The President's Cabinet Room
It was late afternoon on Wednesday, October 20, 1993, in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, and President Melchior Ndadaye was meeting with members of his newly formed cabinet. He had been installed in office only 102 days earlier, Burundi's first-ever democratically elected president, and most of his cabinet members had been elected to Parliament just ten days before his inauguration. There was, therefore, a sense of newness, eagerness throughout the room. People who had never before been allowed to vote for anyone or anything were now heading cabinet agencies and deciding policy for their nation of six million people. The atmosphere was heady.
At one end of a long, attractive, but unostentatious room, the president sat alone behind a large light-colored wooden desk, no advisers nearby to whisper to him. His policy was that everything said in Cabinet meetings should be known to all. Before him, along an extended table of matching wood, sat the twenty-three members of his cabinet, each with a separate microphone. Although the president had been elected by a 2-1 majority, and his political party, Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (Frodebu), had won 80 percent of the seats in Parliament, Ndadaye's cabinet was bipartisan and multiethnic. Like Ndadaye, fourteen cabinet members were Hutu, the ethnic group that composed most of Frodebu and 85 percent of the population. One Frodebu member was Ganwa, a descendent of Burundi's earlier royal families, and eight cabinet members were Tutsi, the minority ethnic group (14 percent of the total population) that had held all political power among Burundians for over half a century. They were mostly members of the Parti de l'Union et du Progrès National (Uprona), which, until then, had governed since independence in 1962. Its early leaders, the military dictators Michel Micombero and Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, had forced Ndadaye and numerous other Burundians to live many years in exile, and its last leader and military dictator, Pierre Buyoya, had imprisoned Ndadaye for expressing his democratic views.
Having just passed the 100-day mark, the new cabinet was comparing its accomplishments with its election promises. The president had called for a report from his minister of social action, human rights, and the protection of women, Marguerite Bukuru, who, at precisely 5:00 p.m., was just stating, "This event can shake the situation," when the table, chairs, light fixtures, and entire building were for several seconds shaken violently by earthquake tremors. When the motion stopped, the room was hushed. Then, Minister Bukuru broke the silence with her comment, "I was not meaning such a heavy shake," and laughter broke forth. But it was nervous, apprehensive laughter. Every person in that room, whatever his or her later education in science or geology, had grown up in households and communities where everyone—grandparents, parents, relatives, and neighbors—shared a basic, pervasive belief: earthquakes foreshadow events of major turmoil and violent upheaval in government. Further, whether or not those present believed earthquakes to be prophetic, they all knew as unavoidable historical fact that four years after the country gained independence from colonial rule in 1962, Tutsi political leaders had captured every Hutu elected to Parliament, imprisoned the entire group without an opportunity for defense or trial, and murdered them all in a single night. In more recent memory were the events of July 2-3, 1993, when, just a week before his inauguration, Ndadaye only narrowly averted death in an attempted coup by members of the all-Tutsi Burundi Army at his residence.
Nonetheless, once the murmur of conversation following the tremors stopped, with only a smile and without comment Ndadaye returned to the previous agenda: the review by his cabinet of his administration's achievements and shortfalls.
- The minister of finance, Salvator Toyi, reported that in its first three months the administration had brought in more tax revenues than had been gathered in the entire previous year. Before, most people, including especially the peasant farmers whose families composed 85 percent of the population, had avoided, when possible, paying taxes to a military dictatorship unresponsive to their concerns. Now, however, with confidence in the purposes and honesty of the new administration, they were willing to pay.
- Minister of Communications Jean-Marie Ngendahayo reported that several new newspapers had begun publication. Although he had suspended one for gross irresponsibility in its attacks on the president, the newly established Commission on Press Freedom had overturned his decision, and the newspaper was now back in print. Burundi's press had never before been so free.
- Construction of a major prison in northern Burundi had been stopped, and at Ndadaye's direction, plans were underway to convert it to a school.
- A general amnesty releasing all prisoners except those convicted of murder, cannibalism, arson, drug trafficking, and armed robbery was in effect, to the great relief of the population. Five thousand persons, including all political detainees, had been released.
- On presidential instruction, the Intelligence Service had destroyed the torture cells used to force confessions from prisoners.
The meeting then concluded with a discussion between the president and his former campaign manager, Léonard Nyangoma, minister of public works and repatriation of refugees. A leitmotif in campaign speeches had been that Burundi should be a country open to all, and Burundian citizens living in other countries, whatever their political party or ethnicity, had been encouraged to come home to rebuild a multiethnic nation. The most prominent returnee was Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, Burundi's military dictator from 1976 to 1987, who had been banished from the country when overthrown by Major Pierre Buyoya in 1987. Far more numerous, however, were the Hutus who had fled to neighboring Tanzania, Zaire, Rwanda, and other countries during various genocidal slaughters over the past thirty years, the worst being in 1972, when the Burundi Army executed 150,000-300,000 Hutu civilians. Many of these refugees, estimated to number 240,000, were now returning, some having been away almost three decades.
Their return, while popular, was not without problems. Burundi is one of many African countries in which property ownership sometimes rests on oral tradition— villagers knowing and remembering where families farm and live—rather than on written and recorded deeds. Knowing this, Ndadaye believed it would be impossible accurately to ascertain the legitimate property rights of all returning refugees. He concluded that, instead, government-owned land would have to be distributed as fairly as possible to those who could not prove their ownership of particular properties.
And with that, darkness having fallen some hours ago, President Ndadaye ended the meeting. Before he could get away, however, he was approached by Communications Minister Ngendahayo, spokesperson for the government, who said, "Mr. President, as I told your chef de cabinet earlier today, I need urgently to talk with you, privately."
