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Burundi massacre victims denied justice

20 August 2014 - 15:52 By Stephan Hofstatter

A troupe of drummers arrived in Gatumba camp the day before the massacre singing religious songs and blowing on whistles.

Survivors recognised some of the drummers among the attackers who returned that night armed with Kalashnikovs, machetes, grenades and cans of petrol and matches. They’d been sent as spies to identify two large tents that housed 760 refugees from Congolese ethnic minority the Bunyamulenge Tutsis.

When the Bunyamulenge fled ethnic attacks in South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo they thought they were safe in a United Nations refugee camp across the border in Burundi. But on August 13 2004 attackers shot, hacked and burned 166 refugees to death, seriously injuring another 106. The survivors were evacuated to Kenya, and most ended up in the United States.

The then North Kivu deputy governor Thomas Nziratimana arrived in Gatumba the next morning. “What I saw that day was beyond words. I saw burned bodies of babies that looked like charred wood,” he said at a ceremony held in Pretoria commemorating the massacre. “The survivors told us the attackers trapped them at the entrance to the tents and hacked and burned people to death as they tried to escape.”

Delegates at the Pretoria commemoration last week and Human Rights Watch called on the perpetrators to be brought to book.

The attacks were carried out by Burundian Hutu rebel National Liberation Force (FNL), some Hutu aligned Mai Mai militias and former genocidaires living in the DRC.

The Burundian government issued international arrest warrants in 2004 for FNL leaders Agathon Rwasa and its spokesman Pasteur Habimana after the rebels took responsibility for the massacre, but these have never been implemented. Both live in Burundi and their whereabouts are known to the authorities.

“The international community focused on peace but ignored justice,” said Congolese author Alexis Mvuka.  “Thabo Mbeki sent a strong message of condemnation when the massacres happened but South Africa did not respond. If any country can do more it’s South Africa.”

Human Rights Watch’s Africa director Daniel Bekele told Reuters this week that Burundi’s government should mark the anniversary by ending impunity for the killings. “The killings have been well-documented, yet 10 years later, no one has been prosecuted."

Both Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma were mediators in the peace process to end the civil war in Burundi. The FNL rebels disarmed and became a political party in 2009 although some fighters remain active in Burundi and the eastern DRC.

South Africa currently has 850 combat troops, mostly from 5 SA Infantry Battalion in Ladysmith, fighting rebel groups in the eastern DRC as part of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade.

Burundians go to the polls next year with president Pierre Nkurunziza vying for a third term amid widespread reports of a violent crackdown by the ruling party on its opponents.

In 2010 opposition leaders boycotted the elections alleging fraud and intimidation, leaving incumbent Nkurunziza as the only candidate.