Eyewitness: “I’m afraid that today a lot of people could be killed in Burundi”
Yesterday I ran the London marathon with my sister Catherine. We were doing this in memory of our older sister Charlotte, who was killed in a vicious massacre in Burundi in December 2000. As I ran I was acutely conscious that, fifteen years on, many more lives are now at risk in Burundi today.
National elections are due in the next few months, and the ruling party CNDD-FDD seems determined to suppress dissent, and prevent its rivals from contesting the election effectively. In the run-up to the elections, CNDD-FDD has been brutally attacking opposition parties, and harassing human rights activists and the independent media.
In recent weeks, thousands have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, reporting violence and threats from the ruling party’s armed youth militia, the Imbonerakure. Yesterday a number of deaths were reported at anti-government protests in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Today it has been reported that Burundi’s iconic human rights campaigner Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has been arrested (following a long spell in detention last year), and arrest warrants issued for other leading activists.
The European Union – and a number of EU member states, in particular the Netherlands – are deeply implicated in the crisis now facing Burundi. The CNDD-FDD-led government is heavily bankrolled by the Netherlands and the European Commission aid programme, to the extent that the government would struggle to cling to power if this support was withdrawn.
In theory, European Commission aid money is conditional on recipient governments respecting the “Cotonou Agreement” – which commits signatories to tackling corruption, respecting human rights, and upholding the rule of law.
In practice, the European Commission has continued to fund the Burundian government despite mounting evidence of torture, extrajudicial killings, attacks on the media, and endemic corruption.
As ever, the lack of global attention on Burundi is an exacerbating factor. The country receives little media coverage at the best of times – but with so many other crises taking place right now there is a danger that Burundi will slip even lower down the international agenda.
CNDD-FDD appears to be counting on the fact that – as has happened in Burundi so many times before – it can commit acts of violence and repression without any great international outcry.
The European Commission, too, seems unlikely to change course unless it is forced to do so by the weight of public opinion.
But pressure has started to increase. Last year, Members of the European Parliament issued a strongly-worded statement denouncing the Burundian government’s abuses, and calling for “a clear and principled EU policy vis a vis Burundi that addresses the on-going serious human rights violations”. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, condemned the EU’s “weak” stance on Burundi.
Burundians in Europe have been contacting their MEPs urging them to press the European Commission to use its influence to help end the Burundian government’s repression. If you have a moment to support this call, please write to your MEPs via www.theyworkforyou.com.
Messy, chaotic – but a breakthrough nonetheless: Ten years after his troops massacred over 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a UNHCR camp in Burundi, ex-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa this week received a court summons to answer questions over the attack.
This follows a long and determined campaign by survivors and relatives of the dead, which included the submission, in August last year, of a criminal complaint against Agathon Rwasa and his former spokesman, Pasteur Habimana. That in itself was a momentous achievement amid Burundi’s volatile and corrupt political landscape – where impunity is the norm and not one political leader has yet faced justice over the many massacres that took place during Burundi’s ten-year civil war. Over the past year, the Gatumba case has been stopped and restarted by the Burundian authorities, with the campaigners facing down pressure for them to drop the charges. The government’s shambolic handling of the case has continued this week, with Rwasa arriving at court to be told that the hearing had been postponed without explanation. Yet this is still the closest that the former FNL leader has yet come to facing justice over the mass-killings he has committed – and Pasteur Habimana has already appeared at the court four times.
Readers of this blog will know that I have a very personal interest in this issue – four years before the Gatumba massacre – in December 2000 – FNL troops under the command of Agathon Rwasa ambushed a bus close to the Burundian capital and killed 21 of the passengers – including my sister Charlotte and her fiancé Richard Ndereyimana. Like Gatumba, the attack was genocidal in character – Hutu passengers were released unharmed, with a message for the authorities: “We’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”.
Yet the Gatumba campaigners have shown that there is something you can do when a crime like this is committed – even in Burundi.
