Topsy-turvy justice in Burundi - human rights defenders languish in jail while mass murder goes unpunished

14 years ago I took a call I never expected to get. I was at work, in a graduate IT job I’d drifted into after university. It was half past five. I was getting ready to go home when my phone rang. It was my Mum. She told me that my sister Charlotte had been killed in a massacre by Hutu extremist rebels, in a tiny African country called Burundi.

Charlotte had been volunteering with VSO in neighbouring Rwanda. She’d been travelling with her Burundian boyfriend to meet his family. Together with 19 others they were dragged off their bus, forced to lie face down on the ground, and shot dead. Several children were among the victims.

In the months that followed, I kept dreaming Charlotte wasn’t dead, but injured, in hospital, still in with a chance. Or somehow I was there, improbably well-armed, with the killers in my sights - after the bus had been ambushed, but before they shot her.

And then I would wake up. And I would feel that same 'sickening sense of impotence' that Amnesty International’s founder Peter Benenson once wrote about so eloquently.

I became consumed with wanting to understand why Charlotte was killed, and the brutal, complex conflict which claimed her life. I'd heard of Amnesty International before, but it was only now that I discovered the breadth and detail of Amnesty’s research. I realised that it was one of the few organisations paying attention to Burundi, telling the stories of those whose rights were being so viciously abused, and trying to do something about it.

This was the beginning of a journey that led me to become involved with Amnesty, first as a member, then as a volunteer, and eventually as a fundraiser.

14 years later, Burundi is nominally at peace. Yet the brutality continues, and Amnesty is again among the few voices speaking out. Amnesty's latest report, published today, recounts a 'relentless campaign of intimidation against government critics'. While those who have committed mass murder now enjoy immunity for their crimes, journalists and human rights activists are harassed, attacked, and imprisoned.

Given Burundi’s recent past, the activities of the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth militia are especially worrying. According to Amnesty, they have engaged in 'intimidation, harassment and violence... even killing members of the political opposition with impunity'.

Amnesty is urging the African Union to “consider all threats, including violations of civil and political rights... within the framework of the Continental Early Warning System, which aims to anticipate and prevent the outbreak of conflict”.

When Burundi’s tensions last escalated into war in 1993, over 300,000 people died - more than in all of the conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia combined. The massacre that claimed my sister’s life was one of many. A peace agreement was only agreed in 2005. Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the Gatumba refugee camp massacre, in which over 160 people were killed - half of them children. And this was only the most recent of Burundi’s wars, amid a vicious cycle of massacre and reprisal, fuelled by a toxic culture of impunity, which began soon after independence in 1962.

For years after Charlotte’s death, I was haunted by the message her attackers sent via a passenger they freed unharmed: “We’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”. When I think about that now, I’m reminded of another reflection by Amnesty’s founder: “if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done”.

Burundians in the UK - and around the world - are becoming increasingly organised in response to the situation. Earlier this year, Burundian activists demonstrated outside Parliament, and delivered a letter urging David Cameron to use “all diplomatic means” to end the repression. Similar protests were held in Canada, Belgium, Sweden and the United States.

Burundians have also begun writing to their MPs, and are asking supporters to do the same.“We do believe that the struggle will be long, but we are determined to walk the extra miles until Burundi becomes a nation where every one will be safe and free to express his opinion”, says Fred Ngamiye, Chair of the UK Burundi Diaspora Association.     

“Our own interests in Burundi are microscopic (we buy some coffee)”, wrote Henry Kissinger in 1972, commenting on the global indifference towards an earlier genocide, which had cost over 100,000 lives.

Four decades later, are we still so apathetic? Will the African Union - and the European donors who bankroll Burundi’s government - politely look away while repression mounts and more innocent people die?

Or could the script this time be different? Perhaps if enough people around the world press our governments to act, we could help pull things back from the brink, and prevent more families from going through a brutal, violent bereavement.

Richard Wilson is our Trusts and Corporate Fundraising Officer. He has written about Charlotte's death and his search for justice that followed in the book 'Titanic Express'.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
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.
View latest posts