OP-ED: One year on, Burundi’s killings still go unpunished

It was not hard to find the place in Cibitoke where five young men had been shot dead by police earlier that morning. Scores, maybe hundreds, of their neighbours crowded around. 

As the blanket was pulled back to show us their bloodied bodies, children pushed forward to get a closer look.

In this opposition neighbourhood of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, finding dead bodies in the streets had become a regular occurrence in the wake of a May 2015 coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza.

By late last year, the country’s political crisis had taken a violent turn. Street protests sparked in April by the president’s decision to stand for a third term in office were brutally repressed by the authorities.

Suspected opponents were subjected to obscene forms of torture, and the police routinely carried out search operations in opposition neighbourhoods like the one we visited.

The young men killed on December 9, 2015, had been trying to make a life for themselves in the city.

The police spokesperson said they were responsible for a grenade attack on the police and that they were found with weapons.

Witnesses said that the police took the five young men from their homes and shot them at close range. At least one looked like he had been shot in the head from above.

The first to be killed was father-of-three Arsène Ndayizeye, who had just returned from a night shift at work. His wife was expecting their fourth child. The others — Adrien Miburo, Epitace Ningabire, Benjamin Tuyisabe, and Abdoul Karim — were all motorcycle taxi-drivers who rented a house together.

While the human rights violations in Bujumbura had been escalating for several months, the killings that day were a chilling precursor of worse to come.

Two days later, on December 11, Bujumbura residents were woken before dawn to the sound of explosions and gunfire at the start of the most violent day since the failed coup in May 2015.

Four military installations in and just outside the city were targeted by unknown armed men, before security forces pushed back the attackers and chased them into some of the opposition neighbourhoods.

Within hours, the government declared the attacks had failed. But, by that time, its security forces had already began a violent cordon-and-search operation in Nyakabiga and Musaga, two perceived pro-opposition strongholds.

Stuck in our hotel, there was nothing that we could do to help colleagues and friends who were trapped all day in their homes, listening in terror as security forces went from house to house, killing, beating, and looting.

Dozens of people were killed in security operations that day. Men were killed inside their own homes or pulled outside and shot at close range. The next day, when we visited Nyakabiga soon after the bodies were removed, we saw pools of blood where people, including a teenager, had been killed.

Later, the mother of another teenage boy, this time from Musaga, told us about how her son was killed: “He was terrified by the heavy shooting in front of the house so he ran out the back door to go hide in the bathroom.

He hadn’t even taken two steps before he was hit: in the head, his left arm and his side. He died on the spot.”

In a crude charade of justice, the government’s investigation into claims of extrajudicial executions concluded that all those killed in opposition neighbourhoods that day had taken part in the fighting, apart from one man described as “mentally insane,” who the report said was caught in crossfire.

Fast-forward one year to the present and the situation in Burundi appears much calmer, but a deep fear lingers not far beneath the surface.

While the grievances underlying the crisis remain unresolved, East African Community-led mediation efforts hit a roadblock on December 9 when, at the end of his visit to the country, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, the dialogue’s facilitator, told journalists that those who think he is the one lending legitimacy to Nkurunziza’s presidency are “absolutely out of their minds,” and that that issue had been resolved. His remarks enraged the opposition and civil society who called for his resignation.

Meanwhile, the government consolidates its stranglehold on power by instilling fear in the population using the most repressive means — extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture and other ill-treatment. Almost 100,000 refugees have fled the country this year alone.

At its core, this crisis is political and must be resolved through dialogue that ensures justice for all past and current human rights violations and abuses.

Burundi needs genuine dialogue, real accountability and good neighbours to support them on the way. To prevent such abuses from being repeated again and again, the impunity that has plagued the country for decades must be broken.

Rachel Nicholson is Amnesty International's researcher on Burundi and Rwanda.

This article was first published in The East African on 19 December 2016 https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/OpEd/comment/One-year-on-Burundi-killings-still-go-unpunished--/434750-3491574-k90i1ez/index.html