"Come into my office now," the president responded.
The issue was the president's safety. The previous day, Ngendahayo's wife had been approached by an army officer who believed that something inimical to the president—he was not sure what—was going on at army headquarters. Apprehensive, but thinking the report too unspecific to be convincing, Ngendahayo approached the President differently, saying,
Mr. President, I have two matters to raise with you. First, we are in late October, and elections in the communes are scheduled for December. Yet Uprona is attacking our policy of encouraging the return of refugees, which is overwhelmingly supported by the general population. Uprona cannot win at the polls if they take this position. Therefore, I fear they have a hidden agenda that smells of presidential assassination. Second, over a month ago I sent to you a report stating that presidential protection is inadequate and that we must carry further our discussions with Israel about training a presidential guard force. But I've had no reply to my message.
In response, the President instructed Ngendahayo to go immediately to fetch the defense minister, Colonel Charles Ntakije, who was in another office, talking on the telephone. There, Ngendahayo found Ambassador Melchior Ntamobwa, senior adviser to the cabinet, listening intently to the telephone conversation and sweating profusely. He turned and whispered, "The minister has been told that a coup against the president is being planned for tonight."
Once the telephone conversation ended, Ngendahayo and Ntakije rushed to the private office of the president and shut the door. Ngendahayo spoke first: "Mr. President, the defense minister now has hard, factual information, much more specific than my speculation, that a coup is right now being prepared." The president turned toward his defense minister, squinted slightly, and said, "Mr. Minister, what do you have to tell me?"
Ntakije replied, "I've just been informed by telephone that there is a coup d'état being prepared. Troops from the 11ème Bataillon-Blindé (Eleventh Armored Car Battalion) are to attack the Presidential Palace at 2:00 a.m.—in about five hours." The president replied carefully and directly: "Mr. Minister, how are you preparing to counter the attack?"
"First, I'll contact officers I trust, who should be meeting right now in the Officers Mess Room, to get the accurate information. If this plot is true, I'll prepare an ambush at the exit of the military camp to stop the blindés."
Weighing the defense minister's response, Ndadaye inquired, "Is Siningi still in the Rumonge Prison?" Colonel Sylvestre Ningaba, nicknamed "Siningi," had been chef de cabinet to former military dictator Pierre Buyoya for seven years. He was currently under arrest for his role in the failed coup attempt of July 2-3 against Ndadaye.
Upon Ntakije's reply that Siningi was still imprisoned, Ngendahayo asked, "Mr. President, shouldn't we move him to a different location, since the putschists may seek his help?"
But the defense minister demurred, insisting that prison administrators did not like to move prisoners during the night, when they can be easily killed. He then added, "Concerning your own security, Mr. President, I will send an additional blindé to the Presidential Palace."
Deferring to the defense minister's recommendations, the president added only, "It's a good idea to send an additional blindé to the Palace; yesterday the motor wouldn't start on one of the blindés there now."
That a president as intelligent as all of Ndadaye's associates found him to be would accept so readily such scant preparations for his protection seems, in retrospect, remarkable to an outsider. Suspicion of a possible coup had been coursing through Bujumbura conversations all week and had reached the presidential couple in Mauritius, where they were attending a meeting of heads of state from francophone nations.
Upon their return from Mauritius on October 18, the president and his wife had been greeted at Bujumbura Airport by all the Frodebu cabinet members (as is customary in many African countries for a president returning from abroad), but not one Uprona cabinet member was present. That could have been viewed as a warning. However, in a capital perpetually nervous with rumor, it becomes exhausting to take seriously every reported threat. Moreover, Ndadaye may have had a kind of che sarà, sarà, fatalistic attitude that could come to a person who, having overcome numerous life-threatening challenges, was unwilling to run away from the position and responsibilities he had so recently assumed.
Without commenting further on the possible coup, Ndadaye returned briefly to the subject of getting the Israelis to Burundi to help train the presidential guard, and then dismissed the two of them at 9:15 p.m.
As he was driven home, the president knew that it would be his last night in the old, historic Presidential Palace downtown. To provide him better protection, plans had been made several weeks earlier to move his family the next day to a more secure residence, where former president Buyoya had once lived. What the president did not know was that the move would never be made, and that this would be his last night on earth.
The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace to which President Ndadaye returned stood in faded splendor in the heart of Burundi's capital city of 275,000 inhabitants. Designed and constructed as the official residence of the Belgian vice governor-general for Ruanda-Urundi (today known as Rwanda and Burundi) after Belgium had been granted trusteeship for the twin countries after the First World War, it was easily the most striking building in Bujumbura. The large, high-ceilinged structure, its stucco exterior painted white, immediately drew attention away from the smaller drabber buildings surrounding it. Its tall windows and columned façade had been designed in grand African colonial style, and its very form bespoke the message of colonial civilization and the ethos of expatriate elegance in the tropics. Jean-Paul Harroy, as colonial governor, had extended its grandeur by filling its extensive gardens, which led to the main entrance, with an arboretum of trees and plants from around the world. While the gardens were laid out in a geometric pattern, the extensive grounds were interspersed with a rich variety of palm trees, including the rare traveler's palm, the long leaves of its crown arched like a lady's fan or a peacock's tail. Fragrant oil exuding from the leaves of eucalyptus trees, originally imported from Australia but today found across Africa, hung heavy in the moist night air. Beneath grew roses, hibiscuses, birds-of-paradise, and poinsettias in a climate that never knew frost and seldom saw barrenness. The scene had been enjoyed not only by colonial governors but also by King Mwambutsa IV, King Ntare V, and the general public until 1966. Then, Colonel Micombero overthrew the government, fear entered the garden, white walls were raised, and the public was no longer allowed inside.
