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Gatumba massacre campaign round-up + Agathon Rwasa’s attempt to un-claim responsibility

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In August 2004 over 150 Congolese Tutsi refugees were massacred at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Over half of those killed were children, shot, hacked and burned to death in what survivors believe amounted to an act of genocide.

The Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL claimed responsibility shortly afterwards, with eyewitness evidence suggesting that other extremist groups were also involved, including Rwanda’s FDLR and the Congolese Mai-Mai militia. Yet ten years on nothing has been done to prosecute those responsible, despite strong international condemnation and a UN Resolution calling for justice.

Survivors marked this year’s 10th anniversary by renewing their call for the former FNL leader Agathon Rwasa and spokesman Pasteur Habimana to face trial over the attack. Campaigners held commemoration events across the world – from Burundi, Congo and Kenya to Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and the United States. 

My personal connection to this issue is that Rwasa’s FNL is also believed to have been behind the December 2000 Titanic Express massacre in which my sister Charlotte was killed. I was present at both the UK and Netherlands-based commemoration events.

In the US, survivors Sandra Uwiringiyimanya and Adele Kibasumba, gave a powerful TV interview about their experiences.

“The biggest thing is that someone who committed this crime is out there, and nobody cares enough to say – ‘hey this is not right’. And it’s like their lives were lost in vain…” Sandra told WXXI News.

“It’s that much more heartbreaking knowing that you didn’t only lose loved ones, but to top it off the person that committed the crime is living like a king”.

“The United Nations, and the international community… for us, the survivors it has been nothing but silence, and I think that they have ignored the massacre”, Adele added. “We want justice. Knowing that they know who did it and they’re not acting – it’s silence and ignorance to me.”

The survivors’ call for justice was backed by a strong statement from the respected global watchdog Human Rights Watch, who had investigated the attack in detail in 2004.

“The Gatumba massacre was a direct and deliberate attack on unarmed civilians,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The killings have been well-documented, yet 10 years later, no one has been prosecuted.”

The Burundian government should mark the anniversary by demonstrating its commitment to ending impunity for the killings at Gatumba and other grave crimes against unarmed civilians, Human Rights Watch said…

The 10-year anniversary of the massacre comes just three months after Burundi adopted a law establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed between 1962 and 2008. Tens of thousands of people were killed in Burundi during this period, many in ethnically targeted attacks. While there were numerous large-scale killings during the war, which began in 1993, the Gatumba massacre stands out as one of the largest attacks in more recent years.

The 2014 law does not provide for the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the most serious crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

“The absence of provisions for a special tribunal in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission law was a missed opportunity for ending impunity and bringing closure to decades of suffering,” Bekele said. “But the lack of a special tribunal doesn’t exonerate the government from its responsibility to deliver justice to survivors and victims’ families through the court system.”

The anniversary was covered by a range of media, including Radio France International, the Huffington Post, Radio Okapi, Afrik.com and South Africa’s Times Live, along with a post that I wrote for Amnesty UK’s blogs platform.

In the Huffington Post, Obadias Ndaba suggests that a misguided notion of “political stability” may be behind the failure to hold to account Agathon Rwasa and others suspected of involvement in Gatumba.

Mr. Rwasa, whose organization has long been labelled a terrorist group by African leaders, recently announced that he will be running for President of Burundi in 2015. This will be his second attempt at the position, as he ran in 2010 and lost. In 2008, Mr. Rwasa transformed his militia into a political party, but by 2011 he was still carrying out armed attacks against civilians. Yes, there are countries where mass murderers can run for the highest office of the land…

The fact that someone like Agathon Rwasa is free and able to run for public office twice is beyond a mere sign of dysfunction and lawlessness in central African nations — notably Burundi and Congo — it is a failure of the international community, too. The international community, with its outsized influence in the region, has lost much of its credibility by standing idly by and letting monsters roam in the name of “regional stability.”

