Ethnic violence in Burundi9 min read

Fleeing Burundians speak of possible genocide

Text >> Ignatius Ssuuna Photos >> Eugene Nsibomana

Emmanuel Sibomana obeyed the Imbonerakure, the feared militarised youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, when they ordered him to open his door.

Two members of the group entered his home and shot his father several times in the chest.

The 66-year-old businessman wasn’t the only victim of the Imbonerakure that night in Musaga, in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Sibomana’s 51-year-old mother and younger sibling were executed as well.

Sibomana, however, managed to escape in disguise and later crossed the border into Rwanda, he said in an interview in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.

“The Imbonerakure said they came for my family because Tutsi are bad people who also fight their President, Pierre Nkurunziza. They said they will kill Tutsis one by one until they are finished.”

The attack on Sibomana’s home happened on 2 January 2017, a day after a Burundian cabinet minister – also a Tutsi, Emmanuel Niyonkuru – was killed shortly after midnight by unknown assailants. These two incidents are not unique, but are part of a larger trend of increased politically induced violence directed towards Tutsis.

Local human rights groups say the politics in Burundi continues to take an ethnic dimension and that there is real fear that the violence will become more ethnically driven. They worry that the country could slide into Rwandan-style genocide where more than a million Tutsis and moderate members of the Hutu majority were killed by Hutu extremists.


Sibomana says Hutus opposed to Nkurunziza are targeted too. But if they are a Tutsi, even if they don’t oppose the president, Imbonerakure will hunt you down on account of your ethnicity, Sibomana said.

In April this year, the UN was alarmed after a video by local human rights groups surfaced showing Imbonerakure youth being trained and chanting ‘songs’ encouraging the rape of women from the opposition. After the video was released, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the video confirmed that this “organised militia” has been waging a “campaign of fear and terror.”

“Such blatant and brazen hate speech and incitement to violence must not be tolerated nor encouraged,” Zeid said.

But Dennis Karera, the Imbonerakure president, denied in a telephone interview that the group was involved in violence or enforced disappearances of opposition.

“Our members engage in developmental activities. People from outside keep accusing us of crimes we never commit,” Karera, said to me. He insists that the group is for peace.

However, Karera’s view is not shared by all Imbonerakure members. Hussein Munairakiza from Buterere district in the capital Bujumbura, who fled in January this year to Uganda, is a member of the group. He alleges that he knew many youth belonging to the Imbonerakure who were killed for not being ‘active’ during attacks on Tutsi families and Hutus opposed to Nkurunziza.

“Before I fled, I saw my colleague [an Imbonerakure member] being tortured because he refused to participate in an attack against one family that protested a third term for Nkurunziza. My colleague later died,” Munairakiza said. His group of about 20 youth, he says was recruited and trained by the intelligence services and police. His version of events is supported by international human rights groups.

According to Human Rights Watch reports, members of the Imbonerakure carry out violent crimes with impunity because President Nkurunziza is unwilling to prosecute members of the youth group.

But Karera says that violence in Burundi is caused by people from outside the country. The ruling party in Burundi views the Rwandan government – which has accepted many refugees including critics of President Nkurunziza – as an anti-Bujumbura establishment. They have accused President Paul Kagame, himself a Tutsi, of training rebels sworn to overthrow Burundi’s government.

Rwanda denies Burundi’s accusations. For its part, Rwanda has long complained that Nkurunziza has turned a blind eye to the presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) on Burundian territory. The FDLR are a rebel group led by remnants of those who carried out the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.

Political violence in Burundi was sparked when President Nkurunziza, a former rebel turned president, decided in April 2015 to run for a controversial third term. Many Burundians say this contradicted a 2005 Arusha peace deal that ended the 13-year civil war in which 300,000 people were killed.

Since the violence, the human toll is: more than 1,000 dead, 8,000 detained on political grounds, between 300 and 800 people missing, hundreds tortured, thousands arbitrarily arrested, and hundreds of women subjected to sexual violence. These figures are according to the recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights, known as FIDH (a global human rights umbrella organisation), and the Burundian Human Rights League ITEKA. The bodies have asked Africa, Europe, and the United Nations to send a civilian protection force to Burundi to prevent a possible genocide.

Fleeing Burundians living in Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda and human rights campaigners say that while Nkurunziza’s government previously responded to any opposition to his third term with murder, arrests, and intimidation, a general campaign has now been launched by his government against Tutsis who are regarded as a threat to his leadership.


