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Home » Stories » Gaca

Gaca, being a voice for the voiceless in Burundi


By Gaca and Connor McMullen
Illustrations by Jan-Hein van Dulm

Gaca is a human rights defender who stayed in Shelter City away from their home in Burundi. Due to the serious nature of the security situation, Gaca has chosen to protect their identity using a pseudonym, and certain details of the story have been obscured.

The voice inside the radio

Gaca sits on their father’s knee, the two of them listening together to the nightly broadcast on the family’s radio. As the programme finishes, the man looks down to the child, ‘Someday, you will speak on the radio and the people will listen to you.’ The words seep into Gaca’s heart as their mind tries to comprehend. ‘I don’t understand. How can a person fit inside, and their voice come out of the radio? How will I fit inside there, when I grow up?’

In the morning, with their father out the door and mother busy, Gaca looks again to the radio. Curiosity gripping them as only it can grip a five-year-old, the child set to work. Hours pass as Gaca manages to partially dissemble the outer shell of the radio, breaking only half of the pieces in the process. No closer to finding an answer to their question, the curiosity turns towards easier puzzles as Gaca trundles away from the mess.

Just then, the front door swings open, and an exasperated gasp slips from his father’s tired lips. He demands an explanation from his wife. She simply responds. ‘That would be Gaca. You have to ask them.’ Anger broiling, the man yells for Gaca. ‘Why have you done this to my new radio?’ Gaca struggles to meet his father’s gaze, tears welling as he fears what will come next. ‘I was checking how I will be when I will be a journalist. Speaking from inside the radio, like you said.’

The anger trickles from the man’s face as he realises what has happened. He sat down next to the damaged radio and calls Gaca over. He begins to explain again, this time more explicitly. ‘My child. When you are a journalist, you will not be speaking from inside the radio. You see, far away there is an antenna…’


Gaca never stopped listening. Approaching the end of his studies, Gaca is prompted to think about the future when they reads the message about selecting a thesis project. ‘I can be one day somewhere speaking and the population will follow me on the radio. There is only one station I want to work for: Radio Publique Africane (RPA).’

After spending their formative years listening to the journalists who are ‘The Voice of the Voiceless,’ Gaca impresses the RPA staff with his thesis work, enough so that they offer them a full-time position as a journalist. Gaca dives into pressing topics of the day: agriculture, land conflicts, and human rights, fulfilling the mission his father had given him.

Radio Publique Africane

Founded in 2001, RPA initially worked to repair the wounds of colonialism and civil war, an extremely difficult task, considering the deep divide between Hutu and Tutsi communities in Burundi. The challenge was made no easier by the history of radio in the conflict. Before and during the war, the inflammatory language on the airwaves added fuel to the fires of ethnic violence. More than one million lives were lost in the struggle.

Since the early days of RPA, their journalists have been targeted for their work. In 2003, RPA’s founder Alexis Sinduhije narrowly avoided an attempt on his life when armed guards killed a member of his security team in a case of mistaken identity.

Doing more

Gaca shakes their head, trying to brush off the effects of the long day in the field, as they climb into their car. Gaca’s intuition speaks to them as they rumble down the road to the next stop on their beat. ‘Yes, we can make a report. Yes, we can write an article about some cases or problems which other persons have. But when we speak on the radio it is only one direction. The response is not very quick.’

‘We need to stay more engaged with the people after the story. Help them more with their rights.’

The intuitive monologue pauses as Gaca pulls into the next stop. There, over the course of the next hour, a familiar story emerges. An elderly man has been beaten. Someone wants his land. Gaca shakes their head again as they write down the story. ‘We must do something more.’ Phones ring for months as Gaca and a few close friends struggle to form a legal NGO through the Burundian bureaucracy. After months of false starts and unexpected hurdles, the small group breathes a collective sigh of relief as they finally sign the last form.

Now, when Gaca goes to the field, they do two jobs. They still verifiy sources, take reports, and write articles as always. But now they also collect the names and contacts of communities in need of help. They forward the information to the rest of the association, so they can follow up with them regarding help. For years the arrangement works smoothly. Change is slow, but it is real. Until it is almost entirely unravelled in a fateful year for all Burundians.

Burundi, 2015

The Burundian constitution limits the president to two terms. Pierre Nkurunziza, approaching the end of his increasingly oppressive second term in April 2015, announces his plan for a third campaign. Protests follow. Then a military coup fails. Finally, an election boycott by the opposition party and a first-ever third presidential term in Burundi. Violence soaks the streets of the capital for most of the year. Radio Publique Africa was burnt to the ground in an act of terrorism. Journalists find themselves the target of government forces under the cover of the conflict. Gaca and many of their colleagues flee for their lives. More than 1,700 civilians were killed in the fighting, and eventually more than 300,000 people also leave the country seeking refuge.

Gaca sits in the safe house, time dragging by as they watch updates trickle across his phone. He carefully considers the risks.

