On the




“Out of Africa” 2. Burundi.

Like Rwanda, Burundi is a small but heavy populated country inhabited by two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. In Rwanda, the Hutu majority killed off the ruling Tutsi minority in 1962 and governed the country until 1994. In 1972, the minority Tutsi regime in Burundi was challenged by a Hutu rebellion, which also had genocidal proportions, but the regime held power, although it was disrupted by several coups afterward. When I joined the World Bank in 1972, I was tasked to develop the Bank’s non-existing lending program in both countries and we had succeeded relatively well when I changed jobs in 1979. In 1994, the tribal conflicts resumed in Rwanda when Tutsi refugees from Uganda took power again after a horrific genocide in which up to a million people lost their lives. It started when the Rwandese president’s plane in which also traveled the Burundi President was shot down while landing at Kigali airport. Everything we had achieved was destroyed in Rwanda’s civil war. In Burundi, it was not much better. Rwanda stabilized in 2003, but Burundi remained plagued by repeated rebellions. Most horrific was the rebel’s and the Burundi army’s use of children between the ages of 10-16 in direct combat.  The UN and the African Union had to intervene. Working on most of Africa was tough.

This picture shows me with the driver of the Peugeot 404 at the border post between Rwanda and Burundi in 1975. My Director, whom I accompanied on this trip took the picture.

The old colonial Paguidas Hotel where I stayed. Greek-owned. A Greek restaurant next to the hotel served fatty Greek dishes and meager chicken without meat. At night, ‘single male guests’ were surprised by knocking on their door, hearing a soft female voice saying, “c’est moi.” I suspected they were led to our rooms by the receptionist, who probably got a cut if the ladies found a willing customer. Complaining did not help: hungry families needed to eat and jobs were scarce. Later, they built a modern Meridien Hotel across. But the ‘nightly custom’ of whispers and knocks remained. 

First visit of a World Bank Vice President (leaning over on the picture) to Burundi, which I had arranged to ‘put Burundi on the map.’ It succeeded: he approved proceeding with the proposed strategy and project operations. I am the one with the camera hanging from my arm. We were wearing sweaters as the temperature in Burundi (800 meters above sea-level) can be pretty cool. The picture was taken by someone who did not have color film in his camera. We were watching a spectacular drum and dance group performance Burundi was famous for.

I caught one of these fabulous dancers up in the air. Despite all fighting, tribal hatred and misery, the Burundi people showed a remarkable resilience. 

Lake Tanganyika near Bujumbura town. Fishermen, mostly Hutus or Twa, a pygmy minority tribe, gathering on shore near their boats to fish sardines, which they dry onshore and sell at the market. A protein-rich fish Barundi people enjoy. At night they use torches to attract the fish which offers a fascinating view of dancing lights seen from the top of the hills on the outskirts of Bujumbura town. Read about it in ‘The Tutsi Queen’ https://amzn.to/2Ny1Ll6. On Kindle,  only 99cts.

Lake Tanganyika by day. Across is the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kivu area, from which Hutu rebels invaded Burundi to unseat the Tutsi regime. The lake is inhabited by hippos and crocodiles. Expats used it for sailing. An expat club was located at the lake, not far from Bujumbura airport. Once, a lady swimmer was attacked by a hippo in the water near the club, where people often took a swim. She lost half her bottom but survived. Coming back at night in my (borrowed!) car from the airport, where I had said farewell to a friend, I almost ran into a hippo crossing the small road. A weird sight seeing such a huge animal emerging from the grass on the right and slouching to the other side. Remarkably, it did not seem bothered by my headlights and just strolled on and disappeared. Had I run into the huge colossus, it would have been certain death.


I don’t know if some still remember Emperor Bokassa. He possessed three Boeings 707 while the country was dead poor. McNamara, then President of the World Bank, reportedly told him he was mismanaging his country but only achieved that Bokassa got rid of one Boeing. I set foot in this place in 1987, under a new regime but still ruled like a dictatorship. I managed to put a transport sector reform project together of $140 million in which many donors participated. The World Bank agreed to do so despite a major disagreement with the French Government that had committed to financing an earth road right through the Central African rainforest, the so-called ‘4th parallel road’. Construction eventually failed because unrest broke out and the Government toppled, once more. Our ‘TSP’ took off but implementation also suffered from government failure. Some pictures follow below.

The path of the 4th parallel road straight into the jungle. Pygmees and wildlife galore, including bush elephants. I found it an environmental disaster but the French Government – the former colonial power – won.

Supervising the 4th parallel road construction. The French engineer behind me found this job the dream of his life: constructing a road through a completely fresh terrain and on top of that a jungle. In the background a bulldozer hard at work, destroying beautiful tropical trees. But the precious wood got sold pretty good.

