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In Rwanda, Burundian freelancers find a place of safety

Tuesday, 06 September 2016 Written by Valentine Gavard with Austin Cooper

Over 150 journalists have been forced to flee Burundi since April 2015. Here RPT's Valentine Gavard describes a unique initiative that is providing shelter and protection to Burundian freelancers in Rwanda.  

Before he discovered the existence of the Ihumure guesthouse in Rwanda, Janvier, a Burundian freelancer in exile, poetically explains that he was “using the sky for a blanket”. The Ihumure has a distinct clientele - and runs rather differently to your average backpackers’ hostel.
 
Janvier and Josiane - also freelance - have been staying at the guesthouse for more than  a year. They used to work for Burundi's African Public Radio (RPA), a station which - alongside Bonesha FM and Isanganiro - was set up during the country's civil war with three basic objectives: peace, reconciliation and education.

Then in May 2015 President Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term in office and nationwide demonstrations against his rule ended in violent repression. Nkurunziza's government began targeting independent radio stations and journalists and after a partial banned from broadcasting, RPA's offices were ransacked on 16 May 2016.

Josiane and Janvier fled their homes in 2015, pursued by the intelligence services, and eventually fled Burundi. “When the protests first started, we just left our house in Mutakura and went to hide with my parents - the two children and I,” Josiane explains. “As for my husband, he was forced to flee separately. A month later, we took our chance and left.”

At least 150 Burundian journalists - most of them freelance - have made the same journey, either into neighbouring Rwanda, or further north to Uganda. Fearing that their loved ones would suffer reprisals, many left with their entire families. Others fled alone. The vast majority arrive in their new country with nothing left in their pockets and little chance of work.
 
The Ihumure guesthouse provides shelter and respite for some of those journalists. Run by the Rwandan Journalists Association and financially supported by the Rory Peck Trust, with our partners the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and International Media Support (IMS), it can accommodate 15 Burundian journalists at a time. It is aptly named: in Kinyarwanda, ‘Ihumure’ means quiet, or calm.   
 
Rooms in the guesthouse are shared by two people.  There isn’t room to accommodate families, so a friend is looking after Josiane’s children. “I feel at ease here, and the atmosphere is good”, she says, although she admits that there’s an unshakeable feeling of fear among the exiled freelancers - “we’re always on our guard.”  

This fear isn’t without justification. At the end of July 2016, Jean Bigirimana, a freelancer working for the newspaper Iwacu disappeared in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura, just after he returned from Kigali. In the same period, a journalist for Bonesha FM, in exile in Uganda, was stabbed in public by individuals he recognised from Burundi.

Both Josiane and Janvier recount rumours of poisoning attempts directed at Burundians in exile, and the presence of secret agents in Kigali who they say have been trying to infiltrate the freelance community.

Mostly though, they are preoccupied with their professional situation, says Janvier: “For us freelancers, it’s practically impossible to get proper work in Rwanda.” To avoid boredom and idleness, some of the guesthouse residents volunteer as journalists with other local organisations.“At the moment, we’re just living from one day to the next”, adds Josiane. 

As they live life in limbo, away from their home and families, the Ihumure guesthouse can at least provide safety, shelter, community and friendly support for some Burundian freelancers in exile.
 
Since June 2015, RPT has also provided 23 individual assistance grants to Burundian freelancers forced to flee their homes.
 
Valentine Gavard is RPT's Programme Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa. Follow her @GavardValentine
 
Photos: Image of Jean Bigirimana courtesy of Iwacu News; Police prepare to charge protesters opposed to the Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term during a demonstration in the Musaga neighborhood of Bujumbura on May 20, 2015 (AFP PHOTO/Carl de Souza). Photo of Ihumure guesthouse courtesy of Josiane. 
 
 

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