Death swept quickly through Burundi. It was October 1993. Just months earlier this small Central African country had sworn in its first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, in the first democratic elections since it gained independence in 1962. President Ndadaye’s rule lasted only 103 days. His life – and the country’s first experiment in democracy – came to an abrupt end on 21 October 1993 at the hands of a group of soldiers from the Tutsi-dominated army. Over 50,000 people were killed in the months that followed.
Testimony of hate
‘On the road where one of the confrontations had taken place, I watched helplessly as a group of four or five Tutsi boys with machetes cut the throats of two small Hutu girls, six or seven years old,’ recalls Alexis Sinduhije, a journalist with the state-owned radio station at the time. ‘All of my Hutu colleagues wanted [this story] to be broadcast. My Tutsi colleagues opposed it.’ And so did the Tutsi-controlled radio station for which Alexis worked. It refused to broadcast his report.
‘Kill your neighbours before they kill you.’ This was the message being sent out by media to both the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. Alexis appealed to his radio colleagues to challenge such hate speech. Again, his colleagues refused.
Six months later, neighbouring Rwanda fell headlong into a genocidal abyss. The speed and scale of the slaughter – where almost a million Tutsis and Hutus were killed in just over three months – was a chilling warning to neighbouring Burundi. Pivotal in provoking the Rwandan slaughter was Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which called on Hutus to destroy the inyenzi (cockroaches) – the term that Hutu extremists gave to Tutsis. Soon after, in Burundi, Radio Rutomorangingo (‘the radio that tells the truth’) began to broadcast similar hate speech.
The power of radio is far-reaching in Burundi. As one listener explains: ‘We are an oral culture for whom the radio is much more important than any other media. People gather around the radio daily with banana beer and comment on what the radio is saying.’
It was against this backdrop that Studio Ijambo (‘wise words’) was launched in 1995. Established by Search for Common Ground (a US-based charity working to help prevent violent conflict in ‘hot spots’ around the world) it had a clear brief to reach the largest number of people – both perpetrators and victims of violence – with eyewitness accounts that would define the conflict in human terms.
‘The Studio aimed for journalism that highlighted tolerance, different perspectives and the views of ordinary people. These things really hadn’t been done before in Burundi,’ recalls Adrien Sindayigaya, who joined Alexis Sinduhije shortly after the launch. One of the early ‘ground rules’ set by the Studio was the use of mixed Hutu-Tutsi teams to cover stories. For security reasons, it made sense to travel in mixed teams to minimize the threat of being attacked by one group or another at impromptu roadblocks. In addition, it gave listeners both Hutu and Tutsi perspectives on sensitive issues, while sending a message that living and working together is possible. ‘The challenge of remaining neutral is a skill that helps us in our personal lives too,’ says producer Francine Gahimbare.
‘Initially some people called us mercenaries and traitors because we were ready to denounce violence from any side, even from our own communities,’ says Adrien. On one occasion, Studio Ijambo staff barely escaped an ambush that was believed to have been ordered by an army commander furious that the journalists had visited an area where there had been heavy fighting between the army and Hutu rebels. On another, a senior minister instructed the army: ‘If you see these journalists, treat them as you would your enemy.’ Despite these risks the journalists persevered – and prospered.
Studio Ijambo isn’t a radio station. It’s a production studio. Rather than having to invest heavily in the infrastructure necessary for broadcasting, the staff have been able to focus solely on making quality programmes which – through partnerships with stations in Burundi and neighbouring countries – now reach millions of people across Central and East Africa. And since the Studio’s programmes proved so popular with ordinary Burundians, it wasn’t long before other media organizations began copying its style and format.
Its output has been prolific. In addition to award-winning news reports, it also produces stories about the peace process in Burundi; discussion programmes involving youth, refugees and women’s groups; as well as Heroes – a programme about ordinary people who saved the lives of others during the conflict. Perhaps its best-known production is Umubanyi Niwe Muryango (‘Our Neighbours, Our Family’). A phenomenally successful radio drama about a Tutsi and Hutu family living next door to each other, the challenges facing ordinary Burundians are reflected in these two families as the country moves from war to peace.
Can Studio Ijambo be as powerful a force for peace as it is against hate? The Studio’s former Director, Francis Rolt, acknowledges that there are limitations to what can be achieved by media alone. The promotion of human rights and fair elections, and the elimination of corruption and small arms, are just some of the issues that need to be tackled to reduce the chances of future conflict. It is in part a measure of the Studio’s success that such issues are now being discussed openly in Burundi.
‘Conflict is not just about war,’ Adrien says. ‘There are a lot of conflicts in Burundi right now: conflicts over good governance; disarmament; the repatriation of displaced people; land tenure; justice; women’s issues. We need to have a dialogue on all these issues. There is plenty more work for us to do.’
Quotes from the report Ijambo: Speaking Truth Amidst Genocide by Alexis Sinduhije were used in this article.