For Iwacu Burundi, radio journalist Abbas Mbazumutima recalls taking the call from FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana, claiming responsibility, and witnessing the horrific aftermath of the attack:

Seeing the charred bodies, blackened by smoke, women survivors begin to scream in despair, crying bitterly. A young man who had managed to escape by tearing the tent cries in front of the remains of his mother. The lifeless body of his little sister was unrecognizable: it was all black, burns were deep, the bones of the fingers and part of the tibia were visible, her face half burnt.

A few brave men were eager to cover all the burned or mutilated bodies. Most had apparently been killed with a machete: the cuts were deep, gaping injuries. The circling flies, like vultures at the sight of prey, had already appeared over these dead bodies.

Cries of pain are amplified by the discovery of others killed horribly. We begged ‘Nyagasani’ God in Kinyarwanda. Among these people there who had their skulls crushed, others had been stabbed, very few had been shot. Shredded bodies gave the impression that the killers had used grenades before setting fire to the tents housing the Banyamulenge.

Even those who thought they were tough did not hold back their tears at the sight of a mother and two babies, twins, all hacked to death, lying in a pool of blood.

Among the horrific images of the carnage of unprecedented brutality, there is also this young mother killed at close range with a bullet in the back while trying perhaps to protect her baby, using her body as shield.

Her arms remain wide, frozen in a gesture of supplication or invocation. Not a chance her baby will be killed by a bullet in the head: a big hole in a tiny skull.

A cameraman for Reuters, Jean Pierre Harerimana, finds me sobbing in a corner. I could not imagine how man could be capable of such animosity: to kill, you must first kill something in yourself, your own humanity. The poor cameraman told me that he had not been able to take any pictures. He looked incessantly at the side of his lens to see what was wrong. “Everything is in order, it may be that your lens is broken,” I replied to calm him. Big tears dripped from his eyes. He quickly wiped them away. Not far from us, a photographer from another foreign agency was crying. Further away, anguished cries from an Isanganiro radio journalist, Chantal Gatore. “Even the great reporters are whining and sobbing face of such scenes,” says another journalist.

Rwasa attempts to un-claim responsibility for Gatumba

Following the renewed focus on Gatumba, Agathon Rwasa has given an interview to Radio France Internationale in which he now tries to disclaim responsibility for the massacre. Rwasa says that his then-spokesman Pasteur Habimana “did not consult me” when he claimed responsibility for Gatumba on behalf of the FNL, and that in doing so Habimana (who fell out with Rwasa in 2009) was speaking on his own account alone.

Rwasa does not, however, explain why, in the weeks and months after the Gatumba massacre, he and other FNL leaders did nothing to contradict Habimana’s claim that the FNL was responsible. If it was not true that the FNL had been involved in Gatumba, then for Habimana to claim that they were would seem like quite a serious error for a spokesman to make – effectively implicating his own organisation in an act of genocide. Yet it seems that Rwasa not only chose not to contradict Habimana, he allowed him to remain as the FNL spokesman for a further 5 years, only finally pushing him out in 2009 after allegations that Habimana was embezzling the group’s funds.

International pressure for justice over Gatumba and an end to Burundi’s wider culture of impunity

As Human Rights Watch observe in their statement marking the 10th anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, the Burundian government has taken no action to establish a long-promised special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

This is despite the fact that such a tribunal was agreed by all parties nearly a decade ago – and backed by a UN Resolution – as part of the accord which ended Burundi’s most recent civil war, amid widespread concerns that further atrocities are likely in future unless action is taken to hold to account those responsible for crimes such as Gatumba.

The European Commission is one of the largest international aid donors to the government of Burundi. Yet it is unclear what, if anything, it is doing to use its considerable influence, and pressure Burundi’s government to end the toxic “culture of impunity” by delivering justice over Gatumba and the many other crimes that have been committed.

