The world looks away as blood flows in Burundi

More than a quarter of a million people have fled in terror as opposition militias plot their return. Without international assistance a humanitarian disaster looms

Thierry wants to talk, but chokes on memories of blows and stabs punctuated by the sound of his father pleading for his life before masked men hacked him to death. He shrinks into himself, cold and small on a damp wooden bench just inside Tanzania. Hell is just a couple of kilometres and a river crossing away, in the country he called home until two hours ago.

“Blood flows everywhere in Burundi, that’s how things are,” said the young farmer, rolling up his trouser legs and a shirt sleeve to show cuts and bruises almost as raw as his anguish. He asked that his name be changed to protect family still inside Burundi. A refugee at 27, he is just one victim of a crisis that has pushed more than a quarter of a million people into exile, and now threatens the tenuous stability of a region with a grim history of genocide. Torture, assault, abduction and murder fill the stories of those who have fled.

“I want to forget everything about Burundi, even our names,” said another young man, who has collapsed at a refugee registration post after carrying his 16-year-old sister, pregnant after rape, across a river to safety. They left behind the grave of another sister, killed last year by a government bullet.

Survivors warn that, as the violence spirals and rumours grow of opposition militias training in neighbouring countries, a government fearful of losing its grip has resorted to the poisonous ethnic propaganda that fuelled the country’s past wars and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Yet the world doesn’t seem to have noticed. There is little sense of international urgency about halting Burundi’s disintegration, and aid groups say there is even less interest in funding food and shelter for victims.

“Our country is on the brink of war, and we feel forgotten,” said Genevieve Kanyange, a senior defector from the ruling party who spent weeks in hiding before fleeing into exile. “If we don’t get help soon, it may be too late.”

Violence first flared last year when the flamboyant president, Pierre Nkurunziza, a former PE teacher, militia commander and devout born-again Christian, announced that he was casting aside the constitution to run for a third term.

That triggered a failed coup attempt, mass protests and a crackdown that has become a permanent state of violence. On average, more than a hundred people a day have staggered across the Tanzanian border in 2016, figures from aid agencies working in the region show.

They join the 250,000 or so who were already spread across Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of last year, in camps that are desperately overcrowded and short of food. An appeal for funds has raised only £1 in every £10 needed, a United Nations spokesman said.

Men carry away a dead body in the Nyakabiga neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi in December.
Men carry away a dead body in the Nyakabiga neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi in December. Photograph: STR/AP

Most refugees have travelled at night, through scrub and forest, to avoid militias hunting down would-be defectors, who they brand traitors. Some of the people they intercept are sent back with a warning, but many are assaulted and murdered.

“They took our money, beat us and asked, ‘Don’t you support the president?” said Kigeme Kabibi, a 30-year-old mother of five who first tried to escape after her husband was shot and, like almost all ordinary Burundian refugees, asked to be known by a pseudonym for fear of reprisal attacks for talking to foreign media. On a second attempt she stayed away from roads and made it over to Tanzania.

The government apparently hopes that, if it can stem the refugee crisis, an already distracted international community will find it easier to ignore problems within Burundi’s tight borders. The controls are so tight that tens of thousands of vulnerable people have gone into hiding inside the country, sheltering in forests or the homes of friends, rather than risk a crossing.

For those who do make it across, Tanzania offers only the most basic protection. The shortage of funds and flood of new arrivals mean that refugee camps are packed, that food rations rarely stretch to more than one meal a day, and that women and children report high levels of sexual assault.

Fabian Simbila is a health worker who met Thierry and his family at a tiny border outpost for registration. He can call in help for medical emergencies and offers blankets to ward off the chill, but has no food for families who have walked, sometimes for days, on empty stomachs. “They arrive during the evening and have nothing to eat until they get taken to the official refugee camps the next day. It’s difficult, you feel sorry for them. But what can I do?” he said. With dozens of people arriving each day, his own modest salary would not stretch to rations for them all.

Women wait in the IRC women’s centre at the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania.
Women at the IRC women’s centre at Nyarugusu. Photograph: Griff Tapper/IRC

Hunger in Tanzania is still a welcome change from meals eaten in terror at home for some. “Tonight maybe I can even sleep again,” said Jacques, a 21-year-old farmer who fled with his parents from a village in the border province of Ruyigi. He had not eaten for more than 24 hours, but said the family did not mind.

