December 28th 2010 – Marking Time

December 27, 2010

Cross-posted from Richard Wilson’s blog:

Video piece about Charlotte’s murder – “Rights Universal”, Channel 4, 2008

*UPDATE* – Amnesty International have issued an “Urgent Action” calling for Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s release. The Committee to Protect Journalists have visited him in prison, where Jean-Claude told them that “international pressure” would be vital to secure his freedom.

It’s just short of a decade since my sister Charlotte was murdered. She was 27 – two years older than me. We had a close, if sometimes stormy, relationship, and for a long time the world felt a lot colder and less colourful than it had done before. While my life has changed a great deal since then, the nature of this sort of experience, I think, is that one never quite sees things in the same light again.

Charlotte’s death set my life on a new trajectory, of which this blog is a small part. I left my job, did a lot of campaigning, went abroad for a while, and ended up writing a book about my sister’s life and death, which in turn led to other writing opportunities. My second book, “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, covers a very different subject area, but Charlotte’s influence is there. My sister had been taking time out to teach science in a rural Rwanda school, after finishing a PhD in microbiology. She was haunted by the effect of AIDS on the community in which she was living, and planned to pursue a career in HIV research on her return to the UK. Her passion for this issue, and in particular her belief in the need to challenge the many myths around the disease – was one of the things that prompted me to look in depth at AIDS denialism when I came to write “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

Charlotte was killed not in Rwanda, but in neighbouring Burundi. She had recently got engaged to a Burundian teacher, Richard Ndereyimana. They were travelling to meet his family when their bus was ambushed by a Hutu-extremist militia group, the “Forces Nationales de Libération” (FNL), high in the hills above the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Hutu passengers were released unharmed. Those presumed to be Tutsi – including Richard Ndereyimana – were lined up and shot. Charlotte was killed with them. In all, 21 people died. The attack became known as the “Titanic Express” massacre, after the bizarre and ill-fated name of the bus in which they were travelling.

The 10th anniversary of the massacre falls on December 28th this year. I’ve decided to mark it with a 24-hour “Twitter marathon”. I’ll be knocking back a lot of coffee and posting a message every 15 minutes from 1.30pm on the 28th, the time that the attack began, to 1.30pm on December 29th.

There’s a rich array of material online about Burundi’s complex, albeit often-ignored, recent history. I’ll be aiming to profile the best of it over the course of the 24 hours – from eye-opening video footage and witness testimonies to niche blogs, bizarre quotes from Richard Nixon, and painstakingly-detailed human rights reports.

Alongside this, there are two particular issues that I’ll be seeking to highlight.

Firstly, despite compelling evidence, no serious effort has been made to prosecute those who carried out the massacre in which Charlotte died, amid a climate of near-total impunity for the elites on both sides. Despite being given numerous cash payments, offers of government jobs, and “provisional” immunity from prosecution, the FNL have continued to pose a threat, and are now reported to be mobilising for a new “holy war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Secondly, while the war criminals remain free, Burundi’s independent media has taken a massive hammering. Journalists are routinely harassed, attacked, threatened and jailed. One of those now languishing in prison is Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who over the years has helped enormously with the campaign for justice over the Titanic Express massacre, and whose support was indispensable when I was researching my first book.

Jean-Claude was arrested in July this year and charged with “treason” after making critical comments about Burundi’s armed forces. The Burundian government has previously been responsive to international pressure in cases like these. Given all that Jean-Claude has done over the years it seems somehow appropriate that I mark the 10th anniversary of Charlotte’s death by doing what I can to highlight his case.

I’ll be available on the day to speak to any journalists who might want to cover the story, and can also be contacted beforehand via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, or 07969 802 830. See here, here and here for some previous media things I’ve done on this.

The Twitter stint will begin at 1.30pm UK time (3.30pm in Burundi) on December 28th –



Justice for Charlotte, and those who died with her!

August 7, 2008

Please write to your MP via, and ask what the Foreign Office is doing to ensure that Charlotte Wilson’s killers are brought to justice for the massacre in which she died, and the many other crimes they have committed. Please ask them what they are doing to keep this promise, which they made in May 2005:

“We will continue to resist any moves to grant Rwasa or other FNL leaders immunity…. We are clear that breaking the culture of impunity in the region is key to peace in the Great Lakes. The FNL and other groups must be sent a signal that they cannot negotiate immunity.

If and when Rwasa and other FNL leaders return to Burundi we will push strongly for the Burundian authorities to try them as soon as possible for the crimes of which they have been accused or admitted responsibility for” – UK Foreign Office, 6 May 2005

A legacy of injustice in Zimbabwe

April 8, 2008

From “Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace – A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands”

Before the first election in Zimbabwe there was also a general amnesty granted under the peace agreement drawn up by Lord Soames, the British High Commissioner at this time. This amnesty meant that all those who had committed human rights violations could not face prosecution, whether they were Rhodesians or ex-freedom fighters. This meant people who had done terrible things during the 1970s were not punished.