The European Commission is itself notoriously lacking in transparency, but it is accountable in principle to the European Parliament. In the UK, you can find out who your Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are, and write to them, via www.writetothem.com.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 24, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

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Is it ever OK not to forgive?

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The print edition of this month’s Prospect Magazine has an article from me on forgiveness. It’s a huge subject, but the particular focus of my piece is the pressure faced by victims of extreme violence publicly to declare forgiveness towards those responsible, even when the perpetrators have shown no remorse or willingness to change their ways.

Together with my own family’s case I was privileged to be able to include an interview with Julie Nicholson, whose extraordinary book, A Song For Jenny, recounts her experiences and reflections following the murder of her daughter Jenny in the July 7th 2005 London Bombings. Julie Nicholson’s story made international headlines in 2006 when she stepped down from her post as a Church of England vicar, and told the media that she would not forgive her daughter’s killer.

Forgiveness is one of those strange areas of human life where a small semantic nuance can have profound political consequences. In some of the most brutalised societies in the world, it has sometimes been taken as read that a) victims of violence  are morally obliged to forgive their abuser for the perceived “greater good” and b) “forgiveness” necessarily entails granting immunity from prosecution to mass-murderers.

When these ideas are taken to extremes, as they have been in Northern Uganda with the treatment of victims of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, the results can be both dangerous and deeply unpleasant.

Alongside these individual cases, I was keen to highlight the excellent work that has been done in recent years by philosophers and psychologists seeking to challenge some of the common assumptions about forgiveness and clarify a very muddled area of moral thought.

In preparing the article it was enormously useful to have the chance to speak to Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University, whose outstanding book “Forgiveness – A Philosophical Exploration”   has been a huge help in un-muddling my own thinking on this issue over the last few years. Charles Griswold pointed me towards two further books that I would also strongly recommend to anyone seriously looking into this issue.

“Ancient Forgiveness” is co-edited by Charles Griswold and David Konstan (Professor of Classics at New York University), with essays from both, and was published in the UK just at the end of last year. This book seeks to unravel the mishmash of traditions that have given rise to the many modern (and at times contradictory) definitions of the word.

The second book that Charles Griswold highlighted, and which I also found very helpful in writing the piece, was “Resentment’s Virtue”, by the Danish Philosopher Thomas Brudholm. This takes a refreshingly sceptical view of the absolutist discourse of “forgiveness and reconciliation” that dominates so much of the literature. In careful, forensic detail, Brudholm shows how, well-intentioned though such ideas are, they can often have the effect of re-victimising victims of horrific crimes, and even demonising those who make a free and informed choice not to forgive.

The last book I would recommend is “Forgiveness is a Choice”, by the University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright, who was also kind enough to speak to me at length about his work in this area. Enright is a strong advocate of the psychological benefits of forgiveness, and has won praise for his work treating victims of serious abuses who choose to go down this path. Enright offers a clear definition of forgiveness that is respectful towards victims, and robustly delineates this very personal process from the political issues with which it is so often conflated.

What’s interesting, however, in comparing Robert Enright’s writing with that of Charles Griswold, is the extent to which their respective definitions of forgiveness – and therefore a number of their conclusions – differ so widely. Even among the experts there appears to be no single definition of the word that is universally accepted, and some of the most fundamental principles around the issue are still being worked out.

This makes for an interesting discussion, but also further highlights the predicament that victims being pressured to “forgive” find themselves in.

Prospect Magazine is available from all good news outlets and on subscription – I’d be interested to know what people make of the piece, and hope to return to this issue in more depth later in the year.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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A Place At The Table, 2nd – 19th November 2011

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My good friend Paul Burgess has lined up this new run of the theatre piece he produced last year with a little bit of input from me. Here’s the blurb:

A Place at the Table - Daedalus Theatre Company

In this powerful theatrical response to the on-going troubles in Burundi, Rwanda and the African Great Lakes Region, Daedalus Theatre Company invites you to take a place at the table alongside the performers in this intimate, immersive production that creates a uniquely personal experience exploring the subtle and dangerous relationship between history, identity and violence.

