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June 17, 2009
Guinea-Bissau hopes to stop cycle of political assassination

Soldiers outside military headquarters following an assassination in Guinea-Bissau. Photo: Marco Vernaschi, Pulitzer Center

Campaign season has begun in Guinea-Bissau, though it is muted due to continued concern following repeated assassinations.

Earlier this month, presidential candidate Baciro Dabo and former defense minister Helder Proenca were killed. Dabo was suspected of plotting a coup attempt.

The country’s president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, was brutally murdered on March 2, apparently in retaliation for a bomb attack that killed Army General Batista Tagme Na Waie. No suspects have been arrested in the president’s death.

Marco Vernaschi of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting recently returned from Guinea-Bissau and describes the country’s climate of violence.

I was drinking a coffee at Baiana when the Afropop music played by the local radio suddenly stopped. A frantic speaker was trying to report about a blast that had just killed a few soldiers, destroying the military headquarters.

I jumped in my car and drove toward the military compound. When I arrived everyone was shouting and running through the smoky ruins of the building. Bissau’s only ambulance was coming and going from the hospital to pick up the bodies of the victims. Four heavily armed soldiers pointing their AK-47 at my face discouraged me from taking photographs or asking questions. All they told me was that General Batista Tagme Na Wai, head of the army, had just been assassinated. I went back to the car and headed to the hospital.

On this night last February Bissau’s sleepy routine was broken. I made some phone calls to find out what was going on, even as the Minister of Defense arrived at the hospital and ordered the police to keep journalists away. After two hours trying to get information I left the hospital, heading to my hotel. At the reception everyone was trading theories. Someone said it was a coup d’etat, others that it was an accident, a bomb, or the beginning of another civil war. I went to my room and tried to sleep.

At six in the morning my friend and informant Vladimir, a reliable security man who works at the hotel, knocked on my door. He was frightened, and told me that the president had just been killed. When I asked him how he knew, he simply shook his head. I instantly left my room and went to the President’s house. Soldiers there were shooting in the air, to keep a little crowd of people away from the house.

A bunch of soldiers with machine guns and bazookas surrounded the block. The president’s armored Hummer was still parked in front of the house, the tires flat and its bulletproof windows shattered. The police cars from his escort were destroyed. A rocket shot from a bazooka had penetrated four walls, ending up in the president’s living room. Joao Bernardo Vieira was dead, after ruling Guinea Bissau for nearly a quarter of a century.

After a few hours waiting in front of the house I understand I wouldn’t have been allowed any access this day. A soldier came toward me and seized my camera to check if I had taken any pictures. Fortunately I had not, and he gave me the camera back. It was time to leave.

In just nine hours Guinea Bissau had lost both it president and the head of its army. Why so much violence? Was this double assassination the result of an old rivalry between Vieira and Tagme, or was it something more? The army’s spokesman, Zamora Induta, declared that the president had been killed by a group of renegade soldiers and that assailants using a bomb had assassinated General Tagme. He said there is no connection between the two deaths. Of course, nobody believed that this was so.

[…]The next day, I managed to visit the president’s house with my camera. One of his several cousins gives me a tour. He led me to the kitchen first, to show me where Nino Vieira was executed. The blood was all over the room. The machete was still on the floor and the bulletproof vest he always wore was on the chair where his wife sat during the questioning. All around there were hundreds of bullets from AK-47 and machine guns. The soldiers looted and destroyed the house. They took everything they could, including clothes and food.

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