Bu­rundi’s hunt for ‘rebels’ spooks fright­ened Rwan­dans caught up in ten­sions


Buses to Bu­rundi from neigh­bor­ing Rwanda used to be full, but nowa­days they strug­gle for pas­sen­gers: a re­flec­tion of ten­sions amid ac­cu­sa­tions Ki­gali is back­ing a re­bel­lion against Bu­jum­bura.

Check­points on the roads from Rwanda have sprung up, with pas­sen­gers regularly taken off buses and ac­cused of be­ing part of a rebel army Bu­jum­bura ac­cuses Rwanda of har­bor­ing on its soil.

“If you are young you are rou­tinely ar­rested,” said Jac­ques, who works for a Rwan­dan bus op­er­a­tor.

Bu­rundi, where a 13-year civil war be­tween Tut­sis and Hu­tus ended in 2006, has been rocked by vi­o­lence since April, when Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza launched his suc­cess­ful but highly con­tro­ver­sial bid for a third term in power.

It sparked an at­tempted coup and months of civil un­rest led by op­po­si­tion groups, who said it was in de­fi­ance of the con­sti­tu­tion and the Arusha ac­cords which ended the war.

Tightly con­trolled Rwanda — which has a sim­i­lar eth­nic makeup to Bu­rundi — is seen as a safe place for those who op­pose the gov­ern­ment in Bu­jum­bura.

Dis­si­dents Flee to Rwanda

The Rwan­dan cap­i­tal Ki­gali has be­come a refuge for many op­po­si­tion and civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists — as well as dis­si­dents from Nku­run­z­iza’s rul­ing party.

Bu­rundi how­ever goes a step fur­ther, claim­ing that rebel forces — set up by muti­nous sol­diers af­ter a failed coup in May — are also there and en­joy­ing Rwan­dan sup­port.

Re­la­tions be­tween Rwanda and Bu­rundi grew tense af­ter Rwanda Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame urged Nku­run­z­iza to end his bid for a third term.

The peo­ple of Rwanda and Bu­rundi have close ties, and have taken turns shel­ter­ing in each other’s coun­tries when trou­ble spiked, in­clud­ing dur­ing Rwanda’s 1994 geno­cide and Bu­rundi’s 1993-2006 civil war.

But re­la­tions be­tween Bu­jum­bura and Ki­gali are more frosty.

The num­ber of trav­el­ers be­tween the cap­i­tals — which are only 300 kilo­me­ters (185 miles) apart — has been cut by al­most two-thirds, one Rwan­dan bus com­pany owner said.

Many Rwan­dans used to travel regularly to Bu­rundi for busi­ness, to study or to visit rel­a­tives.

Since the cri­sis be­gan in Bu­rundi in April, some 200 Rwan­dans have been ar­rested in Bu­rundi, a Rwan­dan diplo­mat said, adding that while around 50 had been re­leased, they had been no news of the oth­ers.

“Rwan­dans are in the crosshairs of Bu­rundi’s se­cu­rity ser­vices, they are taken from the bus from Rwanda and im­pris­oned, just be­cause they are Rwan­dans,” the diplo­mat said, ask­ing not to be named. “Oth­ers were ar­rested at their work­place.”

‘Se­verely beaten’

Alois Bayin­gana, a 43-year-old Rwan­dan taxi driver, was ar­rested in Au­gust in a Bu­jum­bura bar af­ter driv­ing a cus­tomer to the city from Ki­gali.

He was taken to Bu­rundi’s feared Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency.

“I was se­verely beaten, they kept say­ing that I was a rebel sent by Kagame,” said Bayin­gana, who was re­leased af­ter two weeks.

Bu­run­di­ans leav­ing or re­turn­ing home are also ques­tioned.

For traders the re­stric­tions are costly.

“I can­not go to Bu­rundi,” said a Rwan­dan busi­ness­man who would only gave his name as Stephane, adding he had in­vested “mil­lions” of dol­lars in the coun­try.

“I am afraid, my friends in Bu­rundi tell me not to come,” he added, say­ing he feared be­ing ac­cused of fi­nanc­ing re­bel­lion.

Rwanda’s gov­ern­ment has re­mained tightlipped de­spite a slew of ac­cu­sa­tions from Bu­rundi.

Ki­gali’s Min­is­ter of Jus­tice John­ston Bus­ingye said Rwanda was seek­ing to re­solve ten­sions “am­i­ca­bly and diplo­mat­i­cally” be­tween the two “sis­ter re­publics.”

For now, busi­nesses try to sur­vive.

Rwanda and Bu­rundi “ac­cuse each other, but we are mer­chants, and no one knows ex­actly why and we do not know what will hap­pen” in the fu­ture, Stephane said, fear­ing a long cri­sis and say­ing he was “very wor­ried” for his busi­ness.

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