“A brilliant visual platform… a powerful testament to the act of bearing witness… a vital dialogue that Burundi’s many dead were denied in life.”    – Time Out

2 – 19 November 2011       Tuesday – Thursday 7pm, Friday – Saturday 7pm & 9pm

Devised by the company.
Cast: Adelaide Obeng, Grace Nyandoro, Jennifer Muteteli and Naomi Grossett
Core creative team: Cecile Feza Bushidi (choreographer), Katharine Williams (lighting designer), Matthew Lee Knowles (composer) and Paul Burgess (designer/director)
Produced by Jethro Compton Ltd

Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Road, London NW1 2PYNearest Tube: Warren Street, Euston Square, Euston
Tickets: £12 (£8 concessions)               Box Office: 08444 77 1000 / www.cptheatre.co.uk
See website for details of postshow talks and other events: www.apatt.co.uk

Written by Richard Wilson

October 22, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Marking time – December 28th 2010

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Video piece about Charlotte’s murder – “Rights Universal”, Channel 4, 2008

*UPDATE* – Amnesty International have issued an “Urgent Action” calling for Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s release. The Committee to Protect Journalists have visited him in prison, where Jean-Claude told them that “international pressure” would be vital to secure his freedom.

It’s just short of a decade since my sister Charlotte was murdered. She was 27 – two years older than me. We had a close, if sometimes stormy, relationship, and for a long time the world felt a lot colder and less colourful than it had done before. While my life has changed a great deal since then, the nature of this sort of experience, I think, is that one never quite sees things in the same light again.

Charlotte’s death set my life on a new trajectory, of which this blog is a small part. I left my job, did a lot of campaigning, went abroad for a while, and ended up writing a book about my sister’s life and death, which in turn led to other writing opportunities. My second book, “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, covers a very different subject area, but Charlotte’s influence is there. My sister had been taking time out to teach science in a rural Rwanda school, after finishing a PhD in microbiology. She was haunted by the effect of AIDS on the community in which she was living, and planned to pursue a career in HIV research on her return to the UK. Her passion for this issue, and in particular her belief in the need to challenge the many myths around the disease – was one of the things that prompted me to look in depth at AIDS denialism when I came to write “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

Charlotte was killed not in Rwanda, but in neighbouring Burundi. She had recently got engaged to a Burundian teacher, Richard Ndereyimana. They were travelling to meet his family when their bus was ambushed by a Hutu-extremist militia group, the “Forces Nationales de Libération” (FNL), high in the hills above the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Hutu passengers were released unharmed. Those presumed to be Tutsi – including Richard Ndereyimana – were lined up and shot. Charlotte was killed with them. In all, 21 people died. The attack became known as the “Titanic Express” massacre, after the bizarre and ill-fated name of the bus in which they were travelling.

The 10th anniversary of the massacre falls on December 28th this year. I’ve decided to mark it with a 24-hour “Twitter marathon”. I’ll be knocking back a lot of coffee and posting a message every 15 minutes from 1.30pm on the 28th, the time that the attack began, to 1.30pm on December 29th.

There’s a rich array of material online about Burundi’s complex, albeit often-ignored, recent history. I’ll be aiming to profile the best of it over the course of the 24 hours – from eye-opening video footage and witness testimonies to niche blogs, bizarre quotes from Richard Nixon, and painstakingly-detailed human rights reports.

Alongside this, there are two particular issues that I’ll be seeking to highlight.

Firstly, despite compelling evidence, no serious effort has been made to prosecute those who carried out the massacre in which Charlotte died, amid a climate of near-total impunity for the elites on both sides. Despite being given numerous cash payments, offers of government jobs, and “provisional” immunity from prosecution, the FNL have continued to pose a threat, and are now reported to be mobilising for a new “holy war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Secondly, while the war criminals remain free, Burundi’s independent media has taken a massive hammering. Journalists are routinely harassed, attacked, threatened and jailed. One of those now languishing in prison is Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who over the years has helped enormously with the campaign for justice over the Titanic Express massacre, and whose support was indispensable when I was researching my first book.

