I tell you it used to be part of Ruanda-Urundi until independence in 1962, you'll start to understand. Rwanda and Burundi became separate countries at that point, with a shared heritage and ethnic make-up. Cyclical genocides happened in the ensuing decades, the most significant of which was in 1994 when 1 million people were estimated to have been killed in Rwanda in just three months. Less well known was Burundi's genocide at the end of 1993, and the ensuing 12 years of war, with only about 300,000 people killed.
These were supposedly 'Christian' countries. How could it have happened, be it in Burundi or Rwanda? Clearly people purporting to follow the Prince of Peace were betraying His values. In fact, a tract was published in Burundi after the initial phase of mass killings entitled 'Abantu b'Imana bagiye he?' ('Where did the people of God go?').
That is a question that is framing how a group of us in Burundi in these difficult times are behaving. You see, the UN and US evacuated their 'non-essential' personnel a few days ago. Pictures on Burundian television of mainly white ex-pats leaving on chartered airplanes were a traumatic reminder of what happened a few decades ago and what might happen again in the coming days. Could things really get that bad again? Well, at the time of writing, I hope not. And unlike past times of unrest, the reason for the current crisis is not ethnic in basis. It is rather disagreement on interpretation of the Constitution over the legitimacy of the current President's decision to stand for another term in office. (The Constitution allows for two terms elected by the people, but the President and his supporters say the first term he served doesn't count as it was a transitional election by his own party, not by universal suffrage).
We expected demonstrations when he confirmed his candidacy, and they duly came. The capital went into lockdown, barricades went up, nobody could go to work, vehicles that tried were burnt. We're already the hungriest nation on earth, and the second poorest, and many people were desperate for change. Listening to gunfire and grenades became normal, which none of our children appreciated. The international community put more and more pressure on him to stand down, and last week there was an attempted coup. It seemed initially to be a success, and tens of thousands took to the streets in jubilation. They were scenes of unadulterated joy for the opposition, an outpouring of collective excitement and hope... and then the coup failed, and the next day a blanket of despair fell on those same celebrators from the previous day. The die-hards are still fighting, but the movement for change has had the stuffing knocked out of it, that's for sure.
What will happen in the coming days? Honestly, it's hard to say. Many people are very pessimistic. More than 100,000 have already fled and are languishing in UN camps in neighbouring countries. The economy is in lockdown. Friends are texting me saying they can't feed their kids. There is great fear that things will deteriorate further, hence the UN and US evacuations. Watching my Western friends leave has been a sad experience.
Countless people have told me likewise to leave. But honestly, how could I? Many are afraid, but I am not. I'm ready to die. I don't expect to die, but I'm ready to. It was much more dangerous for me 15 years ago here. White folk are in no way targeted at this time. But whatever the case, incarnation involves risk and sacrifice. Jesus never promised us an easy journey, just a guaranteed arrival. I came out here 16 years ago, I'm now a Burundian national, I love this country and her people. You vote with your feet and I choose to stay.
I remember proposing to my girlfriend 13 years ago, somewhat delirious with malaria at the time(!), and asking her: "Are you ready to be a young widow?" She had to be ready to embrace an authentic expression of following Jesus, and following Him wherever He called us. He was the Prince of Peace, but He died a violent death, and calls each one of us to lay down our lives by taking up whatever cross He sees fit to bless us with. Thankfully she said yes and we've had a great journey so far. It's more complicated with kids in the mix now, for sure; but the principle remains that we are called to live by faith, not fear, and the best I can model to my children is a life of dynamic faith.
So please pray for us. I weep regularly for my friends' children traumatised by the gunfire and grenades close by; for my colleagues who are hiding in their houses right now, too fearful to go out and seek food; for those dying in the refugee camps; for this massive step backwards in Burundi's journey of development. We need your prayers and support. But be assured, we're busting a gut such that there'll be no similar accusatory tract to the one written back in 1993. Where have God's people gone? We're here, standing strong, come what may, mobilizing youth and pastors and community leaders to preach and live out a costly message of light and life and peace for the glory of Jesus. That's worth living and dying for!
Simon Guillebaud is the founder of Great Lakes Outreach. Follow Simon on Twitter @SimonGuillebaud.