'They know who did it and they're not acting': The Gatumba massacre 10 years on
On Saturday I listened while survivors of the Gatumba massacre recounted the horrors they witnessed on the night of August 13th 2004, when more than 160 Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsis were hunted down and killed at a refugee camp in Burundi. The most heart-wrenching stories were those of the little children, too scared to hide and too small to run away, who were shot, macheted or burned to death simply because they were Tutsi.
The refugee camp had supposedly been under United Nations protection, but neither they nor the Burundian army did anything to stop the slaughter. Ten years on, neither have done anything to prosecute the killers.
The day after the Gatumba attack, a Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL admitted responsibility, citing other unpunished massacres in justification – as if the moral abhorrence of one atrocity could somehow be cancelled out by another.
In 2005, the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, was given immunity from prosecution. He is now living comfortably in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, and is tipped to run as a candidate in next year’s Presidential elections.
As Amnesty reported last month, while the authorities in Burundi have been vigorously harassing and jailing their critics, impunity for those committing serious human rights abuses has been near-universal.
Survivors of Gatumba are bewildered – and angry – that the international community has done so little to bring the murderers to book, despite strong calls at the time by the African Union and UN Security Council for justice “without delay”. A promise by the Burundian government to refer Gatumba to the International Criminal Court has never been fulfilled.
Yet as time has passed, calls for justice have only grown stronger and louder. And the fact that the survivors have been scattered across the world has given their campaigning a global reach. This week, commemorations will also take place in the United States and Canada, where hundreds of Banyamulenge refugees were resettled following the massacre, as well as in Burundi itself. On Friday, survivors from around Europe will meet in the Hague, home of the International Criminal Court, to renew their call for justice there.
In the past, Banyamulenge campaigners have struggled to get a hearing within the media, but this too may be changing. Movingly, several of those who narrowly escaped death as children at Gatumba are now playing a central role within the global movement for justice.
Last week, two Congolese sisters now based in the United States, Sandra Uwiringiyimanya and Adele Kibasumba, gave a powerful TV interview about their experiences. Aged just 10 and 14 at the time, Sandra and Adele managed to escape the Gatumba attackers – but tragically other family members did not, including their 6-year-old sister.
“The biggest thing is that someone who committed this crime is out there, and nobody cares enough to say – ‘hey this is not right’. And it’s like their lives were lost in vain…” Sandra told WXXI News.
“It’s that much more heartbreaking knowing that you didn’t only lose loved ones, but to top it off the person that committed the crime is living like a king”.
“The United Nations, and the international community… for us, the survivors it has been nothing but silence, and I think that they have ignored the massacre”, Adele added. “We want justice. Knowing that they know who did it and they’re not acting – it’s silence and ignorance to me.”
Despite the seeming indifference of the Burundian authorities and international policy-makers, the Gatumba campaigners are increasingly finding allies elsewhere. The commemoration I joined last week in Manchester was supported by Burundians, Rwandans, and friends of the Banyamulenge community from across the UK. This was the third such annual event I had been to, and each time the audience has been bigger.
I was asked to speak in a personal capacity, and when I did, I read a message of support from Ciarán MacAirt. Along with many others, Ciarán's family have been keeping up their campaign for truth over the notorious McGurk’s Bar massacre in Northern Ireland for more than four decades.
In the UK, we are slowly beginning to confront the full reality of the crimes committed in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s. Elsewhere in the world, the persistence of campaigners has also been yielding results.
Last week, the two most senior surviving members of Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime were finally convicted and jailed for their crimes. Coming so soon before the 10th anniversary of Gatumba, this must surely be a sign of hope. As a great human rights campaigner once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.
Richard Wilson is our Trusts and Corporate Fundraising Officer. He has written about his sister's death in Burundi and his search for justice that followed in the book 'Titanic Express'.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.