On this night, like every night, the city was quiet. Since Burundi has only one car for every one hundred people, vehicular traffic is small by day and almost nonexistent after dark. By midnight, the city has few lights, even downtown, and is essentially as silent as the rich panoply of multitudinous stars that sparkle in the African night sky from horizon to horizon.
This was the palace to which the president returned by 10:00 p.m. He mentioned the rumor of a coup to his wife, Laurence, but both he and Communications Minister Ngendahayo had accepted the assurances of the Defense Minister that the matter would be addressed. The Ndadayes spent more time puzzling over the unusual character of the evening newscast, which reported at length on strange happenings in northern Burundi, where some farmers, thought to have been bewitched, were burning their coffee crops instead of harvesting them. Why, they wondered, should that story rather than the work discussed at cabinet meetings be aired? But the conversation was not long, for the day had been full. Soon thereafter they were in bed and falling asleep, only to be awakened by a telephone call from Brussels. Alfred Ndoricimpa, the Methodist bishop in Burundi, was calling to ask about the truth of rumors circulating among the Burundian community in Brussels that a military coup was being planned against the president that night. Once again, the president seemed unconcerned.
Unknown to him then, but evident by morning, was that a widespread conspiracy within the armed forces, in which the majority of the upper-echelon officer corps were active coconspirators and to which the remainder of the armed forces was complicit either out of sympathy, indifference, or fear, was underway against him. Earlier that day, at 3:00 p.m., Major Isaïe Nibizi, who concurrently held positions as commander of the 2nd Commando Battalion, commander of Camp Muha, and the officer responsible for presidential security, had informed Ndadaye's chef de cabinet of suspicious army troop movements. Nibizi was credited with having helped prevent the earlier July 3 coup attempt against Ndadaye, and was therefore trusted by him. Although Nibizi later claimed that on October 20 he had surrounded Camp Muha with antitank mines in order to prevent blindés from leaving the camp, others stated that Nibizi had removed the mines later that night on orders from army chief of staff Colonel Jean Bikomagu. In any case, around midnight, blindés were rolling out of Camp Muha, headed toward the Presidential Palace and other key locations in the city, and no one stopped them.
Within the hour, the Presidential Palace was surrounded by blindés from the 11th Armored Car Battalion at Camp Muha, troops from the 1st Parachute Battalion, and other soldiers from the twelve military camps in the capital, including some from the 2nd Commando Battalion, commanded by Nibizi. As the night proceeded, hundreds of commandos, parachutists, and gendarmes surrounded the Presidential Palace. While more than a dozen blindés were underway to mount the attack, and while hundreds of troops surrounded the palace, there were but two blindés and thirty-eight soldiers inside the palace enclosure for defense.
Shortly before 1:00 a.m. the telephone rang, and Mme. Ndadaye answered. The minister of defense was calling. "Is the president there?" he immediately asked. Responding yes, Mme. Ndadaye then stayed on the line and heard Colonel Ntakije inform the President that blindés had left Camp Muha but that he did not know their destination—perhaps the Ngagara quartier, perhaps the Presidential Palace. In any case, his message was "Il faut sortir" (you must leave). But he did not suggest where or how to go.
While Mme. Ndadaye hurriedly dressed, the president tried to call Captain Mushwabure, the officer in charge of the palace guard. When he did not answer, the president himself went out into the gardens. Then, at 1:30 a.m. Mme. Ndadaye heard a single shot. Fearing the worst, she called her husband on his cell phone. He was fine; she was relieved. Moments later, a burst of gunfire. She called again. No answer. She was convinced her husband was dead.
According to Mme. Ndadaye, the fusillade against the palace began just after 1:30 a.m. At least one blindé (perhaps more) blasted a hole through the outer perimeter wall, and, taking position there, barraged the house with cannon fire. To protect her three small children from the shattered glass of the tall palace windows, Mme. Ndadaye took them into a windowless inner hallway, laid them beneath long tables, and waited. Even so, she and her son Tika were each grazed by shrapnel from one of the bursts of cannon fire that recurred at five-minute intervals throughout the night. Between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m., the defense minister again called, asking to speak to the president, and Mme. Ndadaye replied that he was outside in the gardens. During that same period, in spite of the recurrent artillery attacks, Mme. Ndadaye managed to reach by telephone Foreign Minister Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, Agriculture Minister Cyprien Ntaryamira, President Habyarimana of Rwanda, and various Frodebu leaders and provincial governors to inform them of the coup.
During this period, unknown to his family, the president had been taken by members of the Presidential Guard, dressed in a military camouflage uniform as a disguise, then placed inside one of the two blindés in the palace gardens. He was to remain there for the next six hours—essentially, a president prisoner to his own nation's army, trapped in a blindé in his front garden while his wife, children, and servants waited apprehensively inside. It was a surreal situation, to which our narrative will return.
Meanwhile, the cannonade may have been the signal for the packs of army jackals to begin their nocturnal hunt for Frodebu's political leaders. One of the most influential and therefore most endangered among them was Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, the foreign minister. A passionate supporter of Frodebu and a former editor of its newspaper, L'Aube de la Démocratie, he was considered one of the strongest intellects in his party. Small and wiry in physique, he was also assertive and loquacious in manner. His critics complained that he could talk for an hour and neither listen to anyone else nor give them an opportunity to interrupt. But with his lively though sometimes frenetic mind, he had the kind of intellectual curiosity, restlessness, and freedom from insularity that made him a rarity in Bujumbura.
