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June 5, 2012

THE ZANZIBAR RIOTS

by Erin Wilkinson Hartung

On May 26, 2012, riots broke out in the Stone Town area of Zanzibar. It was difficult to get accurate information and there seemed to be a news blackout of sorts at that time. Safely from my apartment, I learned what I could from social media, online communities and international news when available.

According to reports, a sheik was arrested after giving what was considered an anti-government and anti-Union speech. Hundreds of his supporters gathered to protest outside the police station. It quickly turned hostile and the police used tear gas and a riot broke out. Several churches and bars near Stone Town were subsequently burned and the military police spent the weekend tracking down the perpetrators.

I spoke to my landlord and neighbors and was advised not to go into town though my Swahili teacher was able to reach my place that Sunday. She said Stone Town had become a Ghost Town; all the shops were closed and no one was taking public transportation. That same night the main road in my neighborhood was blocked with trees, burning tires and trash. Cars could not enter or exit. Police check points were set up for the next few days.

The violence was blamed on different small fringe groups from Zanzibar separatists, to religious extremists to dissatisfied neighboring island natives and even over ownership rights of discovered oil. Everyone has a theory, but the truth seems a lot more complicated. Zanzibar has a rich and unique history, with many diverse groups but tolerance is the norm. The week following the riots the people were in a somber mood, almost melancholy. Zanzibar is an island of gentle people who just want to live peacefully and thrive economically. These types of uprisings seem to happen every several years mainly because a few frustrated locals sometimes don’t feel heard by the government.

On May 28, 2012 the US Ambassador to Tanzania, Alfonso E. Lenhardt, sent out an official statement where he “called on all parties involved to work together to maintain calm on the island.” Another advisory asked tourists to stay away from large gatherings, skirmish areas and take extra precaution when traveling. http://tanzania.usembassy.gov

And then, just as quickly as it started, it was all over. As I sit here today in my apartment viewing the city streets, life has returned to normal, with the exception of an increased military presence on the island. The resilience of these people is truly remarkable. Visitors have begun pouring in for the start of tourist season as though nothing happened. The shops have reopened, and the violence forgotten.

I however, consider this week to be a part of my Fulbright experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. My admiration for this beautiful island and its people grows with each passing day.

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