Jean-Claude was arrested in July this year and charged with “treason” after making critical comments about Burundi’s armed forces. The Burundian government has previously been responsive to international pressure in cases like these. Given all that Jean-Claude has done over the years it seems somehow appropriate that I mark the 10th anniversary of Charlotte’s death by doing what I can to highlight his case.

I’ll be available on the day to speak to any journalists who might want to cover the story, and can also be contacted beforehand via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, or 07969 802 830. See here, here and here for some previous media things I’ve done on this.

The Twitter stint will begin at 1.30pm UK time (3.30pm in Burundi) on December 28th – www.twitter.com/dontgetfooled

Written by Richard Wilson

November 30, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Self-censorship

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I thought it was about time I published this. Readers should know that I dispute several of the assertions made by Breco in the message below, and am very doubtful about many others. You should also be aware that since the email was sent to me, this happened, and this happened.

But aside from the content of the letter, the point is that the intimidation worked, at least for a while. I have not written anything of substance about Bredenkamp since I got this email, or done any further investigation. The reason for this is simply and solely that Bredenkamp is a multi-millionaire and I’m not. Due to the astronomical costs built into the UK libel system, and the massive advantage this gives to super-rich litigants, should someone like Bredenkamp decide to sue me, I would not be able to afford adequate legal representation. This would essentially guarantee that I would not receive a fair trial.

From:  “******@breco.info”  Friday, 29 June, 2007 9:11:53

To: richardcameronwilson@yahoo.co.uk

Dear Mr Wilson

I refer to your article Titanic Express as published on http://www.ukwatch.net (“The Article”). The circumstances of your sister’s death are truly appalling and tragic. By all accounts, she was a remarkably courageous and altruistic person and your desire to honour her memory by writing her story is laudable.

However, it is very disappointing to see that in the Article you make a number of incorrect and damaging statements about Mr John Bredenkamp.

1. You write in the Article: “Successive UN reports have implicated dozens of western companies in illegal profiteering from the DRC war, which is intimately connected to the Burundi conflict. Those named include the UK-based Zimbabwean arms dealer John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, the British owner of the “air cargo firm” Avient”.


• The UN Reports you mention refer to the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources of the DRC. Mr Bredenkamp was indeed wrongly named in one interim report and subsequently proved to the UN that the unsubstantiated allegations made about him were misconceived and false. In their Final Report of 25 November 2003 –nearly four years ago – he was totally exonerated by the UN of any wrong doing or unlawful activity.

• Mr Bredenkamp is not based in the UK neither is he ‘an arms dealer’. If you visit his web site, you will see that his involvment in the defence sector is as a passive shareholder in Aviation Consultancy Services (“ACS”) , a company which has agencies in Southern Africa for a number of reputable international aircraft manufacturers.

2. You go on to write in the Article: “To date the UK has proved reluctant to follow up the UN’s allegations, but Bredenkamp’s offices were raided by the Serious Fraud Office last year as part of the BAE corruption inquiry. One more reason to hope that CAAT succeeds in getting the inquiry reopened is that it may help shed some much-needed light on Bredenkamp’s business dealings.”

The fact is that there are no outstanding UN allegations in respect of
Mr Bredenkamp or his companies for the UK to follow up. He himself suggested to the Panel that his DRC joint venture should be monitored by the OECD, a process that was duly put in place. Furthermore, at the time of their Final Report, you should know that the UN urged him to remain invested in the DRC.

In respect of the SFO’s inquiries into media allegations about BAE Systems, let me make two points:

o there is no connection whatsoever with the UN Report in this enquiry.

o Mr Bredenkamp voluntarily flew to the UK late last year to offer his assistance to the SFO after they had visited his UK office and London house.