“I didn’t want to live through the things I saw as a child again,” he said, referring to a long-running civil war that ended in 2005. “They are catching young men and stab and beat them, and rape women. We are sick of people dying like goats. Also my father is old and begged us to leave now, because he would not be able to run if a crisis came fast.”

The testimony of rural refugees like Jacques is important because Burundi’s rural areas are so poor and badly connected that activists often have only a flimsy grasp on the violence playing out there. In the capital, Bujumbura, and other major towns, a network of sympathisers use smartphones to smuggle out information about killings and disappearances at great risk to themselves, said lawyer and activist Lambert Nigarura.

There are few phones, internet links or connections to activist networks in the villages of one of the poorest countries in the world, meaning those who want to publicise violence have to rely on more old-fashioned and riskier methods. “Up country it’s much harder to get things out; they are happening away from the camera,” said Nigarura, recalling one series of abuses flagged up by letter. “We have observers only in some areas, so when something happens where they are, we know. If it’s somewhere else, we don’t.”

Rural residents are also cut off from news about the scale of the national crisis. Televisions are increasingly rare outside towns and the government shut down all the country’s independent radio stations last May. The most popular station, Radio Publique Africaine, was even hit by a rocket to underline the message. The state stations that survive pump out propaganda rather than information.

“In the village, people were killed, but you didn’t hear anything about it on the radio,” said Fabrice, a 54-year-old who decided to leave with his wife and 12 children after his brother-in-law was abducted in the night. They do not expect to see him again, after they called the local jail and officials said he wasn’t there.

The family had delayed leaving even as villages slowly emptied, because – like most people in the camps – they feel it is a one-way journey. “As soon as they know we are here, they will have automatically taken our land,” adds Fabrice. “We can never go back.”

His fears are echoed by aid agencies that say they expect to be supporting Burundian refugees for many years to come, even if the violence is halted within months. “I found no prospect or desire to return to Burundi. This is a serious and likely long-term displacement,” said International Rescue Committee head David Miliband. “I think we have got to prepare for the worst, which is a multi-year crisis, with people still coming.”

He was speaking after a visit to Nyarugusu camp, now the third-biggest refugee centre in the world, a sprawling shanty town of the dispossessed and home to more than 150,000 people.

Burundian refugees listen to Tanzanian PM Kassim Majaliwa speak at Nduta camp in Kigoma, Tanzania.
Burundian refugees listen to Tanzanian PM Kassim Majaliwa speak at Nduta camp in Kigoma, Tanzania. Photograph: STR/AP

The luckier exiles, with money or relatives to take them in, have mostly ended up in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where journalists, activists and politicians gather information smuggled out of Burundi and argue about how to raise the profile of the crisis and end the violence.

Most are wary of a military escalation and say that foreign peacekeepers are the country’s best hope of avoiding war. But among the camps of refugees and scattered exiles are a growing number of angry, grieving survivors who want to return with a gun in their hands. “I wish I could go back and fight, but I don’t know where to sign up,” says one exile scarred from torture in a government prison, who asked to be known as Billy Ndiyo to protect relatives left behind when he fled Burundi.

Ndiyo had been a driver until the crisis. The economic turmoil it precipitated left him unemployed. He was rounded up by militiamen in the street when he went out to buy bread last summer. He had not been involved in politics, and thinks he was seized simply because he was a young man in an area known as an opposition stronghold.

Driven to a villa at the back of a military compound that activists say they know has been used as a prison, Ndiyo was handcuffed, beaten and stabbed in the face with a bayonet. “He picked it up and stabbed me just above the eye, shouting, ‘Don’t you dare look at me’. I put up my hand to try and stop the bleeding, and he jabbed at it, then attacked my head and other hand with the knife. There was blood everywhere and the last injury made me pass out.”

He came to in a tiny cell where eight other weary prisoners, some acquaintances from his neighbourhood, told him he was unlikely to leave alive. He soon saw why. “They came in the night for two of the prisoners. They told them, ‘Come, we have found a suitable place for you’ and no one has seen them since. When they came to take another the next night, he was crying and tried to resist, so they started stabbing him in front of our eyes.”

Fortunately for Ndiyo, a rich and well-connected relative managed to buy his freedom and send him straight to a nearby border. His cellmates are almost certainly all dead, he thinks.

It is difficult to verify the stories of many refugees, because of the unrest inside Burundi and a clampdown on visas. But the stories told by people from different parts of the country feature common patterns of violence, torture techniques and perpetrators.

