Sunday, April 17, 2011

Unrest in Burkina

It’s been an interesting week in Burkina. Just as things seem to be moving towards a resolution of the situation in Côte d'Ivoire, unrest appears to be increasing in Burkina. It began over a month ago with the student demonstrations in various parts of the country following the death of a fellow student as the result of beatings by police, leading the government to close all schools for a couple of weeks. Then when some soldiers were sentenced to prison terms for crimes against civilians, their comrades in arms decided to show their displeasure and disagreement by marching through the streets of Ouagadougou, firing their weapons into the air, looting businesses along the way, and eventually liberating their imprisoned colleagues. The same actions subsequently spread to other military camps around the country before things quieted down again.

The latest round of unrest began late in the evening of last Thursday (April 14) when members of the presidential guard decided to also voice their complaints and began firing off their weapons, protesting unsatisfactory living conditions, inadequate pay, and unpaid allowances. Unfortunately, they decided to do some of their shooting in the presidential compound, prompting the president, Blaise Compaoré, and his family to temporarily move to another location in the middle of the night for security reasons. However, several hours later, on Friday morning, the president was back in Ouaga to hold scheduled meetings with various military groups.

We heard very little of all this in our suburb of Ouaga, but a Burkinabè colleague that lives near a main road told me that he didn’t get much sleep Thursday night. Sometime after midnight, a truckload of soldiers pulled up on the road not far from his place and began firing their machine guns into the air for about 20 minutes (after which they probably ran out of ammunition). My colleague and his family lay on the floor of their house during the whole time. While firing weapons into the air is better than shooting horizontally at buildings or people, the problem is that bullets that go up must eventually come down. Just recently, a 14-year old girl died as a result of being hit by a spent bullet that pierced the roof and ceiling of her house while she slept in bed. In another case, a spent bullet struck a gas bottle, sparking a fire that destroyed a local business.

At work on Friday, we heard of unrest downtown and gunfire in various parts of the city, some of it close to our centre, so we decided to allow all staff to go home early. I was scheduled to take a colleague to the airport (which is in the downtown area) in late afternoon and, not having heard of any more incidents, loaded up the truck and headed off. Instead of the usual rush-hour jams, traffic was unusually light since schools and most businesses had closed for the day. The trip was uneventful, but when I arrived at the airport, I received a message forwarded from the French embassy on my phone warning people to avoid travelling in 4X4 vehicles since soldiers around the city were stopping and stealing them. This was obviously not the best time to tell me this! But I headed home again with my eyes peeled and arrived without incident. Life along the streets appeared to be going on as normal.

On Friday night, the president dissolved the civil government and replaced the heads of the army and the presidential guard. The general sense was one of relief that the president was still in charge and was making an effort to bring things back under control. There was also news that the grievances of the presidential guard were being addressed. However, that night, there was more shooting and looting on the part of the military. So on Saturday, hundreds of aggrieved merchants took to the streets of downtown Ouaga to protest the looting and destruction of their businesses. They torched the headquarters of the leading political party, attacked the Ministry of Commerce and torched vehicles nearby, and attacked the National Assembly building of the civil government, causing extensive damage.

In response, a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was imposed on the city. Things seem to be calm today, except in a military camp in the south of the country where soldiers were reportedly shooting and looting in the nearby town of Pô.

Do we feel in any danger? Not at all. But we take precautions by not doing any unnecessary travelling, avoiding the downtown area, and keeping our eyes open as to what’s going on around us wherever we go. Unfortunately, Kathy & I had planned to take advantage of Easter Break this week at the school where Kathy is teaching a health class to sneak in a few days of R&R and visiting language teams down in the southwest area of Burkina. Guess we’ll have to postpone that for another time :( However, we did go to a wedding yesterday! It’s nice to find things to celebrate, especially in such times as these :)

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