Some of these Rhodesians who had tortured remained on in the Zimbabwean CIO and other units. A few used their position to act as South African agents to destabilise Zimbabwe. Others were recruited from ZANLA into 5 Brigade.

In 1988, after the Unity Accord had brought an end to violence, a second amnesty was announced in Zimbabwe. This time those who were being saved from prosecution for crimes committed against civilians were 5 Brigade, CIO, other army units and dissidents.

The very men who tortured people in the 1970s used the same methods to torture people again in the 1980s. Both times they got away with it and were never punished. Some of these men still hold senior positions in the Zimbabwean Government and armed forces.

Breakthrough in struggle against arms-trade impunity as top dealer arrested in Thailand

March 7, 2008

From the Guardian, March 7 2008

 If Viktor Bout did not exist, a thriller writer would have invented him. A former Russian lieutenant, he became one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, flying his ancient Soviet planes into battlefields from Liberia to Afghanistan. His clients have included the Taliban and the US government, African warlords and the UN.

He has as many aliases as an AK-47 has rounds, and has acquired the nicknames Merchant of Death and Lord of War. Pursued for years by the intelligence services of the world, and tracked for months by Thai detectives, yesterday the elusive 41-year-old was finally arrested in a five star hotel in Bangkok.

This time Bout is accused of attempting to buy arms and explosives for leftwing Farc rebels in Colombia but the charge sheet could have listed half a dozen countries where governments might like to interview him. Accused of flouting UN arms embargos and wanted by Interpol, he was eventually arrested on a warrant issued by a Thai court acting on information from the US Drug Enforcement Administration. It is understood that DEA agents posed as arms buyers acting on behalf of Farc.

“We will take legal action against him here, before deporting him to face trial in another country, [most] likely the US,” said Major General Pongpat Chayaphan, the commander of Thailand’s crime suppression division. “We have followed him for several months. He just came back to Thailand today.”

Bout’s story is a classic end-of-the-cold-war morality tale. As a smart and opportunistic 25-year-old, he took advantage of three converging factors after the collapse of the USSR: the sudden availability of cheap, clapped out Soviet airforce planes, a massive stockpile of weapons and spare parts guarded only by underpaid and disgruntled servicemen, and the burgeoning demand for arms from countless conflict areas around the world. Soon he was flying arms to any government or militia that wanted them and filling his Antonov cargo planes with less lethal wares, from gladioli to diamonds, for equally lucrative return trips.

Initially, he provided cheap freight routes to whomever would pay, whether the Angolan government or Unita rebels, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan or their Taliban opponents. After 2001, he worked for the US government and its civilian suppliers, shipping goods into Iraq on their behalf.

“In an age when the US president has divided the world into those who are with the United States and those who are against it, Bout is both,” wrote Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, authors of Merchant of Death, the investigation into Bout which they published last year.

He has also flown peacekeepers for the UN to Somalia and aid to Sri Lanka, after the 2004 tsunami, and been accused of supplying the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor.

Yuri Orlov, the character played by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, the 2005 film about the international arms trade, is said to be modelled on Bout. Amnesty International has commended the film for highlighting the baleful effects of the arms trade. Doubtless Bout will one day be the subject of a film himself, played perhaps by Russell Crowe in a bad moustache, dark glasses and baseball cap; Bout rarely allows himself to be photographed.

As far as he was concerned, he was purely a businessman, providing an international freight service stripped of any ideology. As far as some aid agencies were concerned, on occasion Bout was the swiftest supplier of relief to disaster zones. As far as the then Foreign Office minister Peter Hain was concerned, when he denounced him in the House of Commons in 2000, he was a “merchant of death”, cynically fuelling the civil wars in Africa.

Yesterday Hain welcomed news that Bout had been detained in Bangkok. “I am pleased he has been arrested,” he said. “At the time I exposed him, he was running arms to Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo and taking out blood diamonds. It was a lethal trade and some of those weapons were used against British troops in Sierra Leone. I tried with MI6 to dismantle his activities and we were partially successful but he still has a lot of friends in Moscow.”

Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International’s UK arms programme director, also hailed the arrest. “While we welcome the fact that Victor Bout has finally been arrested, why has it taken so long for this to happen?” he asked. “This is exactly why an international arms trade treaty is needed. Such a treaty would close loopholes that gun-runners like Viktor Bout so easily exploit for their own gain. Through their irresponsible arms transfers gun-runners like Bout have fuelled conflicts where dreadful human rights abuses have occurred.”