Mutesi Inshimwe, a university student from Bujumbura says her family was never involved in politics and never opposed Nkurunziza’s regime. Despite this, her two elder brothers were arrested by security forces and later tortured to death after being accused of having links with Tutsi army officers. “The Imbonerakure threatens Tutsis openly,” she said.

Nkurunziza’s adviser in charge of communications, Willy Nyamitwe, dismissed reports of genocide in Burundi as propaganda by members of the opposition. Nyamitwe said all Burundians are united, adding that the government opponents were on a mudslinging campaign aimed at regime change in Bujumbura. He said the FIDH report, like many other previous human rights reports, is inaccurate.

“The genocide talk is a creation of the enemies of Burundi,” Nyamitwe said.

But a 200-page FIDH report dated 15 November, 2016, called Repression and Genocidal Dynamics in Burundi, cited several human rights abuses by security forces of the Burundi’s government. FIDH and ITEKA said President Nkurunziza and the ruling party “started to use the classic rhetoric of defending the Hutu majority as being persecuted and threatened by the risk of the return of an oppressive Tutsi military.”

Soldiers from the former Tutsi-dominated army are being purged and dozens have been murdered, arrested, or transferred, the rights groups noted. Senior officials from the defence and security forces and the ruling party also “increasingly denounce Tutsis as enemies of the regime,” the report added.

A UN report last September accused Burundi’s government of carrying out a process of “ethnicisation from above” in Burundi that – though it had yet to take hold in the general public or in the army – was present at the top levels of government, and among the Imbonerakure.

Late last year, the government released a circular from Burundi’s senate requiring every government office and public enterprise to classify employees by their ethnicity — Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa — saying this was to conform with the Arusha Agreement which ended the civil war. But Nyamitwe said this classification should not worry Burundians as it is enshrined in the Arusha Accord that the senate of the country will periodically investigative whether the power sharing quotas stipulated in the agreement are respected. But Vital Nshimirimana, a prominent Burundian human rights activist, disagreed with this, saying that such ethnic classification isn’t required under the Arusha accord and is being carried out in “bad faith.”

Back in Kigali where he is trying to find a new home, Emmanuel Sibomana believes the world has forgotten Burundians as the government continues to kill its own people.

According to FIDH and ITEKA, “all the criteria and conditions for perpetration of genocide are in place: ideology, intent, security institutions, and relaying … the identifying populations to be eliminated, and the use of historical justifications.”

“We are not surprised by this decision [because] it confirms that the Burundi government continues to do everything to prevent the reporting of serious violations of human rights,” ITEKA president Anschaire Nikoyagize, who lives in exile, said in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, Burundi’s economy is suffering from the continuing crisis, poverty is deepening, and the country is facing major fuel shortages. According to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the country’s economy shrank in 2016 and is projected to grow by only 2% in 2017 due to the current political crisis. Inflation also rose from 4.38% in 2014 to 5.6% in 2016, the World Bank says. After years of relative stability, the country’s currency has considerably depreciated against the US dollar over the past two years: the Burundian franc went from 1561 against the dollar in April 2015 to 1713.54 in April 2017. The number of people requiring humanitarian assistance rose dramatically in 2016 from 1.1 million people to 3 million.

Alongside much of the region, the entire country has been affected by rising food insecurity. Between October 2016 and January 2017, the number of people classed as food insecure rose from 2.1 million to 3 million, Amnesty International reported in May.

“The need to find a solution to this ongoing human rights crisis is more urgent than ever, and the EAC is an essential part of it,” wrote Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, in the letter addressed to the presidents of the six-member regional grouping, on 18 May.

Back in Kigali where he is trying to find a new home, Emmanuel Sibomana believes the world has forgotten Burundians as the government continues to kill its own people. He predicts that there will be a war eventually that could be fought along ethnic lines similar to the civil war pitted against the Tutsi dominated army and Hutu rebels.

“The suffering in Burundi will not end soon,” Sibomana said in a resigned tone. “The truth about hundreds buried in massive graves will never be known.”

The civil war in Burundi started in 1993 when Tutsi soldiers killed the country’s first democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, sparking a 13-year civil war. A ceasefire was declared in 2006 after a power sharing agreement – which also limits a president to only two terms in office – was signed.

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