After Mme. Ndadaye telephoned his home to tell Ntibantunganya of the attack on the palace, he immediately began calling Frodebu leaders in hopes that the government could be saved. At 2:10 a.m. he awakened Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, the communications minister, who only a few hours earlier had warned the president of a possible coup, and at 2:45 a.m. he made the first of three calls within an hour to Paul Patin, chargé d'affaires of the American embassy. Initially, he was optimistic, telling Patin, "On semble maîtriser la situation" (the situation seems to be under control), and saying he thought the president was safe for the moment. He urged the United States government vigorously to condemn this attempt to overthrow democracy—assurance Patin immediately granted him.
His second conversation was less sanguine. And his third call, at about 3:30, came in a panicked voice, as he pleaded for the United States immediately to denounce the attack, and revealed that he was preparing to flee and go into hiding.
His flight was shrewd and successful. Knowing better than to trust the government soldiers assigned to protect him, Ntibantunganya called in his gardener and, exchanging clothes with him, put on some of his gardener's poorest and most ragged clothing, including his cap. Barefoot and disguised, he walked out his front gate, undetected by his own guards, and made his way through the streets to the home of a friend, where he hid for the next two days.
While trudging along Bujumbura's dirt streets, he could hardly have guessed that eleven months later he would be inaugurated as president, with a public assurance of support from the army. Nor could he know that less than two years after that, the army would engage in yet another coup, this time against him, to bring back once more into office the very military dictator, Pierre Buyoya, whom Ndadaye had defeated at the polls and who, as has become increasingly clear, was behind the putsch then in progress.
Knowing that their home had almost certainly been targeted, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya and his wife, Eusébie Nshimirimana, had decided that she should take their children and a houseguest, Sylvana Katabashinga, to seek refuge elsewhere. Not knowing when they might return, they dressed hurriedly but properly, in clothes befitting their station in life, since doing so might make it easier to bluff their way through roadblocks or opposition. Then, after gathering Eusébie's daughters and infant son, they all fled to the home of her close friend Dominique Barumpozako, where Sylvana Ntaryamira, wife of the minister of agriculture, was also staying. It was a decision that, in the bizarre irrationality of that terrifying night, would soon cost both fleeing women their lives.
The fate of another Frodebu leader and his family was strangely tied to that of the Ntibantunganya family that night. Cyprien Ntaryamira had been given the ministry of agriculture, a key post in a country where 85 percent of the population tills the soil. Fearing that they both would be targeted, the Ntaryamiras decided to seek safety separately. His wife went to the same home as Mrs. Ntibantunganya, and Cyprien sought refuge with his next-door Tutsi neighbors.
When a truckload of troops arrived at the Ntaryamira house, only the servants were there. Angry at their quarry's having escaped, the soldiers went next door, where Cyprien was hiding. To protect him, the lady of the house, a tall elegant woman with the style of beauty Burundians particularly admire, turned on her outside lights and walked confidently into the front garden. There she calmly told the soldiers that she had seen Cyprien fleeing, and pointed in the direction of his supposed escape. The soldiers left in hot pursuit, and Cyprien, safe inside, survived to become the president who, four months later, would succeed Ndadaye.
The frustrated soldiers, however, somewhere learned that the Ntaryamiras might be staying with Dominique Barumpozako, and proceeded to her house. There they found the well-dressed Eusébie Nshimirimana (Mrs. Ntibantunganya, the foreign minister's wife) and her friend Sylvana Katabashinga, and Sylvana Ntaryamira (wife of the agriculture minister), who was dressed like a peasant.
Upon entering the front room, the soldiers saw an elegantly dressed woman holding a baby, her two young daughters beside her, and a woman whom they took to be a peasant or servant. Furious that their real target, the cabinet minister, had escaped, they attacked the well-dressed woman—piercing her head with a bayonet. As she struggled to maintain her balance, Mrs. Ntibantunganya handed her baby to Mrs. Ntaryamira, saying, "Take care of my baby," and fell to the floor. Then the soldiers shot her in the presence of her children. Perhaps uncertain whom they had slain, but knowing Mrs. Ntaryamira's first name to be "Sylvana", they asked the woman in peasant dress, "Where is Madame Sylvana?" Sylvana Ntaryamira replied that she did not know; she was in the house by accident. The soldiers then entered a back bedroom and discovered Sylvana Katabashinga, well dressed and hiding. They asked, "Are you Madame Sylvana?" When she replied yes, a soldier raised his machine pistol and shot her dead. Thus, in a night of mindless violence, the agriculture minister's wife, Sylvana, who was the intended victim but was dressed as a peasant and was holding a baby, escaped unharmed, whereas the better-dressed visitor named Sylvana was murdered.
Less fortunate than Cyprien Ntaryamira was another of Frodebu's strong and early leaders, Juvénal Ndayikeza, minister of home affairs and communal development, to whom Ndadaye had given the difficult assignment of heading the ministry responsible for the national police, or gendarmerie. As a Hutu heading an agency manned almost completely by Tutsis, his challenge was inevitably overwhelming. He had therefore sought to avoid confrontation, having recognized, like Ndadaye, that integrating Hutus into the gendarmerie and the army would require years. Facing a coup, he must have wondered whether the gendarmerie would prove faithful to the government and to his direction, or to the ethnic group to which they were tied by blood and to which they owed their position? At 2:45 a.m., in a telephone conversation with Communications Minister Ngendahayo, Ndayikeza reported that he had been phoning governors in the fifteen provinces to alert them to the events in Bujumbura, but that he did not know what could be done in the capital. "What place is safe? Who can be trusted?" he asked. Even as they spoke, he exclaimed, "Jean-Marie, it's all right. I see the headlights of a car coming. It must be someone coming to take us to a safe place." But evidently the car passed by, for fifteen minutes later he telephoned Paul Patin, chargé of the American embassy. Hurried and desperate, he said, "Paul, the soldiers are coming; I hear the trucks. I want to slip out through my backyard and go to the American embassy. Can I have safe haven there?" Patin replied, "I'll be waiting at the gate to let you in." "I'll be there in ten or fifteen minutes," Ndayikeza responded.
