A War Reporter Tries to Understand What Courage Is
‘Thinking about courage becomes a reflection on humanity.’
Emmanuel Ndamwumvaneza covers wars for our radio news station. One day, with no other reporter on hand, Emmanuel was sent to cover a health story. We'd heard that in Burundi's hospital emergency rooms, when sick people can't pay their bills up front they are not cared for. At Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), an independent radio station, we wanted to put a constant watch on this situation to see if this was true and, we hoped, to end this unfair rule.
When Emmanuel Ndamu, as we call him, a giant, strong and courageous war reporter, saw a woman who was giving birth refused medical attention because she had no money to pay, instead of his usual loud shouting, he was speechless. This woman's situation became the focus of his reporting as no one paid attention to her screaming cries for help. He had some money with him, but not enough to finance the care she needed. In time, a man did walk by who had money meant to feed his family, but he gave it to the hospital to save the life of this woman and her baby. Emmanuel's own feelings were a mix of anger and happiness. "I was so happy to see that in the country there are people with heart, people who can give without thinking of themselves, just help," he said.
In his radio story, Emmanuel spoke of humanity, a word he'd never used in his stories about the violence of war.
In his work, Emmanuel was always searching for answers as to how a person shows courage. He'd ask this question of all of us in the newsroom, as he wondered where someone gets the courage to stand for what is right when everything is wrong. I'm afraid all he received from us were vague responses. All of us knew that Emmanuel was very courageous, risking his life all the time to report on war. But few of us ever paused to think about what courage is really about. I never imagined that one day I'd be asked to sit in front of my computer and write about courage, so when I did this my thoughts turned to Emmanuel.
Thinking about courage becomes a reflection on humanity. In my country, Burundi, beyond the savage rules in our hospitals, injustice and cruelty is imposed by the government against innocent civilians. Most of time people are killed for what they are: Hutu kills Tutsi and Tutsi kills Hutu. Humanity is disregarded as children, old people, and women are killed. In this poorest of nations, whatever growth in wealth there is gets taken by powerful political actors who put their energy into stealing the limited riches of the country.
RPA's values are rooted in the belief that providing Burundi's people with independently verified information will break the circle of violence, promote accountable leadership, and improve the lives of the people. In the midst of our nation's ethnic war, between Hutu and Tutsi, we recruited Hutu and Tutsi combatants to work together in gathering news. It was a very difficult and dangerous thing to attempt since it meant taking fighters from the war. In doing so, we were alienating ourselves from the Hutu rebel group and the Tutsi-led army. We had to convince these soldiers to take this job instead of fighting each other.
Teaching them journalistic skills was one challenge; the hard part for us was making them believe they could work together and fight for people's rights by using a microphone instead of an AK-47. We met Emmanuel in this way, and he and the others quickly became good reporters. In time, through their reporting, they denounced human rights abuse, exposed corruption, investigated state crimes, and covered the war. To do this they risked their lives, but because of what they did they discovered and brought to light many crimes against humanity in Burundi. Because of their stories, many people were able to get back the lands that had been taken by more powerful forces. By breaking the codes of the powerful interests on both sides of the conflict, these young and dynamic reporters became the voice of the voiceless. Recently, they were also brave enough to remind the newly elected president that the people in Burundi are citizens, not his subjects, after the president had sent police to stop a press conference led by a member of Parliament who was denouncing the misuse of public funds.
Courage comes from anger, the anger to refuse injustice. In every society, when the powerful use lies to rule unfairly, there are people with courage who rise in opposition. The man who paid for the woman to receive help at the hospital was driven by anger at the selfish. One day as Emmanuel was investigating a large massacre, I asked him if he was feeling afraid of the killers. "I am so angry about this," he told me, "that I think there is no place for fear in me. These people who have been slain could be me. I have to go after the truth no matter what."
Alexis Sinduhije is the founder and director of Radio Publique Africaine, and in 2004 he was awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.