Bu­rundi Is Burn­ing

A coun­try with a bloody history of eth­nic con­flict risks de­scend­ing into chaos again

Newsweek - - NEWS -

AT THE NYARUGUSU refugee camp on Tan­za­nia’s western border, Faith Umukunzi sits on a stone with her baby safe and com­fort­able in her arms and talks on her cell­phone with her hus­band. She hasn’t seen him for five months. “My hus­band says his life is in dan­ger,” says the mother of five af­ter end­ing the call. “They want to kill him for sup­port­ing the op­po­si­tion party. He has been hid­ing since the coup, and he can’t travel to this camp. I know they will kill him.”

Umukunzi and her chil­dren are among around 110,000 Bu­run­dian refugees who have fled to neigh­bor­ing Tan­za­nia since April, when Bu­rundi de­scended into violence af­ter Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza an­nounced he was run­ning for a third term. Af­ter a failed coup in May, Nku­run­z­iza was re-elected in July, but ten­sions have re­mained high.

Umukunzi, who lived in Ru­monge prov­ince in south­west Bu­rundi on the shores of the mas­sive Lake Tan­ganyika, says she fled her home af­ter pro-gov­ern­ment mili­tias asked her to sur­ren­der her two sons to help them fight rebels op­posed to Nku­run­z­iza. Her hus­band re­mained be­hind to join the strug­gle against the pres­i­dent. “It was a risky jour­ney,” she says. “I had to travel for four days to save my chil­dren from be­ing mur­dered by mem­bers of the rul­ing party. My fam­ily was the next tar­get af­ter our close neigh­bors were shot by men in po­lice uni­form. I saw very many peo­ple be­ing killed.”

The violence stems from a con­tro­versy over whether Nku­run­z­iza was el­i­gi­ble to stand for a third five-year term. The con­sti­tu­tion states that the pres­i­dent of Bu­rundi can­not run for of­fice more than twice. But Nku­run­z­iza claims the par­lia­ment, rather than vot­ers, elected him to his first term in 2005—he was the first pres­i­dent un­der the new con­sti­tu­tion—so, he ar­gued, he had cam­paigned to the elec­torate only once be­fore.

His de­ci­sion sparked fury. Many Bu­run­di­ans were deeply un­happy about the pres­i­dent’s track record. His power grab was an ex­cuse to vent their frus­tra­tions, says Devon Cur­tis, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Cam­bridge Univer­sity in Bri­tain who stud­ies Africa’s Great Lakes re­gion. While Bu­rundi’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct is slated to grow by 5 per­cent next year, the av­er­age cit­i­zen can ex­pect to see a de­cline in wages due to in­fla­tion, ac­cord­ing to African Eco­nomic Out­look.

“His op­po­nents really ral­lied around this ques­tion of the third term, [but] the is­sues run much deeper,” says Cur­tis. “It was about cor­rup­tion of the gov­ern­ment. It was about dis­sat­is­fac­tion with stan­dards of liv­ing and the fact that the econ­omy wasn’t grow­ing quickly enough and that the ben­e­fits were go­ing to a rel­a­tively small num­ber of peo­ple.”

In May, Gen­eral Gode­froid Niy­ombare launched a failed coup against Nku­run­z­iza, af­ter which the pres­i­dent in­ten­si­fied his per­se­cu­tion of op­po­nents, and they stepped up their re­sis­tance

in turn. Nku­run­z­iza won the elec­tion in July and then led a crack­down on op­po­nents that re­sulted in nu­mer­ous deaths.

In De­cem­ber, 79 op­po­si­tion fight­ers and eight gov­ern­ment sol­diers died dur­ing co­or­di­nated rebel at­tacks on three Bu­run­dian mil­i­tary bases, an army spokesman said. The week be­fore, scores of peo­ple died in clashes at mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions. Po­lice spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye con­demned what he called “sev­eral armed crim­i­nal at­tacks.”

In­ter­na­tional alarm has been mount­ing over rhetoric from Nku­run­z­iza’s supporters that has grown in­creas­ingly poi­sonous—draw­ing com­par­isons to the hate speech that whipped up the geno­ci­dal violence in Rwanda in the 1990s. That’s wor­ry­ing be­cause Bu­rundi has also ex­pe­ri­enced geno­cide. A civil war be­tween 1993 and 2005 pit­ted rebels from the Hutu ma­jor­ity against an army dom­i­nated by mi­nor­ity Tut­sis. At least 300,000 peo­ple died in the con­flict, which started a year be­fore the geno­cide of mainly Tutsi peo­ple in neigh­bor­ing Rwanda.

Fears of new mass killings are mo­ti­vat­ing peo­ple to flee Bu­rundi, but so far the violence hasn’t risen to a level that would ob­li­gate the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to in­ter­vene, says Cur­tis. “At the mo­ment, it isn’t fair to de­scribe events as geno­cide,” she says. “It’s po­lit­i­cal violence, and it’s violence con­cen­trated in par­tic­u­lar neigh­bor­hoods. I think it would be a mis­take to call this geno­cide, in that peo­ple are not be­ing tar­geted for their eth­nic af­fil­i­a­tion at the mo­ment.”

Af­ter the De­cem­ber at­tacks on mil­i­tary bases, U.N. high com­mis­sioner for hu­man rights (UNHCR) spokes­woman Ce­cile Pouilly said gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity forces con­ducted in­ten­sive house searches in re­sponse, ar­rest­ing hun­dreds of young men and al­legedly sum­mar­ily ex­e­cut­ing some of them. Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, gov­ern­ment forces re­tal­i­ated by con­duct­ing at­tacks that mostly tar­geted Tut­sis, rais­ing fears that the violence was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly sec­tar­ian.

The U.N. es­ti­mates 340 peo­ple have been killed since April, in­clud­ing about 100 in

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