Trying to swing with the lianas of a tropical tree like Tarzan.

A waterfall near the forest.

Crossing the Oubangi River separating the Central African Republic from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A favored escape route for bandits and overthrown rulers.

Next time: Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon.




Killing the Elephant Poacher – A Mini-Thriller II




 After landing, Patrick left the engines running. “I’ll pick you up by nine tomorrow morning,” he said. “If you aren’t here I assume you won’t come. The driver knows how to contact me, just in case. Be careful.”

Yves and Pierre unloaded their bags and walked to the SUV while Patrick taxied away, paused for a moment, then took off.

The driver took their bags, but Yves held on to his rifle case.

They reached the camp by nightfall, driving partially over dirt roads and through savanna grass. The driver also did not stay and said he would pick them up between seven and eight the next morning when they were expected to return from their expedition.

Pierre led Yves to the captain. All his twenty rangers roaming around in the base were fully armed uniformed soldiers. At 2.30 in the morning they would move through the bush to the rebel camp in Soudan, where Mombé had been spotted, and attack at the slightest emergence of daylight. The border between the Central African Republic and Soudan was invisible in this area. Only the road to Khartoum had small customs offices. First, Yves would focus on Mombé, kill him, and then the rangers would take care of his men. They’d confiscate whatever catches of ivory they could find, and pile it up for transport to their main base. Yves asked Pierre how the rangers would find their way in the dark. To his utter surprise they all had night goggles.

“The rangers battling the poachers are an elite group,” is all that Pierre said. Yves found this peculiar, but dropped further questions. It was to his advantage that the rangers were combat ready, whatever the motive.

The captain took Yves to a small tent where he spent a few uncomfortable hours. Insects bit his neck and cheeks and he kept slapping himself. About two thirty, Pierre entered and told him the captain was assembling his men.

“One question,” Yves said. “Why hire me for this job and not a sniper from the French army base in Bangui? They must know these rangers, perhaps even train them.”

“The Government doesn’t like the French,” Pierre said. “Come, we must go.”

Yves didn’t like the way Pierre brushed off his question, but at this point it didn’t make a difference.

They waded through high grass in pairs. Rangers up front used their machetes to cut away a path, but did so as silently as possible. After an hour walk, they stopped. The stench of rotting flesh filled the air. One ranger flashed his torch on the ground and they saw the speared carcass of an elephant, tusks removed. The elephant’s head was riddled with bullets.


elephant killed

JOL Presse

 Yves felt disgusted. His crime syndicate dismembered dead rivals, but elephants? All of a sudden he felt good about killing Mombé.

Moving the team forward some 50 yards in fresher air, the captain halted and sent out two scouts to check out Mombé’s camp and recommend a suitable shooting spot for Yves.

After half an hour they came back and talked in an indistinguishable language to the captain. Pierre and Yves joined him. The scouts had identified Mombé’s camp but there were guards. A large tree stood at the edge from where Yves could aim, but an SUV was parked underneath watched by a guard.

The captain selected two of his men to accompany Yves to eliminate the guard. One of the two scouts would lead the way. The captain handed Yves his flare gun to warn them if he got in trouble or when he had eliminated Mombé, which would be the signal to attack the camp. He ordered Pierre to stay behind as he wanted to limit as much as possible the chances of the advance team being detected.

Yves left with the three men in the dark and struggled for some fifteen minutes through high savanna grass and bush, until the scout raised his hand. Yves could see the curves of some tents and the shape of the roof of an SUV underneath an acacia tree. A guard stood leaning against the vehicle, his AK-47 resting beside him on the ground. The only way for Yves to climb that tree would be to kill the guard without a sound. He designated one of the rangers with a signal of slicing his neck. The ranger understood and left. A few minutes later he heard a soft gurgle, then silence. They kept huddling down in the grass, waiting for the ranger to return, hoping the gurgle had not alarmed anyone in the camp. Yves looked at his watch. Four thirty. Soon, dawn would break.

The ranger came back with a mean grin on his face, carrying the AK-47 as a trophy. Yves assembled his rifle from its case, slid the magazine in place and left, leaving the case with the scout. Ducking to stay covered, he arrived at the acacia tree and climbed up as high as he could. He counted several small tents. Mombé should hopefully be holed up in one of them. Two guards stood outside one, probably his. He adjusted his telescope and waited.

After five minutes which seemed hours, he heard mumbling and saw movements in one tent. Yves held his Remington ready. Two shirtless men came out of a tent and went to relieve themselves. Others followed. When would they discover that one of the guards had disappeared? There was no time left. First thing they would do was look at the SUV and then spot him right above and he would be toast. Where was Mombé? Was he or was he not in the camp?

