Tuesday was an election day? Anicet Bavumiragiye couldn’t believe it.

“Really?” he said, eyes wide, over coffee at a local bagel shop. “It’s so quiet!”

Meaning Portland, Maine, in more ways than one, is a far cry from Burundi, Africa.

He’s one of 100 to 300 Burundians who live in Portland, depending on whose estimate you accept.

Most of them fled their homeland in the past year or two fearing for their lives – and most would still be unknown to the average Mainer if not for what happened last weekend at Portland’s Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Inside the hotel, Edouard Nduwimana, Burundi’s interior minister, spoke at a youth conference organized by the International Christian Fellowship, a church run by the Rev. Mutima Peter atop Portland’s Munjoy Hill.

Outside the hotel, some 75 Burundian exiles spent Saturday and Sunday protesting with signs that read “Maine does not welcome criminals” and “The blood of the Burundians is crying for justice.”
Anicet Bavumiragiye should know. Some of that blood was his.

He’s 31, a former journalist, and has been in Portland for just over a year. But to understand why he’s here, we have to go back 16 years to the civil war between Burundi’s majority Hutu tribe and its minority Tutsis.

Anicet, a Tutsi, lived at the time with his extended family in the village of Gitaramuka. Speaking through a translator on Tuesday, he relived a day that we peaceful Mainers couldn’t even begin to imagine:
“It was early in the morning, about four o’clock. Everybody was asleep. That’s when I heard noises coming from outside.”

Looking out a doorway, Anicet saw that his family’s compound had been completely surrounded by Hutu militiamen.

“Because the sun was about to rise, I could see that they had machetes, they had guns.”

He tried to run, but was quickly captured and tied up – the rope scars on his upper arms are visible to this day. His captors then dragged him back inside the house, where he and his parents were herded into a room with Anicet’s younger siblings.

“The children were sleeping. They cut the throats of all of my siblings in my presence – and my parents were also watching. After that, they killed my father and my mother.”
And Anicet?

“They told me I was going to suffer before I died because I tried to run away. … After they had killed all the Tutsis in the neighborhood, the person who was in charge gave the order to kill me as well. That’s when one of them took a spear and stabbed me on both sides. And then a knife – I think they thought they were cutting to my heart. I lost consciousness at that time.”

Thirty-four Tutsis died that day. Government troops who responded hours later found one – Anicet – with a faint pulse.

“They took me from that place to a hospital. They saw I could not breathe well. Then they took me to Bujumbura, the capital city. I didn’t know where I was. I was given oxygen. I spent about two weeks there. After awhile I regained consciousness but I was very weak. That’s when they told me what happened.”

Anicet would go on to identify two local Hutus who helped orchestrate the attack. One was sentenced to life imprisonment, the other to 20 years. But neither sentence, he said, was ever carried out.

“Now the leader of that rebel group (responsible for the attack) is the current president of Burundi,” he said. “And all the people who committed crimes, who committed war crimes, they were freed, they were given amnesty.”

Anicet recovered from his wounds and went on to attend Universite Lumiere de Bujumbura, where he studied communications.

Then, in 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza, head of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy, won a parliamentary election for president of Burundi (there was no opposition). And as Anicet watched his country fall under the control of a man whose militants once left him for dead, he decided to become a journalist.

“I could not understand how somebody could be killed because of his ethnic background,” he said. “I knew at that point I had to make a choice to speak on behalf of these people – especially the ones who have no one to speak for them.”

A year ago this spring, while working for Radio Maria Burundi, Anicet covered a commemoration of the killing of 40 Tutsi seminary students by the NCDD-FDD. The day his live report aired, he was picked up by the police.

“They held me for three days,” he said. “I was tortured.”

The police finally released him on the condition that he gather intelligence on the Nkurunziza government’s opposition and feed it to security officials. Instead, Anicet got a travel visa to attend a “conference” in Massachusetts, sent his wife and two young children into hiding, and fled to the United States.

“If I had stayed, even if I gave them the information they wanted, I would have been killed,” he explained.

He arrived in Portland on a Friday evening in May of 2011. Like other well-educated Burundians who have come here, Anicet now seeks political asylum in this country for himself and his family – he’s received help through the legal thicket from the Hope Gateway Methodist Church in Portland, where he now worships.

“They’re a gift to us, they really are,” said the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the church’s co-pastor, of the dozen or so Burundians who have joined the congregation. “The whole thing is so heartbreaking.”
And, until last weekend, so invisible.

Anicet and his countrymen are still mystified – not to mention unnerved – that Interior Minister Nduwimana would somehow show up in Portland. Nduwimana’s host, the Rev. Peter, has declined comment on what led to the invitation.

But of this they are certain: Nduwimana controls Burundi’s internal security apparatus and is thus a linchpin in what Human Rights Watch recently called “alarming patterns of political violence” in Burundi and an “overwhelming absence of justice for a majority of these crimes.”

“If you say anything against the government, (Nduwimana) is the one who sends the police,” Anicet said. “And they don’t even arrest you. They kidnap you and they kill you.”

No surprise, then, that it took but a few phone calls late Friday for a sizable portion of the local Burundian community to show up Saturday morning, stand across Spring Street from the Holiday Inn and make their displeasure known.

But here’s what did surprise them: Whenever a police cruiser passed, it kept going. And by the time they finally packed up their signs and went home Sunday afternoon, none of them – not one – had been carted off to jail.

And on Tuesday, as Mainers voted, again there was no bloodshed, no rioting, no rustling of guns and machetes in the predawn darkness …

So forgive Anicet if he feels like he’s on another planet. And while some undoubtedly will howl about his General Assistance benefits, his English lessons through Portland’s adult education program, his simple presence here, believe him when he says Maine is heaven on earth and he is here “by the grace of God.”

“We want to thank the state of Maine – and Portland in particular – for how they’ve welcomed us,” Anicet said. “And how they support us.”

Now back to the election …

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]