Humanitarian work proves risky for CRS Burundi Staff

By: David Snyder
In a small lot beside the CRS office in Burundi sits a stark reminder of the hazards of relief work. It is not much of a memorial: bullet-scarred metal and two broken windshields. But it is, most importantly, a monument to the living, thanks to the foresight of a CRS Country Representative, the skills of a cool-headed staff member, and a few inches of bullet resistant glass.

This story unfolded on January 19 during a food evaluation two CRS staff members were conducting at a remote village about 20 miles south of Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. In the vehicle were Salvatore Biziman and Christophe Droeven -- both CRS Project Managers -- and Jean-Marie Bihizi, a CARITAS Burundi staff member working with CRS. Having conducted the food security assessment without incident, the three men were on their way back to the CRS office when they came upon a tree across the road. An armed man stood behind the tree, motioning with his hands for the vehicle to stop.

Within seconds, armed rebels emerged onto the paved surface of the road. Droeven, in his first week of employment with CRS, takes the story from there:

Salvatore was saying, "This is not right. This is not a soldier." He stopped the car. Then the [rebel] picked his gun up and aimed it at us. Others came out onto the road. For two or three seconds -- maybe five seconds -- we looked at them, aiming their guns. It was very unreal. Then all of the noise, and everything happened.

The rebels opened fire. Bizimana, who was driving, reacted instantly, throwing the car into reverse and driving backwards down the road with the rebels giving chase and firing continuously. "When it happens, you don't think. You only want to get out of there," Droeven recalled. "I was in the backseat, lying down. There was nothing I could do."

Unable to stop the car and turn around, Bizimana drove backwards for two kilometers until he came upon a group of Burundian soldiers who had been alerted by the firing. The rebels fled.

"The first thing we did when we reached the military post was hug," Droeven said, remembering the enormous sense of relief that filled the vehicle. "Then we called CRS and told them what happened, and that everyone was OK."

In fact, everyone was OK for one simple reason: the Land Cruiser the men were driving was armored, one of only a handful of such vehicles in CRS programs around the world. Built using Kevlar armor -- the same material used in bullet proof vests -- and bullet resistant glass, the vehicle had been purchased in 1995 by the CRS Country Representative in Burundi, who had been concerned about increasing levels of violence in the country. A civil war has been raging in Burundi since 1993.

In the few terrifying moments, the vehicle suffered 16 hits, including two in the front windshield and one in the side passenger windshield that would certainly have been fatal were it not for the special protective glass. Not a single bullet got through the armor.

The engine, however, was not so lucky. With a bullet through the radiator and another through the battery, Bizimana and the other men, under heavy military escort, headed back to the office, stopping frequently to refill the damaged radiator. Approaching the site of the attack again, they came upon a burning vehicle, which had also been attacked by the rebels at the ambush site. The occupants had been robbed and beaten, but were alive.

Despite the damage to the vehicle, the three men made it back to the office. In the failing light they shared hugs with a compound full of worried and relieved staff members. The event was recounted in French, Kirundi, and English. The entire staff went out to celebrate.

It was an odd feeling that evening, sitting in a restaurant, sharing a beer and laughing the laughter of stress relief with three men who might well have been dead. We toasted a lot. We laughed a lot. We heard again the stories of those few moments in the car, recalled with laughter now, safely distant from the terror of the event.

And as the gathering broke up amid handshakes and well wishes, a hug from Droeven for the man who had been driving the car that day, and two simple words: "merci beaucoup."

I relate this story with one purpose in mind: to convey to those who may read it the hazards that thousands of relief workers around the world face every day in their effort to help people who are suffering. This particular event could not have been anticipated, nor could it have been prevented save by completely restricting travel outside of Bujumbura itself -- a decision that would literally leave thousands of Burundians without hope of much needed aid. All security procedures had been followed. All sources had been contacted before this team ventured out. It was, in short, just a random attack like thousands of others that occur in war-torn countries around the world.

And more teams will go out, whenever and wherever possible. And more people will be reached will life-saving food aid because of it.

Back in his office at CRS in Bujumbura, I caught up with Droeven, filling out a report of the attack on the vehicle. He recounted for me again the details of the event.

"Will you go out again?" I asked.

"No problem," he said, without hesitation.