Agathon Rwasa’s supporters and sympathisers have sought to portray the case as a politically-motivated conspiracy by the Burundian ruling party to undermine their leader’s electoral ambitions.
This conveniently paints out of the picture the huge efforts that the Gatumba survivors have made – the pressures they have faced and the obstacles they have surmounted – in getting this case to court. It also ignores, again, the central fact of this case – the 160 living, breathing human beings – half of them children – whose lives were extinguished by Agathon Rwasa’s men on August 13th 2004. They are the reason that Rwasa is now, at last, facing some measure of justice.
Sandra Uwiringiyimana, who at the age of 10 narrowly survived the Gatumba massacre in August 2004, has given a moving testimony to the UN Security (video here), concluding with this eloquent plea for justice:
“That is my story. I will tell it to anyone who will listen. Not because it is easy. Every time I tell it I am back in Gatumba, a ten-year-old in a burning tent.
But as long as the criminal who admitted to leading that massacre continues to walk freely in the streets of Burundi, I have no choice. I must keep telling it. Until the international community proves my words are not only worthy of empathy, but also of accountability. Until leaders like you and the countries you represent show me that my family and all the others are not disposable.
The only way to do that is by bringing people like Agathon Rwasa to justice. Only then will war criminals know that their crimes are wrong, and will not go unpunished. Only then will millions of survivors like me hear loud and clear that our lives have value.”
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 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.”
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.
From Amnesty UK / Blogs
On Saturday I listened while survivors of the Gatumba massacre recounted the horrors they witnessed on the night of August 13th 2004, when more than 160 Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsis were hunted down and killed at a refugee camp in Burundi. The most heart-wrenching stories were those of the little children, too scared to hide and too small to run away, who were shot, macheted or burned to death simply because they were Tutsi.
The refugee camp had supposedly been under United Nations protection, but neither they nor the Burundian army did anything to stop the slaughter. Ten years on, neither have done anything to prosecute the killers.
The day after the Gatumba attack, a Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL admitted responsibility, citing other unpunished massacres in justification – as if the moral abhorrence of one atrocity could somehow be cancelled out by another.
In 2005, the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, was given immunity from prosecution. He is now living comfortably in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, and is tipped to run as a candidate in next year’s Presidential elections.
As Amnesty reported last month, while the authorities in Burundi have been vigorously harassing and jailing their critics, impunity for those committing serious human rights abuses has been near-universal.
Survivors of Gatumba are bewildered – and angry – that the international community has done so little to bring the murderers to book, despite strong calls at the time by the African Union and UN Security Council for justice “without delay”. A promise by the Burundian government to refer Gatumba to the International Criminal Court has never been fulfilled.
PRESS RELEASE 13/08/2013
THE GATUMBA MASSACRE TEN YEARS ON: VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE
Ten years have passed since 164 Congolese citizens were savagely killed, some burned alive, on 13 August 2004. The victims were slayed while under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Hundreds of others were injured. The overwhelming majority of victims – many of them women and children – belonged to the Banyamulenge community. They had sought refuge in Burundi to escape from political oppression in South Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
A report dated 18 October 2004 jointly produced by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attack was clearly directed against the Banyamulenge refugees and apparently, ethnically and politically motivated. Various sources, including the above UN report as well as a report by Human Rights Watch, compiled credible evidence leaving little doubts over the responsibilities in the massacre. The evidence clearly indicated that the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL), the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese army (FARDC) and Mayi Mayi militia were directly involved in the Gatumba massacre.
The UN report asserted that many of these foreign armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi border region harbour resentments against the targeted group and others such as FARDC and Mayi Mayi militia may have political motives for preventing the refugees from returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. PALIPEHUTU-FNL, then a rebel movement led by Agathon Rwasa, openly confessed its responsibility in this massacre. The ideology underlying the commission of the genocide in Rwanda one decade earlier was evident in the perpetration of the Gatumba massacre in August 2004. The UN report documented the fact that the attackers chanted such slogans as “we will exterminate all the Tutsis in Central Africa”; “kill these dogs, these Tutsis”; “today, you Tutsis, whether you are Rwandese, Congolese or Burundian, you will be killed”.