‘My name is known. It’s not safe for me to work openly in my country. I cannot stay here on the outside. I must go back, to keep trying.’

Selling the car

In Burundi, someone can have a car today, tomorrow he can have the idea to sell the car, and on Wednesday, he has the money. ‘I know they are following me. So let them follow me to the car market. I will go there every day. After some two, three months, they will see I am not a journalist any more. I am a second-hand car salesperson.’

The Toyota rumbles down the dusty road, the latest RPA report playing on the radio, now broadcasting from an underground location, breaking the government’s gag order. Gaca’s hands coolly gripped the steering wheel as they consider the risks one last time. ‘I have a good car, many will be interested. I will have to set a high price, persuade them to buy something else.’

Weeks pass to months as Gaca spends the days loitering as a car dealer, obviously not being a journalist. Of course, while they pretend to sell their car, they also watch and listen. The market was the perfect place to gather information for their stories. The routine eventually clicks into place. Drive to the car market. Sell, watch and listen. Drive home. Write. Check-in with the rest of the team, passing along the names and numbers of those who need help and researching the best watching spots for the next day.

Playing car dealer isn’t the only method Gaca uses to skirt the security forces that watched their every move. Once, they left the country for a few days for security training, only to return to face accusations of collaborating with rebel forces. Security risks again force Gaca to leave their country in hiding.

Months pass even slower this time as the situation back home stagnates. Finally, a message from a friend comes in. ‘Gaca. We’ve accessed your police file. It is empty. There is no use for them to arrest you.’ ‘It’s safe. I can go home.’ Their family has grown, and they miss them. It continues to grow as they set back to work, providing stories to RPA and supporting his association from undercover. However, unknown to Gaca at the time, an old source joins the regime.

Two phone calls

Gaca does not recognise the number on the caller ID. They answer warily. ‘Hello. Am I speaking to Gaca?’, the voice is full of bravado. ‘Yes, this is Gaca. May I ask who this is?’. ‘Oh, I am the local chief! Long time, no see. You haven’t been around here for a long time. You know you are intelligent; we need you in our community. Please, I have something to discuss with you. Why don’t you come down to the station?’

Gaca frowns into the phone. ‘Yeah, he could call me. But this is the first time he is calling me and telling me these things. This feels like a trap.’ Gaca keeps up the act. ‘You know, I want to, but I cannot. I have no job right now. So, I have to look for work. Maybe you would like a second car! Please, give to me the job of finding you a second car.’ Disappointment hangs in the chief’s voice as Gaca declines and hangs up the phone. A few hours later, he summons a meeting of police officers and other regime members in his office. ‘What are we going to do with Gaca?’

The confines of the local police station are not populated entirely by enemies. Gaca has their own sources within the walls. Late in the evening, their wife’s phone rings. A friend’s voice pleads on the line. ‘Please madam. If you do not want to be a widow tomorrow, you will tell your husband to leave the house right now.’ She burst into the bedroom in tears, ‘Please, my husband go away. They are coming to kill you.’

Gaca shoots out of bed, ‘Who? Who are coming to kill me?’ The wife’s words spill out with her tears. Gaca calls a few more friends. I have to go. Now. Gaca pulls on some trousers and a t-shirt, rushing through the house, collecting nothing more than a small stack of papers, a hard drive, and a cell phone. Hurrying a goodbye to their wife and kisses each child on the cheek. No sense to try and explain why they were going away. They are too young to understand. Without even a change of clothes, Gaca leaves their home again. The rest of the week streaks by in a blur as Gaca searches for a safe avenue out of the country.

‘I cannot pass through the airport in Burundi. Surely they will arrest me. I will have to go over the border by car.’

Some days after they left their home in a rush, Gaca’s driver passes a fistful of banknotes to a tired soldier at a checkpoint. Safety away from home. Again.

A dangerous place to speak

The regime in Burundi is one of the most oppressive in the world. This year, Reporters Without Borders rated Burundi as one of the most restrictive places in the world for free speech. At 160, Burundi is in the bottom 12% of all nations listed. While RPA continues to broadcast in secret, some NGOs have been forced to flea Burundi in recent years to escape relentless scrutiny and police raids for speaking out against the regime.

Where next?

Another stint in a safe-house leads to an introduction to Justice & Peace’s Shelter City initiative. A safe place where Gaca could spend three months recuperating in a Shelter City. A chance to rest, recover, and organize a plan for the future. Even from abroad, Gaca continued their work, supporting other journalists in their work to expose the realities of life in their home country.

‘You know to change to something in a country it is not easy. It comes slowly. I think because the problems are there. Kidnapping. Assassinations. Rapes. Illegal arrests and imprisonment. They are facts which are there. If we do this, to write and share, it can help to change my country.’

Burundi remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and citizens alike. The regime’s control over the national media ensures that this reality is hidden from most of the world. Many RPA journalists, like Gaca, remain in hiding. We thank Gaca for bringing this story to life and shedding light on the work, lives, and experiences of journalists at risk.