Like any good fictional character, Bout has managed to muddy the waters of his past. He was supposedly born in Tajikistan but he has also claimed that he is from near the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan. Others suggest he is Ukrainian. His many passports carry variations of his name, with his western nom de guerre being Victor Butt. He is married, with at least one daughter.

Having studied at Moscow’s military institute of foreign languages, he is multilingual, speaking everything from Uzbek to French, Portuguese to African dialects, but he denies that he was ever in the KGB.

“Bout would fly for anyone who paid,” an associate told the Centre for Public Integrity in the US, which has long tracked his activities. “He is good because he takes the chances.”

Although the US had made use of his services, the CIA targeted him and the US treasury froze his assets. Bout, with his companies registered in Liberia, fluttering countless flags of convenience, and with a lavish home in Moscow and powerful contacts around the world, continued undeterred. Until yesterday.

As to how he has survived untouched for so long, Farah and Braun quoted a South African associate of Bout: “You never shoot the postman.”

Guardian, December 28th 2007

December 28, 2007


December 28 is the seventh anniversary of the Titanic Express bus massacre, in which my sister Charlotte was killed, along with her fiance and 19 others, close to the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Despite the restoration of democracy in 2005, the militia group Palipehutu-FNL, continues to recruit child soldiers, extort money from civilians, and kill those within its own ranks who favour peace. Amid an ongoing climate of near-total impunity, abuses by the Burundian security forces have also continued. Human rights groups argue that ending this impunity is essential if peace is to be achieved.

Forgiveness, real and imagined

December 13, 2007

From the Times Literary Supplement, December 12th 2007

When forgiveness becomes the public rallying cry, played out on daytime television soap operas, encouraged by civic and religious leaders, and praised far and wide for its power to heal, its slide into confusion and vulgarity is inevitable. It becomes identified with “closure”, it is sentimentalized and transformed into therapy, and the criteria for its practice are obscured. It melds into forgetfulness of wrong, and is granted all too easily, once the expected public theatrics are performed.

From the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, November 23rd 2007

Michael Okello 32, of Koch Goma internal refugee camp, complained that rebel team leader Martin Ojul chose a very disparaging way of asking for forgiveness from victims. It seemed as if Ojul was making them apologise, he said.

“This is adding insult to injury. Does it mean that these people came all their way to tell us to rise up our hands so that they take our pictures and show the world?” he asked.

“Are they after genuine reconciliation? “They want us to reconcile but they haven’t accounted for the atrocities they committed.”To many, Ojul was not offering an apology on behalf of the LRA. Rather he was trying to create an impression that the Acholi community has forgiven Kony and is opposed to a trial for Kony and his top commanders in front of the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague.

‘B’ is for ‘Bad journalism’… Homily from Sacramento on Burundi’s vicious war is a catalogue of error and omission

December 4, 2007

Open letter to the Public Editor of the Sacramento Bee

Dear Mr. Acuna,

I am writing to raise concerns about a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, “Lessons in how to escape perpetual retribution”, by Robert Krueger. The article was brought to my attention by a Burundian friend who has lost both friends and family in the vicious conflict to which the article refers. The piece was published on November 26th, and is reproduced on the internet here:

I am the brother of Charlotte Wilson, a British aid worker who was murdered (along with her Burundian fiancé and 19 others) in a massacre by Burundian Hutu-extremists in December 2000. I am also the author of the book “Titanic Express”, which details my family’s efforts to get to the truth about my sister’s death, and understand the wider context in which she was killed. For the past seven years, I have been in regular contact with survivors of this attack, with relatives of the other victims, and with the international human rights groups working to help end the cycle of violence.   

I am particularly concerned when I read articles which appear to distort the truth about the situation in Burundi – especially when it comes to the issue of justice, and the views of victims.

The essence of the author’s argument is that none of those Burundians responsible for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity should be prosecuted, because any such prosecution would undermine the prospects for reconciliation. 

In support of this view, he cites the example of South Africa, where he says that “reconciliation was achieved”, even though “no person was sent to trial”.

But this claim is at best an oversimplification. While South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” did grant amnesty to many of those deemed to have given a full and honest account of their misdeeds, there were also cases where prosecutions were successfully brought, and amnesty denied – for example, the case of Eugene de Kock:

More recently, there have been moves, supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former chair of the TRC, to bring prosecutions against a number of those implicated in Apartheid era abuses and not granted amnesty by the TRC, eg:

On the question of “reconciliation”, the picture is again far more complex than the author would have us believe. What he fails to mention is that in many cases – including that of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – victims’ families opposed amnesty, with many feeling that communal reconciliation was undermined, not advanced, by the lack of justice.

