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Army General Overthrows President Of Burundi In Apparent Coup


Reports of a coup today in the East African country of Burundi. The president was away at a conference to resolve the country's unrest, and Burundians celebrated in the streets. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner has been monitoring the situation from his base in Nairobi and joins us now. And Gregory, what's happening in Burundi?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, Audie, there has been unrest in Burundi for weeks, ever since the President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for an apparently unconstitutional third term. And to give some context, Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The economy's deteriorated under the current president. And the fear was that if he ran again, if he got a chance to run again, he'd rig the election and rule for another five years. So in these weeks of protest with police at times opening fire on protesters, the army has played a sort of peacekeeping role. At times they've even restrained police officers. So today, when the president was off in Tanzania for an election crisis conference, an army general announced that he had staged a military coup. The president was now overthrown. And the president's plane was later turned away from the airport. Although it's right now nighttime in Bujumbura, the capital, and no one can say for sure what is exactly going on, and U.S. officials say they're still unable to confirm that a coup is, in fact, taking place.

CORNISH: And this is a country with a history of political violence. I mean, give us more of that background.

WARNER: Sure. Burundi's history of violence is similar to its northern neighbor Rwanda. You have the exact same ethnic groups, intention, the same cyclical history of violence. And while there is not an ethnic aspect right now to this military coup, the fear is that ethnic factions within the army and the police will jockey for power and increase the chance of this becoming another civil war, like happened fairly recently in 1993. And I think these fears show that Burundi is a place where that violent past can feel very present. I was talking last week to a Burundian poet. Her name is Ketty Nivyabandi. She was just passing through Nairobi, so we met up in a cafe. And she has devoted her poetry to unearthing what she sees as the very dangerous buried traumas that people in Burundi carry with them about the war years.

KETTY NIVYAABANDI: You know, you hear bits and pieces of things that happen to people during that time, but no one really openly talks about the fact that they saw corpses on the street every day.

WARNER: Nivyabandi and I, as I said, were meeting in a cafe in Nairobi. You could hear kids playing in the background. It wasn't a place you'd expect to be discussing a war. But the setting reminded her of a story from her own childhood. When she was 15 in 1993, and her mother, already sensing the growing unrest in Burundi, had put her and her little sister on a plane to Paris to go to school there. So she ended up seeing the whole war on television in Paris in all its graphic detail.

NIVYAABANDI: To the extent that I would try to hide my mom how much I knew and try to preserve her idea that I was still "innocent" in quotes, I would say. She was trying to preserve me, and I would try to preserve her.

WARNER: So flash forward, now Nivyabandi finally moves back to Burundi in 2009. At this point, the country is peaceful. But there's always this tension she feels under the surface. And so that's why she told me that the day that the president announced his decision to run for a third term, the day that protesters marched in the streets, she followed her own mother's example and sent her own daughters to a school in another country. And now when she talks to them on the phone, she never talks about war; she just talks about things like schoolwork and, of course, the movie "Frozen."

NIVYAABANDI: And I find myself doing what my mother was doing, trying to protect them. At the same time, they sense the tension. I know they do.

WARNER: Just as you did.

NIVYAABANDI: Just as I did. I could feel it.

WARNER: More than 50,000 Burundians feel it, too. That's how many people have fled the country, abandoned their homes to live in refugee camps over the border. So the first big test of whether the army can keep the peace after this military coup is whether when those closed borders do finally open, more thousands return or more thousands take the opportunity to flee.

CORNISH: That's Gregory Warner, our East Africa correspondent. And, Greg, you'll be following this story in Burundi. And I assume the next big question is who is this military leader?

WARNER: His name is General Niyombare. He's a fairly charismatic general, though it's not clear how much of the army's backing he now has. And then there are other armed groups in Burindi, such as the president's feared youth brigade that he'll have to quickly get under control to succeed.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Gregory Warner. Greg, thanks so much.

WARNER: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.