As regards his business dealings, please do visit the Breco web site http://www.breco.info to get an idea of what he really does rather that what the media or CAAT would have you believe.

I note that in your book Titanic Express (“The Book”), on page 142 you write in the Book: “And John Bredenkamp, a British-based Zimbabwean businessman with, according to the UN, ‘a history of clandestine military procurement,’ was accused of breaching European Sanctions by supplying British Aerospace equipment to the Zimbabwean forces fighting in the Congo.”

As previously stated, Mr Bredenkamp is not British-based.

The source of the accusation you refer to was an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper which was totally erroneous. ACS comprehensively complied with EU sanctions on behalf of their principals and this was fully demonstrated to the UN Panel, who accepted that there had been no breaches whatsoever.

If, in the future, you decide to write about Mr Bredenkamp or any of his companies, I would greatly appreciate it if you would be courteous enough to contact the group’s online press office – press_office@breco.info – with a view to checking that your facts are correct.

Bearing in mind the background to your book, Mr Bredenkamp has decided not to take any legal action against you, but please understand that he is deeply wounded by all of your erroneous statements.

Sincerely

***** ******
Press Office
Breco Group

Written by Richard Wilson

October 19, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Posted in Censorship, Titanic Express

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Cat-and-mouse game continues: Alexis Sinduhije re-released

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For more background on this, see yesterday’s post

From Agence France Press

BUJUMBURA — Burundian police on Tuesday freed an opposition leader they had confined to a relative’s house since the weekend for allegedly holding an illegal meeting.

Alexis Sinduhije, a former journalist, had been surrounded by police at a relative’s house in the eastern Ruyigi town since late Sunday, letting no one in or out of the house.

“I do not know why I was detained. I was not questioned and early this morning the police chief called just to say I was free to go and said nothing more,” Sinduhije told AFP by phone.

“The government does what it can to intimidate me because it is afraid of what I stand for. It is scared of losing the 2010 elections,” he added.

Sinduhije, 42, had previously been arrested in November 2008 for contempt against the head of state and freed in March after pressure by the international community.

His Movement for Solidarity and Development was registered as a political party only last month.

He launched the party at the end of 2007 when he stepped down from his job as the director of Radio Publique Africaine, one of the country’s most popular radio stations.

Presidential, national assembly and senate elections are due in Burundi next year. Opposition parties have accused President Pierre Nkurunziza of curbing basic freedoms in recent months in order to secure re-election.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Alexis Sinduhije detained (again) – reportedly on the orders of Burundi’s “born again” President, Pierre Nkurunziza (again)

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Alexis’s release earlier this year. He was detained again this week.

Alexis Sinduhije is a former Burundian journalist who I’ve been in contact with over my sister’s case for a number of years, and who featured in my first book, Titanic Express. Alexis recently launched a multi-ethnic opposition party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), and has already spent several months in prison for his troubles, prior to his release earlier this year, following massive international pressure.

This arrived by email this morning via the MSD Facebook group:

The commissioner of police in Ruyigi says that Alexis has not been arrested – he is just in for questions……..

Yesterday Alexis went to Ruyigi and in the evening was in the house of the family of a cousin when the house was surrounded by police. He was then removed and taken to the chef lieu where he has been for questioning – a team has gone to join him in Ruyigi and as we get more details we will tell you. The Governor and the Procurer [public prosecutor] are not answering their phones. When Human Rights Watch called the Police Commissioner he said ” that he was not arrested – but just being asked questions”.

It appears that Nkurunziza and co will keep harassing Alexis – one story on the ground is that it was Peter himself that send the instructions for Alexis to be arrested. They do not want him to be with his supporters in the collines! when will freedom of opinion be tolerated?

Click here for more background on the original arrest from Amnesty International.

Click here for some suddenly-relevant-again hip-hop tunes.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 3, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

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