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Gaca, A Voice for the Voiceless

04-05-2021

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

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

Chapter 1: The Voice Inside the Radio

Gaca sits on his 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 boy, “Someday son. Someday, you will speak on the radio and the people will listen to you.”

The words seep into Gaca’s heart as his 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?

Come morning, with his father out the door and mother busy, Gaca looks again to the radio. Curiosity gripping him as only it can grip a five-year-old, the boy 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 his 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 your son. Gaca. You have to ask him.”

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 son. When you are a journalist, you will not be speaking from inside the radio. You see, far away there is an antenna…”

Chapter 2: Destiny

Gaca never stopped listening. Approaching the end of his studies, Gaca is prompted to think about the future when he 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 his 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 him 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.

Chapter 3: Doing More

Gaca shakes his head, trying to brush off the effects of the long day in the field, as he climbs into his car. Gaca’s intuition speaks to him as he rumbles down the road to the next stop on his 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 his 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 his head again as he writes 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, he does two jobs. He still verifies sources, takes reports, and writes articles as always. But now he also collects the names and contacts of communities in need of help. He forwards 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.

Chapter 4: 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 his 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 he watches 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.

Chapter 5: 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 salesman.

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 he considers 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 his days loitering as a car dealer, obviously not being a journalist. Of course, while he pretends to sell his car, he also watches and listens. The market was the perfect place to gather information for his 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 his every move. Once, he 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 his 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. His family has grown, and he misses them. It continues to grow as he 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.

Chapter 6: Two Phone Calls

Gaca does not recognise the number on the caller ID. He answers warily.

“Hello. Am I speaking to Gaca?” The voice is full of bravado.

“Yes, this is Gaca. May I ask who this is?”

“Oh, Mr. Gaca, 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.”

The commissioner sucks in a breath to speak, but Gaca continues.

“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 his own sources within the walls. Late in the evening, his 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?”

His wife’s words spill out with her tears. Gaca calls a few more friends. I have to go. Now. Gaca pulls on his trousers and t-shirt, rushing through the house, collecting nothing more than a small stack of papers, a hard drive, and his cell phone.

He hurries a goodbye to his wife and kisses each child on the cheek. No sense to try and explain why dad was going away. They are too young to understand. Without even a change of clothes, Gaca leaves his 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 he left his 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.”

Chapter 7: 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 organise a plan for the future. Even from abroad, Gaca continued his work, supporting other journalists in their work to expose the realities of life in his home 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. Gaca’s time in Shelter City has come to a close. He is working out his next move. Thinking about the future.

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. – Gaca

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This story is part of a series of stories written together with journalists that are staying or have stayed in Shelter City. Justice & Peace thanks Gaca, writer Connor McMullen, and illustrator Jan-Hein van Dulm for bringing this story to life and shedding light on the work, lives, and experiences of journalists at risk. We also thank the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their additional support to journalists at risk in Shelter City, and to whom this story was made possible by.