Massacre Survivors Fear Returning to Burundi

NAIROBI – The killing remains vivid in their minds. And the deep scars on their bodies will for a long time remind them of the slaughter of their compatriots at a refugee camp in the tiny central African nation of Burundi.

These are the survivors of the Aug. 13 massacre at Gatumba refugee camp, about 20 km (12.4 mi.) from Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.

The attackers, rebels of Burundi’s National Liberation Forces (FNL), raided the camp and slaughtered some 160 Banyamulenge, an ethnic group from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) related to Tutsis. Tutsis make up around 14 percent of both Burundi and Rwanda’s populations.

The rebels, who have been at war with Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated army for a decade, kept away from a nearby camp for displaced Hutus.

IPS met some of the survivors, who refused to be named for security reasons, recuperating at a Nairobi hospital. The survivors, now in stable condition, though traumatized, are among the seven flown to the Kenyan capital Sept. 6 for specialized treatment.

“We were woken from sleep by gun fires outside the camp at around 10:00 p.m. After a short while, the attackers in army gear started slashing and torching our houses. I managed to crawl out without them seeing me. They were about 300, with pangas [machetes] and knives, yelling ‘we are going to kill you,'” says a survivor, who is recovering from an operation to remove a bullet lodged in his head.

Returning from a physiotherapy session, his hands were weak, possibly from the paralysis that had resulted from the head injury, and so were his limbs as he struggled to move his toes.

“The bullet tore through my head. It is only a few days ago that I started talking. I could neither speak nor hear. What I could feel was only noise in my head,” he told IPS.

In a shaky voice, he added: “I lost around 37 of my close relatives, including my wife and five of my ten children. I am scared of going back [to the refugee camp in Burundi]. If only I could get my remaining children back, I would stay [in Kenya] forever.”

Also recovering from a bullet wound in the same hospital is a Congolese woman. “I was shot in the shoulder and the bullet was removed from my back. I feel so much pain without painkillers. But God is great, I am alive,” said 50-year old frail grandmother, as she showed this writer layers of bandage on her back.

While narrating her ordeal, she would occasionally pause from the pain. “Those people were violent, they killed indiscriminately; they even sliced a two-week old baby with a knife. They torched our tents with petrol, killing men, women and children,” she recalled.

The woman arrived in Burundi two months before the massacre. “We had no idea that we would be unsafe in a foreign land, but this is the price we had to pay,” she said, adding, “I left some of my children in the camp. I do not know whether they are alive or dead. My husband was also injured and taken to a hospital in Burundi.”

Medical doctors, whose names have been omitted for security reasons, say the refugees are now out of danger and may be discharged soon.

Human rights campaigners have called on the Burundi government to bring the perpetrators to book. “This was clearly a war crime and those responsible must be brought to justice. The Burundian government has issued arrest warrants for two leaders of the FNL, a promising first step that must be followed by the actual arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators,” said Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, this month.

Up to now, the government has not captured any of the perpetrators. “Burundi is a mountainous country. There are no roads to the mountains where the FNL rebels have been operating for the past 10 years. The army has tried to access the mountain but the rebels have proved elusive,” Burundi Ambassador to Kenya Stanis Nsabuwanka told IPS in an interview Sept. 20.

“But we shall continue pursuing them,” he assured.

Clashes between Hutus, who make up about 85 percent of Burundi’s population, and Tutsis have erupted repeatedly since the country achieved independence from Belgium in 1962.

The current conflict broke out after the assassination of Burundi’s first elected Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye by renegade Tutsi soldiers in 1993. Since then, some 300,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, according to human rights groups.

Last month’s massacre caused regional leaders meeting in Tanzania Aug. 18 to declare the FNL a “terrorist organization.” The leaders wanted to avoid a similar incident in which up to 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in Rwanda in 1994.

The Heads of State of Burundi, Tanzania, the DRC, Zambia and South Africa – the latter has been mediating Burundi’s conflict since 1998 – convened to ratify the agreement signed in 2000. It was reached between the government and 20 rebel groups. The FNL refused to join the transitional government, which was inaugurated in Oct. 2001.

The accord provides for ethnic balances in key positions; the army will be split 50-50 between Tutsis and Hutus, and government posts and parliamentary seats will be split 60-40 in favor of the Hutus.

The regional leaders also asked the United Nations to declare the FNL a terrorist group, and issue a travel ban and arms embargo against it.

But Burundi authorities are not sure sanctions would work. “If [the sanctions would] involve travel, then they may not be effective since the FNL rebels operate [mainly] inside the country,” Nsabuwanka noted.

Regional analysts say a government of national unity as stipulated in the 2000 accord may be a solution for Burundi. “This will ensure that no one cries of being minority and majority. Everyone will be equal,” Kizito Sabala of Africa Peace Forum, a regional non-governmental organization, told IPS.

Such a government may come into force after next month’s elections.