When a plane says it’s heading to a destination, you expect it to land at that destination. This time, writes Alexandra Carlton, it didn’t.
As the plane thumped onto the tarmac I looked out the window. Like many African airports, the one I was looking at was basic but also kind of retro-cool; in this case it was a collection of curved white domes. A large sign on the roof read “Aeroport International Bujumbura.”
Hmm. Seemed a bit weird. It was 2019 and I was on a flight between Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. “Bujumbura” wasn’t a name that I remembered anywhere seeing anywhere on my tickets or on a flight board.
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“I guess it’s the name of Kigali’s airport,” I thought airily.
The pilot said a few words over the PA but it was crackly and faint and I couldn’t understand him. But the rest of the passengers seemed to be getting off – particularly a large group of slick dudes in red berets, aviator sunglasses and Rolexes, a look that felt classic ‘cashed-up junta militia chic’ – and so I did what everyone does when their flight lands at its destination.
I got off too.
As I stepped off the plane’s stairs I realised that each side of the runway was flanked by guards brandishing machine guns. More berets, camo this time. My heart began beating a little faster. It’s cool, I thought, Rwanda is just a little more…intense than Ethiopia. We good.
I began my walk past the guards, flashing them each a tight smile, and headed to the terminal.
Around three quarters of the way there, I suddenly realised that only the beret gang and I had exited the plane.
Why had no one else got off?
….maybe this wasn’t Rwanda?
I was right next to a machine-gunned guard. Carefully avoiding the business end of his weapon I approached him. “Excuse me,” I asked in a small voice. “Is this Rwanda?”
He stared straight ahead. “No,” he barked.
Panicked, I turned and scurried back to the plane – half expecting a volley of machine gun fire to chase me back up the stairs. The crew mercifully let me back on without comment and I slipped back into my seat.
It turned out the plane had made an entirely unscheduled and unannounced stop in Burundi. Burundi, it turns out, is not exactly a tourism paradise. At best, DFAT advises travellers to reconsider going there because of the threat of ‘terrorism and political violence’. At worst, it rates the country at the highest level of danger – specifically “Do Not Travel”, particularly around the borders of Rwanda, because of the serious risk of armed attacks.
In fact in September this year a group of rebels fired a series of mortars at the airport. For all I know it was on the instructions of my pals in the red berets.
If I hadn’t got back on my flight and I’d been forced to find my own way from Burundi to Rwanda? I may not be writing this now.
To this day I don’t know why my plane decided to stop in Burundi instead of going straight to its destination in Rwanda, though I have a sense that those guys in the berets were not the sort of people you’d ever want to argue with. Main thing is, I got there in the end.
And if you’re wondering? Rwanda is magnificent. Just try to get there in the most direct way possible.
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