So Patin waited outside. When Ndayikeza had not arrived half an hour later, Patin telephoned his house. His call was answered by a gruff male voice, undoubtedly that of a soldier, who told Patin that he had the wrong number and hung up. Between those two conversations, Ndayikeza had been captured and murdered.
The stories of several other democratic leaders that terrifying night concluded like that of Ndayikeza—with death.
Gilles Bimazubute held the third-highest position in government, deputy speaker of the National Assembly. As a Tutsi committed to majority rule, he knew that he was viewed by Uprona and the army as a traitor to the larger Tutsi "family," and therefore could not have been surprised when the soldiers arrived at his house. Nevertheless, he insisted that they wait to take him away until he had put on a suit, coat, and tie: he was determined to die in the dress of a man serving his country in high office, not as a fleeing refugee.
When soldiers arrived to take away the director of intelligence, Richard Ndikumwami, he drew his pistol to defend himself and his family, but, outnumbered and outgunned, was quickly overpowered. Then, as his family watched helpless and aghast, the soldiers began beating and bayoneting Ndikumwami. In their final act of humiliation and torture, several soldiers together stuck bayonets into Ndikumwami's quivering body, lifted him, and dropped him in the back of their truck like a useless, dying fish tossed onto a pier.
The fate of Pontien Karibwami, speaker of the National Assembly and therefore vice president of the republic, was no better, though he was able to resist slightly longer. Pontien and his brother escaped the genocide of educated Hutus in 1972 because they were studying at a university in Belgium at the time. Later, after working as a mining engineer in Zaire, he returned to become Ndadaye's right-hand man. After his election as vice president in 1993, he moved into a spacious government residence on a hill overlooking Bujumbura. Once the home of President Bagaza, it came with extensive safety features: bulletproof glass, reinforced steel doors, warning systems, and various escape routes from the large surrounding grounds. All that, however, proved useless. When a truckload of soldiers arrived, his guards offered no resistance, although the building's protective features briefly delayed the soldiers' entry. Frustrated for more than an hour, they finally blasted away the security doors with a bazooka. The family survived the shelling, but was forced to watch as Pontien, beaten, bayoneted, and bleeding, was led stumbling away to his death.
In a Coup, Survival Is Unpredictable
Amid this night of horrors, not every story ended in death. There was also escape, rescue, relief, help, hope, heroism, and survivors who looked to a better day.
Two who unexpectedly survived were deputy prime ministers, Bernard Ciza and Melchior Ntahobama. Like Vice President Karibwami and many others, Ciza and Ntahobama were betrayed rather than protected by their military guards. But instead of being beaten to death, they were taken to prison. There, in the early darkness of that morning, a junior military officer whom they did not know came quietly to them, instructing them not to talk. He silently led them out of the prison, past an unquestioning guard, hid them under a canopy in the back of an army truck, and asked where they wished to be taken. Ciza chose the French embassy; Ntahobama, the house of the deputy chief of mission of the Belgian embassy, M. Koen Vervaeke, where he was later joined by Communications Minister Ngendahayo's wife, Antoinette, and her two daughters. An unusually courageous and compassionate man, Vervaeke provided sanctuary to several threatened families over the next few days.
Another diplomat who gave refuge to several individuals and families over the next few months (sometimes harboring as many as fifteen people) was Paul Patin, chargé d'affaires of the American embassy on the night of the attack and director of the U.S. Information Services (USIS) in Bujumbura. A cerebral, wiry, intense man in his thirties, Paul not only spoke the best French among Americans in the embassy, but was also one of the few Americans to have, in addition to "contacts," genuine friends from across Burundian society, including students, journalists, and political figures. During the night of the putsch and afterward, many of them requested his help. Selections from his journal entries convey some of the confusion and desperation felt on that night.
At about 2:20 a.m., on the morning of 21 October 1993, I was awakened from a half-sleep by my wife Maja, who nudged me and told me to listen. The firing of weapons was clearly audible not too far from our house, in the direction . . . of the Presidential Palace. The Army was rebelling against the government. No more than 2 minutes after this grim reckoning, the telephone rang. Amy Hart Vrampas, of USIS, told me that they were seeing troops and auto-blindés moving up and down the street. Immediately following that conversation, our Embassy's Regional Security Officer, Chris Reilly, called. We agreed we must both get to the embassy ASAP. The plan was for Chris to drive to the embassy, then come to my house in the ambassadorial vehicle—with flags flying. In about 10 minutes, Chris and the vehicle were at the gate of my house. But so was a group of about 25 soldiers, from a variety of different units, judging by their different colored berets. They were in a state of high agitation and insisted that the night guard, Evariste, not open the gate to let the vehicle onto my property. I joined in the melee, and told Evariste, who was obviously frightened out of his wits, to let the vehicle in. I refused to let the soldiers in as well, although their attempt to force entry was half-hearted at best. They had other things to do.