The massacre was widely condemned by several countries from around the globe as well as by supranational institutions such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. Many of them pledged to support endeavours aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice. The United Nations urged countries in the sub-region to cooperate in investigating the massacre and bringing perpetrators to justice. Ten years after the event, no single step has been taken to deliver justice for the slain and surviving victims of the Gatumba massacre. The uproar that accompanied the commission of the crime has faded and victims face the sad prospect of never seeing justice done. The peculiar circumstances of a crime committed against Congolese citizens, on Burundian territory, reportedly by Congolese national army and armed groups reportedly originating from three different or neighbouring countries of the region complicate, if not annihilate any prospects of domestic prosecutions against perpetrators of the crime.
Victims are nonetheless still crying for justice. The inaction of Burundian, Congolese and other sub-regional authorities imposes a duty on the international community to get actively involved in delivering on the promise of justice made to them in the aftermath of the crime. This tenth remembrance of the victims of the Gatumba massacre occurs at a time when the Kivu provinces of the DRC are still characterised by instability and social tensions. Sources of the continued tensions include the unresolved socio-political and legal issues including elusive promises of justice and redress. Crimes committed in the DRC over the last decades have claimed numerous victims from the various communities living in the country. All victims deserve justice. Owing to the particular circumstances of the massacre and to the involvement of numerous actors, domestic and international initiatives aimed at delivering justice to the victims generally ignore the victims of the Gatumba massacre. This is evidenced by the non-coverage of the Gatumba massacre in the 2010 UN Mapping Report. On this tenth remembrance of victims of the Gatumba massacre, UBUNTU notes that since the crime was committed, no active steps have been taken to bring perpetrators to justice.
UBUNTU therefore urges:
-The international community to deliver on the promise of justice made to survivors of the Gatumba atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
-The United Nations to use all appropriate means to bring Agathon Rwasa and other perpetrators of the massacre to justice.
-The Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other sub-regional countries to cooperate in rehabilitating the victims.
For Ubuntu: Kinyoni John Mutebutsi
UBUNTU is an organisation created by individuals from eastern DRC for purposes of contributing to initiatives aimed at preventing violence and working towards sustainable peace and conflict resolution in their native land and the wider Great Lakes Region of Africa. UBUNTU membership includes individuals who survived the Gatumba massacre. UBUNTU is one of only few actors who have constantly tried to remind the international community of the unfulfilled promise of justice for victims of the Gatumba massacre. It is an international peace-building and non-profit organization based in Brussels.
UBUNTU – Initiative for Peace and Development
Rue Creuse 60, B-1030 Brussels, Belgium, Enterprise no: 891.545.509, Approved by the
Belgium Royal Decree of 26th.07.2007. E-mail: email@example.com
The guns were there in the green and wounded wild,
Hurling death as a boy may throw a stone.
And the man who served them, with unquickened breath,
Dealt, like a grocer, with their pounds of death.
Thunderous over the fields their iron was thrown,
And beyond the horizon men who could laugh and feel
Lay in the wet dust, red from brow to heel.
The bodies of men lay down in the dark of the earth :
Young flesh, through which life shines a friendly flame,
Was crumbled green in the fingers of decay. . . .
Among the last year’s oats and thistles lay
A forgotten boy, who hid as though in shame
A face that the rats had eaten. . . . Thistle seeds
Danced daintily above the rebel weeds.
Old wire crept through the grass there like a snake,
Orange-red in the sunlight, cruel as lust.
And a dead hand groped up blindly from the mould. . .
A dandelion flamed through ribs — like a heart of gold,
And a stink of rotten flesh came up from the dust . . .
With a twinkle of little wings against the sun
A lark praised God for all that he had done…