Pearls of sweat formed on his forehead. The horizon was lightening up making him visible and when it would get brighter the poachers would shoot him out of the tree like a monkey. And if he didn’t shoot his flare gun, the rangers would attack the camp as soon as daylight broke, whether he’d shot Mombé or not, thinking he’d been caught or was dead.

A half-naked man came out of the tent where the two guards were keeping watch and went to the same place to relieve himself. It was Mombé. Yves aimed and shot him twice in the head. For a moment Mombé kept standing, then doubled over and fell forward. His guards, who’d given him his privacy, didn’t notice. Yves shot the flare gun twice and let himself almost fall from the tree, keeping his Remington in one hand but dropping the flare gun.

Immediate confusion reigned in the camp. Poachers frantically went for their rifles and looked around to shoot, but by then Yves had fled. Next, the rangers attacked and Yves heard loud shooting from all sides. Hiding in the high grass, he couldn’t see anything, but the fight lasted at least fifteen minutes. Then it became awfully quiet. Slowly, Yves moved up just enough to see what had happened. He came out of his hiding and walked into the camp. The rangers were walking amidst at least a dozen dead bodies.The surprise attack had been fully successful but the captain had lost two of his own. Yves shook his hand. “Bien fait,” he said. “It worked.” Pierre came along and shook his hand, too. One of the rangers photographed Mombé’s body.

Together with the captain, Yves and Pierre inspected the remainder of the camp. The captain pointed him to a heap of tusks stored for transport.

 poachers elephant tusks

La Presse.CA


“The booty,” he grumbled, shaking his head.



Enchanté – A Horrific Adventure


Ever been in a jungle, a real rainforest in Central Africa? I was and nearly stayed in it forever.

This is the story of the Fourth Parallel Road. A monster of an environmentally wrong decision by France to build a broad earth road from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of pristine jungle in the Central African Republic.  It happened in the late eighties-early nineties and I had to inspect it in the context of a multi-donor transport project that I led for the World Bank. The habitat of pygmies was exposed to modern age, game put in danger of extinction, mighty tropical trees fell,  and the ecosystem got disrupted by bulldozers, scrapers and crude humans. A French engineer said, “This is the most beautiful project in my life, building a road from fresh straight through a jungle.”

 John in Central African JungleMe trying to climb a tropical tree

The road went from close to the Cameroonian border to mid-point in the Central African Republic (CAR), an area closed to the modern world, inhabited by zillions of the most beautiful butterflies I have ever seen. It was supposed to be connected to Bangui, the capital of CAR, on the one end and the Atlantic coast of Cameroon on the other, an old colonial dream that originally aimed at building a railway.  The futuristic dream featured prominently on a 5000 franc note, with the train crossing over a bridge to be built over the river the “Bangui” or, further down, the Congo River. Thank God, this never materialized. Railways in Africa proved an unmitigated disaster.

CAR 5000 Franc NoteCAR 5000 Franc Note (2)

The one side of the Note with the beautiful lady is the more realistic picture.

I stood in the center of a world where few people had set foot, looking in horror at huge tropical trees falling to make room for “the road” in the name of economic development. I’m sure that today such a project would never be approved. The World Bank battled it, but in the end France went ahead, tossing our objections aside.

John in Central Afr Jungle 2

 To make a final pitch to stop the project, we took a small airplane to fly over the jungle and get a better view of how the road would affect the environment. Leaving from a small strip close to the Cameroon border, the pilot skimmed through low-lying clouds of fog to show the panoply of tropical trees in varying colors of green. It’s an immensely thick area of trees, looking like dense fields of green cauliflower from the air,  and admittedly, the road would only affect a limited portion. But once you cut in, damage grows because its facilitates people moving in, cutting wood and hunting wild animals. and the damage grows like a cancer.

While we were flying, the pilot lost his way, as his plane was not equipped with a GPS. Besides, it appeared he had not prepared a flight plan. And this over an area larger than Texas. Below us, nothing but trees. One by one the fuel tanks ticked empty and the last one got dangerously low. My 4 or so Central African collaborators got scared and just went to “sleep” in their seats, having given up on life, waiting for the crash to happen. Once we would be down, the trees would fold over the plane and nobody would ever find us in this extensive jungle. I said a few prayers, looking at the maps with the pilot. Then I spotted a small strip: the beginning of the Fourth Parallel Road we had visited the day before. God had saved us, so had the road. The pilot could re-coordinate and with the last fuel tank down to less than a quarter full we landed at Bangui airport. As a result, we had little objection left to let the road construction continue. Life is precious.

 John with a road construction crew in CameroonOur team of engineers looking at the road.

Next time some stories about Cameroon, Lebanon and Jordan.

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