I have occasionally wondered whether the incident with the soldiers at my gate did not provide just the margin of time needed for Communications Minister Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, a neighbor, to escape with his life. It subsequently became clear that soldiers were prowling the streets of Bujumbura that night looking for ministers and other Frodebu officials of importance to murder. Jean-Marie was one of the lucky ones to slip away as he did, and I cannot otherwise explain why the soldiers were so close to my house. Had they been serious about preventing me from leaving, it would have been an easy matter to do so. But they were obviously flustered and uncertain how to act.
With Chris Reilly at the wheel, and a Marine in the front seat, we made it to the embassy in a few minutes. . . . My first act was to call the State Department Operations Center. . . . [For the next few hours, Patin and Reilly manned the embassy telephone lines, taking calls from Burundi officials.] At about 4:00 a.m. the phones went dead. I later learned that the reason the phones stayed operational for so long was that the technician that the putschistes had rousted out of bed that morning was unable to cut the phone lines. . . . [By morning] I had decided with the wholehearted approval of Chris, the security officer, that it was pointless to sit in the embassy, when it was just possible that something useful could be done outside. So Chris Reilly and I went out to—to do what?—to look for the president, I suppose, or at least to try and find out something useful. Chris met a soldier of his acquaintance, who told us we should not be prowling around the streets, and that we should return to the embassy, which advice we ignored. . . . We learned there . . . that President Ndadaye had been forcibly moved from the Palace by soldiers and taken to a military camp.
From the Palace we proceeded towards the Etat-Major [military headquarters], U.S. flag flying. On one occasion we were stopped at a roadblock by soldiers who told us that we must not continue. We argued with them a bit, but in the end we moved on in spite of their protests. I felt that my vehicle, a big black voiture américaine, with its flags flying, afforded me some protection and would intimidate the lowly soldiers assigned to guard the street corners. It was a game of bluff. They could have shot at us or our tires, but they did not. We proceeded to the Etat-Major . . . and then to the Officers' Mess . . . where we found a large group of officers, as well as a few French military attachés. . . . We understood that something important was happening at one of the camps down the road, Camp Muha. . . . I decided that we should proceed to the camp. But a couple of French military officers dissuaded us. They assured us that the Burundians in charge at the Officers' Mess were serious when they said that they would not let us proceed, and that we could be in danger. So we didn't go.
I regret the decision not to proceed. . . . I'm almost certain that Ndadaye was there, and equally so that he was already dead. . . . It is possible, though not probable, that he was alive, and that had Chris Reilly and I forced our way through (which we probably could not have done, the soldiers would have simply held us back physically, not bothering to shoot us, just holding us) we might possibly have saved the day, Ndadaye's life, and all the tragedy which ensued. I don't believe that to be the case, but I wish we had tried just a bit harder to get through.
One of the fortunate few among leaders of Frodebu was Communications Minister Jean-Marie Ngendahayo. As a relative of Burundi's last king, he was Ganwa, considered by Tutsis to be part of their ethnic group. Hence, they considered his support of democracy to be apostasy: how could someone in the royal line believe that peasants were as worthy as he to participate in government? Ngendahayo was therefore undoubtedly on the list of those to die; but those planning the coup had failed to provide clear directions to the homes of Frodebu leaders. Thus, soldiers turned up by mistake at the home of Paul Patin, the American chargé, and were bewildered when a white, five-foot-eight-inch American met them at the gate instead of a six-foot-two-inch Tutsi.
Ngendahayo himself was but a few houses away. Awakened just after 2:00 a.m. by a phone call from Foreign Minister Ntibantunganya, Ngendahayo began his own telephoning. He first reached the cell phone of the defense minister, who said the situation was under control. When Ngendahayo called again half an hour later, the defense minister, somewhere in hiding, said the situation was worse, and then inquired, "Where are you?" Ngendahayo replied, "At home. As communications minister, I have to keep in touch with members of the government, and I have no cell phone." The defense minister replied, "You are a fool, Jean-Marie. They are looking for all Frodebu leaders. If they find you, they will surely kill you."
Ngendahayo decided he was right. So he made one more call, asking for refuge from his friend, Michel Ramboux, a Belgian cooperant (i.e., aid and development official) whose home was likely to be secure. Driving his own Toyota rather than his official Mercedes with identifiable government license plates, he gathered his family and sped to Ramboux's house.
Next door to Ramboux lived Ngendahayo's brother, Déo, a businessman who had been joined by the minister of refugee repatriation, Léonard Nyangoma (later to become the leader of the CNDD, the political movement that took arms against the Burundi Army). Not wanting to risk being seen on the street, shortly before daylight Ngendahayo climbed over the side wall separating the houses, and the three of them discussed what to do and telephoned friends—or those they hoped would be friends in a time of crisis.
At about 7:00 a.m., desperate for information, Ngendahayo took the risk of phoning Colonel Jean Bikomagu, army chief of staff. Surprisingly, Bikomagu said that the situation was "under control" and that the president was "in a safe place." As communications minister, Ngendahayo then requested a military escort to take him to the radio and TV broadcast building so that he might inform the nation. Col. Bikomagu, sounding hurried and nervous, said he would call back and send more protection when time allowed.
Elated that the President was safe, Ngendahayo leapt into the air for joy, exclaiming, "The president is alive. The president is alive." But when, half an hour later, Bikomagu had not called back, Ngendahayo phoned again. This time Bikomagu hastily replied that he was with President Ndadaye but that the president could not speak with Ngendahayo, because at that moment soldiers were outside, threatening them both. Then Bikomagu hung up.
Upon reflection, the group agreed that they could not trust Bikomagu. If the President was indeed both with him and well, why was Ngendahayo not allowed to speak with him? And if he was not, Ngendahayo's having given away their location meant that army trucks might be on the way, not to escort but to capture them. They must flee.
