Escalating Violence in Burundi

On January 15, 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement about the developing situation in Burundi. In it, he talked of the “deeply worrying trends” emerging from Burundi and called for urgent investigation into allegations of humanitarian abuses that originated from mid to late 2015.

The current escalation of violence began in May 2015 when the Constitutional Court of Burundi ruled in favor of President Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term of presidency. This resulted in protestors taking to the streets and tens of thousands fleeing the resulting violence and tensions.

President Pierre Nkurunziza first became President in 2005 after the Burundian civil war that left 300 000 dead. His election was one of the final steps in a lengthy peace process designed to end years of conflict between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-controlled army. President Nkurunziza was re-elected in 2010 and his tenure was marked by accusations of growing authoritarianism. His reelection in July 2015 was even more controversial as Burundi’s constitution limits presidents to a two term maximum. Although the constitutional court supported his decision to run, there were allegations of pressuring judges to vote in his favour. Rebel and opposition forces increased attacks on government positions and the government retaliated.

Since Nkurunziza’s re-election, alarming trends have emerged and there have been increased calls for an independent and international investigation into allegations of crime originating from Burundi. The recent UN report of January 15 states that “the increasing number of enforced disappearances, coupled with allegations of secret detention facilities and mass graves is extremely alarming”. According to the report, the number of verified torture cases tripled in the span of a month-29 cases of torture and 42 cases of ill treatment were documented in December 2015.

A major concern is that the violence seems to be taking on an ethnic dimension and divisive ethnic language is increasingly used by politicians. The existence of at least nine mass graves have been confirmed, one of which is located on a military camp and contains approximately one hundred bodies. The origin of these graves was massacres perpetrated on December 11 and 12, 2015 when upwards of 150 people were killed in the capital city in response to a rebel attack. Bodies were left exposed in the streets of the capital and were in predominantly Tutsi neighbourhoods. There have been consistent reports of the involvement of the Imbonerakure, a youth militia group closely affiliated with the ruling party, in mass violence and intimidation. This echoes the involvement of the Interahamwe in the genocide in Rwanda who actively perpetrated violence and were closely linked to the ruling party. They were seen as doing the ‘dirty work’ of the political elites and there are worries that the Imbonerakure may be fulfilling the same role.

On December 18, the African Union announced plans to send 5 000 peacekeeping troops to Burundi. However, this was termed an “invasion force” by the Burundian government and President Nkurunziza threatened to counter the deployment of external peacekeepers with violence. Worryingly, insecurity in Burundi could have a knock-on effect for the entire Great Lakes region. More than 200 000 people have already fled violence in Burundi to the neighbouring countries of Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an already unstable region, this influx of displaced persons and the increase in ethnically motivated politics and violence could lead to tragic circumstances.

UPDATE: January 30, 2016
Amnesty International released a statement on January 29 stating that they had seen ariel evidence of multiple mass graves in Burundi. The images are of interest due to the evidence of a recently dug up area, previous satellite images did not show this ground as disturbed. Muthoni Wanyeki, the regional director for Amnesty International stated “These images suggest a deliberate effort by the authorities to cover up the extent of the killings by their security forces and to prevent the full truth from coming out”.

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Anna Gopsill

Anna was awarded a Masters in Holocaust and Genocide studies from the University of Amsterdam in 2014. She currently writes and researches for Stop Genocide Now with a specific interest in sexual violence, transitional justice and how genocide is perpetrated.

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