Thursday, May 14, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 5: Why Ears are Most Important in an Adventure

As I write this, 10 days after leaving Bujumbura, the airport is closed and the borders are closed. The country has essentially been closed ever since April 26. The protests are small, hundreds or a few thousand in the context of a city of millions, but the sentiment is deep and lasting. My primary concern is with all the people that need to work to eat, and recent word is that water has been turned off as well. This is not sustainable, so please keep praying for peace in Burundi.

The country's story is far from finished, but my story there (for now) is finished, because as I described in part 4, we (meaning "my wife on the phone for a very long time") were able to rebook my tickets. The trip was scheduled to last 35 hours from takeoff to touchdown, but the longest part was the few hours on Monday during which I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn't be able to get to the airport at all.

We decided to be smart about how I would get to the airport, so I moved away from the university where I had been teaching, which was on the border of a neighborhood with frequent protests, and stayed the night at a house up on the hills east of downtown. The protests had been frequent north of downtown, and very frequent south of downtown, but no significant protests had taken place east of downtown. The airport was northwest of downtown, so it seemed like it would be a straight shot to take me to my flight.

In mid-morning, about three hours before I would have to leave to go, we heard the crowd noise of protest below. During political unrest, the most accurate news about what's going on is your own ears. Noise is news. Protests and the measures taken to control them make noise, and with all windows open to the Burundi heat, it's easy to hear what's going on for miles around. The crowd noise sounds like a football game, and even has the same kind of chanting and cheers. I suppose both noises are associated with uncertain outcomes, too.

We all thought the noise sounded very close, too close, although on the hills sound can carry in funny ways. I was hoping that a temperature inversion was bringing far sounds near. But it wasn't an auditory illusion -- there was a big protest just half a mile away, at the bridge at the foot of our hill.

It seems the protestors were trying to keep the police off-guard by changing their tactics. Like an opposing force probing for weakness, they changed their direction of approach and were all coming from the northeast. In my efforts to avoid protests, I had moved next to the day's hot spot.

I couldn't do anything but listen. I thought that I might have time to work on my book or do a little reading, but I couldn't think about anything else but listening for the sounds of conflict below. As the minutes ticked by I adopted a mental posture that was half-waiting, half-praying, and half-listening. I was nervous. Too much conflict and the airport would close, and who knows how long it would take to get another ticket? All the planes were full.

Then the gunfire started. At first there were occasional shots that sounded like rifles. The crowd noise would ebb and flow, and maybe there would be a smoke plume of a burning tire barricade below (or maybe someone was just making charcoal, I couldn't tell). After thirty minutes of "is that gunshot or a hammer?" there came a moment with no doubt. We heard a barrage of gunfire, more than I had heard in my life all lumped together in a few minutes, dozens of guns firing again and again and again. I thought for sure that a tragedy had begun below.

But, oddly, the crowd noise quickly returned. We listened for sirens to pick up any wounded, but heard none. Then more gunfire, and more crowd nose. Both the gunfire and the crowd noise gradually decreased for an hour. The last gunshot I heard was 45 minutes before I needed to leave (I was timing it very precisely as if collecting data for an experiment). If the gunshots were blanks, or fired in the air, then the roads just might be clear, although bridges would very possibly be closed. But if they were live ammo ...

At the time I was supposed to leave, I had my bags stacked up at the door and had taken to waiting in the lobby rather than on the porch. But then a phone call came that my ride couldn't make it because our bridge was still closed.

That's when I received grace. My hosts risked their own car and used their own rapidly dwindling gas supply to try for it. There was one bridge far west that might still be open. We had no way of knowing if police closed roads or bridges, or if the airport was open. We took back roads and a roundabout route -- and when I saw occasional traffic coming the other way at normal speed, I realized that our prayers might just be answered yes on this day.

I am as grateful to my hosts for their own personal risk as I am for anything anyone has ever done for me. It was not an easy trip to make and we were all on edge. This is was adventure is. It's stress, pure and simple. I have no desire to seek out more of it at this time. If you want to know what it's like, picture a motion like Disneyland's Indiana Jones ride without any of the cool ride stuff and the possibility that you'll be turned back at any moment. This is not an E-ticket attraction.

At the airport, getting through ticketing and security took an hour and my plane had a two-hour delay, but I hardly noticed. After all morning sitting and listening, I was so shocked that I actually made it to the airport that I could only continue sitting and listening till I was on the plane. Those must have been blanks that we heard, and the police must have maintained their discipline in the face of approaching protestors. That is what I had specifically prayed for the night before (along with, of course, "getmetotheairport" about 50,000 times), and, that day, it happened.

The rest of the flight was long but relative to all that, it was easy. And I got to ride on a 787 for the first time. It's a nice plane -- but after 20 hours, you're still glad to get off.

And I'm glad to get home to my family and my country. Thank you to all who prayed for me. It was a close call, and all I can do is be thankful for the grace I was given that got me through. Now keep praying for all those still there. This has gone on for far too long, and the country needs healing and peace. It needs salvation -- as I heard the pastor say, "Burundi needs to be saved." Salvation in this case is tangible. So please pray with me for that, and let's watch and wait to see what grace will come.

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