In Déo's car, they headed for the Hutu residential sector of Kamenge, but at the first traffic circle were stopped by a military contingent. The soldiers walked to the car, looked in, and, perceiving the long frames and angular Tutsi faces, were prepared to let them pass, when a military commander shouted, "Tell them to go home." So Déo wheeled about and headed for the industrial sector, driving to the office and warehouse of a Belgian business associate, Michel Carlier. After admitting them, the businessman bolted the outer gates. The four of them then moved large packing crates behind some heavy industrial machinery, creating a small hiding place where they might be unobserved if workers, or soldiers, arrived. From this position, the communications minister used his brother's cell phone to reach Ndadaye's chef de cabinet, Frédéric Ndayegamiye, who stated that the president had been assassinated and that as spokesman for the government, Ngendahayo had the responsibility of informing the world.
Ngendahayo knew that, having killed the President, the army would soon capture the radio station. While contemplating the import of the chef de cabinet's instructions and formulating his own message, Ngendahayo was telephoned by two engineers from the telecommunications station. Though unable to broadcast from the station itself, they still had working telephone landlines and were, at that moment, in touch with Radio Rwanda. The engineers took the listening end of the telephone on which they were speaking to Ngendahayo, placed it next to the speaker end of the handle on the set in which they were talking to Rwanda, and broadcast Ngendahayo's message that a coup had been attempted. Not wanting abruptly to reveal the full horror of the truth to the people of Burundi, and to the world, Ngendahayo said:
I do not know for certain the fate of President Ndadaye at this time. What I do know is that, whether alive or dead, no one will stop the democratic process in Burundi. The people have decided to choose freedom. The wheel of history is going forward. I therefore call upon the free world's representatives to rescue the nation of Burundi and its democracy. And I particularly call upon the francophone countries to assist, because at the recent francophone summit attended by President Ndadaye, they highlighted the virtues of democracy. I hope that they will spearhead this process in Burundi. And I call upon all Burundians to fight for democracy wherever they are.
Miraculously, the message was broadcast in both Kirundi and French, and was repeated, and repeated, and repeated throughout the day.
But when Ngendahayo finished, his brother asked, "Do you realize that in making that statement you have just signed your own death warrant?"
In fact, all three realized that, if captured by the army, they would be summarily slain. So they slipped into Michel Carlier's adjoining office, and borrowing some plain lined paper, each wrote his final will and testament. For the remainder of the day and through the night, the three remained in hiding. But as Carlier's workers began to arrive on October 22, they realized that their hiding place could not remain secure. Déo therefore sent a worker to get from his business a minivan that had been converted into a kind of pickup truck by removing all but the front seat and installing a board platform behind it. Nyangoma slipped between the platform and the frame, a space hardly bigger than a coffin, and both brothers got into the front seat with the driver and prayed they would not be recognized.
It was by then 9:00 a.m., but the streets were almost empty. On the road they expected to take, they sighted a military checkpoint ahead, turned around, and took a different route. Their destination, the French embassy, would provide both international protection and the opportunity to join other government leaders. As they neared the embassy, they passed the Presidential Palace. Through its shattered wall they saw the building, now an empty shell, its life stolen away. The only activity was soldiers and civilians scurrying about, carrying off chairs, lamps, clothes, and even light fixtures. The leader was gone; the plunder was underway—a sickening symbol of the fragility of all laws once an assault on government is begun.
A few blocks farther, at the corner of Uprona Boulevard and Rue de la France, they reached the embassy. The large metal gates were opened; they drove in, and as the gates shut, they almost collapsed with exhaustion. They were safe—at least for the moment. They sat briefly in the minivan, too relieved to move. Then, after lifting the platform so that Nyangoma could climb out, the three of them walked upstairs to reunite with colleagues.
There, everyone was speaking of the president's fate. And his final hours proved to have been the strangest of all during that phantasmagoric night.
From 1:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on October 21, President Ndadaye had remained inside a blindé in the front palace garden. He was undoubtedly a prisoner. Had he been free to leave, he would have either sent for his family or made an escape. Yet the telephone records indicate that throughout this period he received only two calls on his cell phone, each lasting less than a minute, and that he initiated none. His widow told me that during that period he spoke with no one by phone. Undoubtedly, his cell phone did not work properly inside the closed steel blindé. Unfortunately, any accounts from his army captors regarding this time could only be unreliable and self-serving. When responding to such official inquiries as were made, no one wished to take responsibility for fomenting or furthering the coup. The pretense has been that it was conceived, formulated, and directed by a lowly army lieutenant, Jean-Paul Kamana, who somehow had the authority to gather hundreds of troops from various locations and deliver a battalion of blindés without the collaboration of army and political superiors. That is preposterous. Only officials of a country accustomed to the lies of despots could suppose that free, rational people would accept such an implausible explanation.
Kamana himself, living in exile in Uganda since soon after the coup, has stated that he has witnesses to his having been at home when the attack began, where he remained until he and others were taken to the Presidential Palace near daybreak. My conversations with him convince me of the obvious: he was but a minor player chosen by higher-ups to be the scapegoat for a major catastrophe—a practice not unusual anywhere in political and military circles, but especially prevalent in military dictatorships.
Given, then, that part of the accounts received are not credible, it is nevertheless true that the events that can be documented often seem incredible as well.