Burundian refugees return from an hours-long trip outside the Nyarugusu refugee camp to collect firewood.
Burundian refugees return from an hours-long trip outside the Nyarugusu refugee camp to collect firewood. Photograph: Griff Tapper

Many of those held or killed in government prison say they were grabbed off the streets by security forces and militia claiming to be hunting for rebels. These raids became so common that in some areas young men would stay inside their homes for weeks at a time.

The other common form of public violence has played out in raids on homes, usually on the pretence of looking for illegal weapons. “They just come into your house thinking you are in a different political party and say they are searching for guns. Even if they don’t find any, they take people away and no one knows where they go,” said Fabrice.

Those who killed Thierry’s father accused him of belonging to a rebel group, even though the old man had lived through years of violence without taking up arms. “My father was begging them, ‘I don’t have a gun. Even if you gave me yours, I wouldn’t know how to use it’.”

Other forms of torture range from the security forces’ use of bayonets to slash and stab to the gruesomely obscure. Several recounted militias tying tubs of water to men’s penises with a short string and forcing them to stand up and down, their genitals strained by the weight.

A member of Burundi’s military on patrol as police seek weapons in Bujumbura.
A member of Burundi’s military on patrol as police seek weapons in Bujumbura. Photograph: Griff Tapper/IRC

The perpetrators of many atrocities are masked, anonymous men. But a group repeatedly named in stories of detention and harassment is the feared youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure. Their name means “those who see far” in the local Kirundi language, and they grew out of the same disbanded militia as the ruling party. Critics say they have never fully shaken off the mentality of war, although the government insists they are just a political group.

They also appear to be involved in reported efforts to turn the conflict into an ethnic one. Burundi neighbours Rwanda and has a similar ethnic make-up to the country whose genocide in 1994 still casts long shadows of shame and fear. Like Rwanda, Burundi has also seen bitter, genocidal wars between Hutu and Tutsi.

A carefully structured peace deal that ended the most recent war in 2005 had defused many of those tensions, creating an ethnic balance across the military, government and even state-owned firms. Groups such as the Imbonerakure are outside those formal power structures and undermine them.

The army is already divided. Last month a senior army officer seen as close to Nkurunziza was shot dead while reading a noticeboard inside military headquarters.

“Dissident and loyalist members of the army are killing each other. What can that point to but a very high risk?” said Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa analyst at the International Crisis group. “If we have a look at Burundi’s history, we can see there is a very serious risk of mass atrocity violence.”

With the government preaching hatred, there is a risk that Burundi could fracture further along ethnic lines, and an army at war with itself could drag the country back into full-blown civil war.

“We think the regime is trying to turn this into an ethnic dispute. Our term is ‘ethnicisation from above’,” said Moncrieff. “This is a government using propaganda towards its population, and its difficult to see it leading anywhere good.”

A troubled history

A Burundian kingdom emerged as early as the 1500s. It was later colonised by Germany and then Belgium.

1960s Burundi declares independence, under King Mwanbutsa IV. When Hutus win a majority in parliamentary elections three years later, he refuses to appoint a Hutu prime minister. In 1966 army chief Michel Micombero seizes power.

1970s Government troops massacre more than 100,000 people in the south after a Hutu-led uprising in 1972. Micombero is ousted in a military coup.

1980s Another military coup brings Pierre Buyoya to power in 1987. A year later thousands of Hutus are massacred by Tutsis. Many more flee to Rwanda.

1993 A pro-Hutu government is installed in June after multi-party polls. In October, Tutsi soldiers assassinate the president, sparking revenge killings of Tutsis and then army reprisals. It is the start of an ethnic conflict that will claim more than 300,000 lives.

1994 A Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, is appointed in February but dies two months later when the plane carrying him and his Rwandan counterpart, Juvénal Habyarimana, is shot down, setting off Rwanda’s genocide.

2000 Arusha peace deal is agreed, which lays the basis for a power-sharing rule in Burundi, though the war rages on for several years.

2005 Pierre Nkurunziza is elected president. He wins a nationwide poll in 2010 after opposition parties boycott it, and in 2015 argues that his unusual route to office allows him to defy the constitution and stand for one more term.

2015 After a failed coup attempt, Nkurunziza wins a third term with 70% of the vote. A campaign of violence, murder and intimidation sparks a regional refugee crisis, destroys the economy and isolates Burundi.

2016 International efforts to halt the crisis are stepped up, but to little effect. UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon visits Burundi, the EU halts aid payments, and UK, European and US governments impose sanctions on several senior figures. The African Union considers sending in peacekeeping troops.


Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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