By Hannah Powell Losada
Burundi - Egide* is a rice farmer from a rural village in western Burundi. Each evening he travels back to his home after many long hours of working in the fields. But there’s one night he’ll never forget.
It was late evening in April 2017 when a group of armed men gunned down the taxi that Egide was traveling in, shooting at the wheels and blowing out one of the tires. The men forcibly removed Egide from the car, blindfolded him and drove him for about an hour to what he believes was the DRC. Still blindfolded, the gunmen then had Egide leave the car and walk the rest of the way.
“I remember crossing a river, it was deep and all of my clothes got wet. The only river I know like this is the one that divides Burundi from the DRC,” Egide recalled. At the end of his blindfolded journey, Egide and his kidnappers reached a building where he was kept in a small empty room.
Though Edige doesn’t know why he was targeted, kidnapping is a common occurrence in the region where Egide lives, because nearby armed rebel groups and bandits from the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) use the ransom that families pay to retrieve their loved ones as a regular source of income.
Back in Burundi, the taxi driver drove straight to Egide’s home after the attack and informed his wife, Diane*, of the kidnapping. Panicked, Diane called friends and family, asking what she could do to find her husband. One of her friends, a volunteer at a local NGO, had heard about a national hotline, which provides information and assistance to vulnerable communities since the beginning of Burundi’s political crisis, and advised Diane to dial the short code 109 to contact the hotline for assistance.
A hotline operator listened to what happened to Egide and used her experience with other kidnapping cases to guide Diane through the ransom process. Hotline operators coached her on how to speak with the kidnappers to maximize Egide’s chances for survival and were in constant contact until Egide’s release had successfully been negotiated. Once informed that Egide had been released, Diane and a local policeman searched for him until they found him dehydrated, weak and scared near the river he originally crossed with his captors. Egide had spent approximately ten anxious days in an empty room, surviving on only one sweet potato a day that his captors gave him and drinking dirty water from a puddle in the room.
Once Egide was safe, the hotline then referred him to a local organization to obtain treatment for dehydration and hunger. The information and assistance provided by the 109 hotline allowed Egide’s family to respond effectively to the kidnapping situation. Jacqueline, one of the hotline operators, feels that her work at the hotline is essential to helping Burundians in crises and is glad to be part of the dedicated team that works together to run the hotline and provide ongoing support to callers.
Launched in October 2015, the hotline is an interagency initiative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Burundi Red Cross (CRB), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Vision International (WVI) and Caritas Burundi. Over the past two years, the hotline has responded to over 6300 callers from across the country, viewable online via Community Response Map Burundi.
Today, the hotline operators continue working to connect Egide and others like him to essential emergency services, ensuring that vulnerable communities in Burundi have a lifeline to call for urgent assistance and protection against violence.
* names have been changed to protect identity