At about 7:00 a.m., Mme. Ndadaye recounts, soldiers broke into the shattered palace and, to their surprise, found that Mme. Ndadaye and her children had lived through the cannonade. They insisted that she take her children and servants to the safety of one of the two blindés stationed inside the gardens for presidential protection. It took them almost thirty minutes to run, crawl, and creep the 100 yards toward it, and they were frequently told to lie flat to avoid gunfire. Once there, the group climbed onto the blindé's turret and dropped inside. But the blindé would not start.
At that juncture, the second blindé inside the palace grounds pulled alongside, and the family members and servants climbed across and into it—where, to their astonishment, they found the president. His cell phone had not worked inside the enclosed metal blindé; he had therefore been unable to receive his wife's calls, and she had thought him killed. Once reunited, the entire family and their servants then sought to climb over a wall facing the Meridien Hotel, but found escape impossible because the palace was surrounded by troops. With nowhere else to go, they returned to the second blindé. By then it was clear that they had to go to the military camp as Captain Mushwabure directed. So the president told his family, "Now we must go to Camp Muha." As they moved outside the palace walls, the attacking blindés held their fire and followed the president's blindé from the palace grounds. It was 7:30 a.m.
Throughout the period from 1:30 a.m., when firing began, until the departure of the president and his family at 7:30, there were only two reported casualties among all army members across the city: two infantrymen following a blindé that entered the palace grounds and then retreated were reportedly wounded by gunfire. But no one, from Minister of Defense Colonel Ntakije and Army Chief of Staff Colonel Bikomagu to the lowest recruit ever stepped forward at personal risk to protect the president or other government leaders, and no guard ever seriously sought to repel an attack. According to Mme. Ndadaye, not one of the thirty-eight palace guards ever fired a single shot in their defense. Those who say that the putsch was the work of only a small group led by a junior officer are therefore left with cowardice as the only explanation for the unwillingness of anyone in the army to defend the nation's elected leaders. No doubt the cowardice and fear were ample, but the sadder truth is that, in addition, the complicity of the army in the treasonous coup was complete.
The route taken to Camp Muha was extremely circuitous, and at one point passed the French embassy, which, if Captain Mushwabure had genuinely wished to save the president, would of course have offered international sanctuary. But the president and his family were, nonetheless, taken to Camp Muha, where they arrived at precisely 8:00 a.m. Surrounded by putschists from the 1st Battalion, the family remained in the blindé while the president went away with Colonel Bikomagu and several high-level officers.
President Ndadaye returned after slightly more than an hour and, along with Colonel Lazare Gakoryo, secretary of state for security, climbed into the blindé to try to put into final form an agreement that had been verbally reached in the larger meeting. Once Gakoryo exited the blindé, however, all the soldiers surrounding it—red and green berets alike—began shouting mockingly for the president to come out.
When he did so, Colonel Bikomagu quieted them for a moment, and speaking in a steady voice, the president said,
Soldiers, I am a man of negotiation, a man of peace. Tell me your problems, and we will discuss them and find a solution. But for heaven's sake, don't shed blood. Think of your country, think of your families, think of the future of this country.
As the troops crowded more closely around the blindé, Bikomagu told them, "Let the family go; they are of no interest to you." Then, calling for a jeep, he instructed the driver to take Mme. Ndadaye and her children away—though he gave no instructions about where to go. Mme. Ndadaye believes that Bikomagu intended that she and her children be killed. Since he had given the driver and accompanying soldiers no specific instructions, however, they took direction from the president's wife. She first ordered them to go to the Belgian embassy. Finding that road blocked, she then ordered the driver to go the wrong way down a one-way street and take her immediately to the French embassy, where she and her children were given sanctuary at 9:45 a.m.
As she was being driven away, she looked back and saw Col. Bikomagu speaking to the troops. In words remarkably reminiscent of Pontius Pilate's, he told them as he pointed to Ndadaye, "He is the one you were looking for. Here he is. Do whatever you want with him." And with that, Bikomagu, the deputy minister of defense, and Nibizi, the officer directly responsible for presidential security, turned and walked away.
Ndadaye was then put in a jeep and driven to the nearby camp of the 1st Parachute Battalion. Bikomagu, Nibizi, and Gakoryo followed in a Land Rover, hungry jackals nearing a kill. At the parachutists' camp, the troops were spread out, some sitting, others lying lazily on the grass around the parade grounds and basketball court. Inside the battalion commandant's office sat François Ngeze, wearing a grey jogging suit and "looking like a fat worm," according to one observer. He was waiting for his moment of triumph, when he could be presented to the troops as their new president.
Meanwhile, in another office inside, ten lower-ranking officers were given the task of killing the president. According to the coroner's report, Ndadaye was held with a cord around his neck while being pierced by bayonets, seven of the fourteen stabbings penetrating the thorax, thereby causing his lungs to fill with blood.
The president's body was left lying in the office where he had collapsed, for troops to witness and to mock. The assassins had so little respect for their president, world opinion, or common decency—and so little understanding of what it meant to depose a head of state and slaughter the principal leaders of a freely elected government—that they dug a mass grave right in the military camp. Into it they tossed the bodies of Melchior Ndadaye, president of the republic; Pontien Karibwami, vice president and speaker of the National Assembly; Gilles Bimazubute, deputy speaker of the National Assembly; Juvénal Ndayikeza, minister of lands and communal development; and Richard Ndikumwami, director of intelligence.
Some hours later, upon realizing the world's outrage at the assassinations, army leaders ordered the bodies exhumed so that they might be collected by their families. The soldiers took the bodies, some bayoneted, some shot, all battered and filthy, and dropped each one into a simple wooden coffin. The followers and families were then allowed to fetch the coffins, take them to the morgue, and prepare for a state funeral.