By G. Pascal Zachary
For the dozen journalists at Studio Ijambo, an independent producer of radio news and analysis, the morning meeting is a chance to swap sources - and tips on staying alive. Which roads are suddenly dangerous? Which military officers can be trusted and which can't? What are the rebels doing?
In recent weeks, the countryside has grown "hot" again, with travel riskier and attacks more frequent. A senior editor, chairing the meeting, tells the group that the United Nations is offering bulletproof vests, free of charge.
"What makes them think they'll shoot me in my chest? Why not my head?" cracks one of the female reporters. "Maybe the U.N. should give me a helmet."
"Or why not one of their armored cars?" asks another reporter.
The room erupts in laughter, but the editor isn't amused. His staff works in a country where civil war is a way of life. Dangers can be minimized, and maybe this is one way to do so, he wonders aloud.
These are among Burundi's most thoughtful journalists, so the question is taken seriously. Every day they courageously report on a civil war without clear battle lines - and the ethnic conflicts between politically dominant Tutsis and majority Hutus that fuel that war.
In Burundi, radio is the most powerful medium. Not only does it reach the biggest audiences - dwarfing newspapers and TV - but it has been used as a tool to promote ethnic hatred in neighboring Rwanda, where radio journalists actually helped direct the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus six years ago.
For this reason, five-year-old Studio Ijambo promotes understanding between the two groups, often sending out both a Hutu and Tutsi reporter to ensure that many perspectives on an issue get aired. Staffed by a roughly equal number of Hutus and Tutsis, the studio is a collaboration between locals and Search for Common Ground, a Washington nonprofit that supports media initiatives around the world. Studio Ijambo's reports are respected enough that Burundi's national radio station airs them daily, and several Ijambo reporters cover the country for Reuters and other foreign print media.
Agnes Nindorera, who writes for Agence-France Press, has taken her share of risks in two decades of reporting. Two years ago, a provincial governor arrested her for seven hours. Her offense? She insisted on entering his province.
Last September, she caused a furor with an article criticizing the military's treatment of Hutus in "regroupment" camps. Herself a Tutsi, she was hauled into military headquarters and assailed for "betraying" her own group. In local vernacular, this was tantamount to a death threat. Rather than hide, which she had done on other occasions, she sued a senior military officer in court, exposing herself even further.
The following month, Burundi's then minister of defense gave a speech where he complained about Nindorera's articles and said that if any journalists visited a regroupment camp they should be treated as "the enemy." This time, she left the country for several weeks until the furor faded. Two years earlier, she had done the same after a senior military officer told her to go into hiding or risk being murdered.
So compelling are Nindorera's articles - and so complicated are the tensions within the Tutsi and Hutu elite - that "powerful people want to protect her and privately support her work," says Alexis Sinduhije, a prominent Burundi journalist.
Were it not for the help of closet reformers, says Nindorera, 38, "I would not still be alive."
Worse than her fears is the difficulty of coping with her grief. Many of her relatives were killed or fled their homes in attacks by Hutus. In her village, 64 relatives died, and the house where she was born and lived until the age of 15 was destroyed.
Viewing the ruins of this house, which she did four years ago, left her bereft. "Everything was looted," she recalls. "I didn't cry, but inside me was pain. Pain deeper than crying."
G. Pascal Zachary is a contributing editor of In These Times.