Citizen reporters: Trying to tell world about the conflict in Burundi

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The road between the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura, and Burundi Gitega. [deepphoto/Flickr]

12 months on from the beginning of a violent political crisis in Burundi, a group of local activists have expanded their project to monitor and respond to conflict, writes Kevin McCann.

Kevin McCann is a Project Manager at peacebuilding NGO Peace Direct, where he runs Insight on Conflict. He has just returned from Burundi.

More than a thousand people have been killed since violence began in Burundi a year ago – but local peace organisations are refusing to let the country slide into war.

EU calls for urgent Burundi talks after mass killings

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini has called on Burundi’s government and opposition to meet outside the strife-torn country in a bid to stop a succession of killings and massive displacement.

Burundi relies on the EU for half of its budget, leading to Europe imposing sanctions in March, under the Cotonou Agreement.

The worst violence so far took place in December 2015. More than a hundred people died in armed attacks around the capital, Bujumbura, and the fighting that followed. With the Burundian civil war still fresh in people’s minds (it officially ended in 2005), events such as these have increased fears of a return to prolonged armed conflict.

But as the international presence dwindles, Burundians are redoubling their efforts to stop a return to war. Some of them work for Peace Direct’s local partner organisation, a violence monitoring and response network. We caught up with them in Bujumbura in March.

Good morning, Burundi

At 8AM on a Monday morning, our host, Fabrice, shows us straight to the meeting room. The network’s central staff run what could almost be described as a small news agency, with volunteer ‘citizen reporters’ reporting from around the country on outbreaks of violence in their area. The network has doubled in size in just three months, and now covers the entire country.

As we work with the team over the week, it occurs to me that I would be surprised if anything happened in Burundi without them knowing about it. Having driven past the burnt-out offices of the main national radio stations – the usual source of information in the country – the situation reports the network provide are a priceless source of information that only local people can access. Testament to the quality of the information are the continuing requests we receive from people who want to read the reports; probably half the UN is on our mailing list.

Local knows best: filling the information gap

The citizen reporters have received training on how to assess and report information, which they send using a mobile text messaging system. Fabrice and the team cross-check and verify the incident reports. It’s risky work, so they take precautions.

The operation is building a picture of violent hotspots around the country. With international reporting capacity generally limited to the capital, it provides an almost unique source of countrywide intelligence, which is why the UN is so keen to receive it.

Indeed, the whole project is testament to how a local network can penetrate much deeper into society than outsiders. The citizen reporters all live in the areas they report on, and are respected in their communities for their neutrality. This is vitally important in a conflict which is as much about politics as anything else.

Responding to conflict: the role of the citizen reporters

Later in the week, I meet with some of the citizen reporters. The value of their work becomes even clearer because as well as reporting on violence, they respond to it. Drawing on their background in human rights and peacebuilding, the Citizen Reporters calm tensions when violence spikes, or prevent it happening in the first place. One Citizen Reporter, Jean, told me: “Sometimes when we ask [the police] for the charges against people, they ask us what authority we have.”

“‘So it’s you who works with Human Rights Watch,’ they say.”

This is meant as a generic term for human rights groups, and it’s clearly intended as a threat – one that prevents people from trying to find out what has happened to their friends and family. This is where the citizen reporters help.

“We try and support people to ask after their own,” Jean says. “We go with them when they ask the police and the military for information, acting as witnesses in case anything happens.”

“I spoke to the mother of a girl who had been kidnapped,” says Jean. “She thought her daughter was going to be sexually abused, so she called the police. They arrested every young man in the neighbourhood and tortured them.”

The power of working together

Between them, the network coordinates nearly 200 Citizen Reporters around the country – reporting on and responding to violence.

“When we hear of something, we communicate among ourselves. Have you heard about this? Are you able to go and find out? We have to plan, because sometimes you need to take a motorbike and there are roadblocks.”

It’s a reminder of the logistical difficulties that the network faces, trying to separate fact from fiction and piece together what’s really happening in Burundi. But as Claver explains, help can come from unexpected sources. The situation is complex, so it is important not to generalise: “Some of the police are cooperative, and they help us. They tell us very discreetly where people are being held, and other information. We can work together.”

EU suspends Burundi government aid over violence

The European Union, strife-torn Burundi’s biggest aid donor, on Monday suspended all direct funding to the government for failing to meet EU concerns over its human rights record.

It’s an extremely worrying situation. But as we know at Peace Direct, bottom-up initiatives can help solve top-down political problems – building trust from the ground up. It’s why we support them. With the EU’s spokesperson recently noting the need for all stakeholders to take part in an internationally-mediated political dialogue, we hope others will support them too.

Names and other details have been changed in order to preserve anonymity. This is an edited version of an article first published by Peace Direct

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