A detailed survey of several hundred victims by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation found that some victims felt that “false reconciliation” had been imposed upon them, and that “there remains a strong feeling amongst victims/survivors that justice should be done and that this is necessary if we are to create a new society”

From the CSVR’s work it is clear that many South Africans – especially those most closely involved with the TRC, do not believe that reconciliation has yet been achieved.

In an interview with a Burundian journalist, David Gakunzi, the CSVR’s Hugo van der Merwe commented that “In terms of exporting some of the these lessons to other societies, it is very difficult because people have made superficial judgments, heaping praise on the TRC and jumping to the conclusion that other countries need a similar process.”

Another concern over Mr. Krueger’s article is the issue of “selection bias”. While South Africa’s TRC – with all its flaws – is still widely viewed as the most successful of such experiments, what the author fails to mention is that (as detailed here by Human Rights Watch: similar exercises elsewhere in the world have been far less successful. In Sierra Leone, whose brutal conflict was far closer to the Burundian situation than the South African case, the 1999 amnesty granted to the RUF rebels is widely believed to have helped trigger an upsurge in violence.

One of Mr. Krueger’s most regrettable ommissions is the fact that Burundi has seen amnesties and de facto amnesties on a number of previous occasions. According to the Burundians I have spoken to, the horrific violence that broke out in the early 1990s was fuelled, in part, by anger over the fact that the perpetrators of a cycle of massacres during the late 1980s had been granted a blanket amnesty. Since 2003, members of all the major armed groups in Burundi have enjoyed immunity from prosecution – ostensibly in the name of “peace”:

Another regrettable ommission is the fact that, amid the resulting “culture of impunity”, Burundi’s abuses are still going on today. According to a report issued by Amnesty International in October, “Rape was endemic during the years of armed conflict but continues to this day despite the ending of hostilities”. Amnesty says that “the Burundian authorities have systematically failed to take concrete steps to prevent, investigate and punish these crimes. As a result, perpetrators regularly escape prosecution and punishment by the state and victims are left without protection”:

In this context, Mr. Krueger’s claim that “Burundi has already seen too much retributive justice without the UN adding more” seems very misleading. If, by “retributive justice”, he is referring to the cycle of vicious killings and massacres, such as the one in which my sister Charlotte died, then this is a deeply unfortunate misuse of language. To suppose that these were anything other than gross acts of injustice is an exercise in moral obfuscation, and an offence to the memories of the victims.

If, on the other hand Mr. Krueger is choosing to characterise as “retributive justice” the prosecution, under fair and impartial international standards, of those suspected of torture, murder and rape, then it simply isn’t true that Burundi has seen “too much” of it. As noted above, and as can be seen in the excellent reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the defining feature of Burundi’s conflict has been the wholesale denial of justice to all but a handful of victims. Both Amnesty and HRW argue compellingly that Burundi urgently needs more justice, not less of it, if peace is to be sustainable.

The phrase “retributive justice” is itself something of a loaded one, which clumsily conflates two wholly separate moral phenomena. There is a world of difference between the “retribution” that was dealt out to my sister on December 28th 2000, and the fair and impartial judicial remedy that victims are guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most victims I know want justice not out of some bloodthirsty lust for revenge, but rather as the surest way of deterring future atrocities and preventing others from suffering as they have. To characterise this as a desire for “retributive justice” seems grossly abusive and unfair.

The most regrettable ommission of all from Mr. Krueger’s article is the voices of the victims themselves. The author creates the misleading impression that the pressure for justice is being exerted on Burundi’s government primarily by the international community, through the United Nations. In reality, it is Burundi’s victims themselves who have been calling most vocally for justice – and, in fact, demanding that the UN takes a much more active role.

For example, in 2005, on the first anniversary of the August 2004 massacre of 156 Congolese Tutsis at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi, thousands gathered to remember the dead, and “demand that justice be done”. Binagana Anon, a representative of the families who lost loved ones in the attack, condemned the UN for its “silence” over the massacre.

Another such voice is that of Adrienne, the sister of my sister’s Burundian fiancé Richard Ndereyimana, who still lives in Burundi, and who made the following appeal to my family in an interview in 2005:

“The parents of all those who lost loved ones… are ready to go to court, but here we are nothing – this place is corrupt and there are killers everywhere. Tell those who are abroad, in Europe, to carry our voice – ask Charlotte’s family to tell the world of our distress. We want justice.”

It seems tragic that, just when the United Nations appears finally to be listening to the voices of Burundi’s victims, Mr. Krueger is using his to argue, in effect, that their concerns should be ignored. He is of course entitled to his views, but what cannot be right is the use of systematic distortion and ommission in order to make the argument fit.

A number of survivors from Burundi and the wider region have recently been resettled in the United States. Many have a harrowing story to tell about the realities of life amid a culture of impunity, and many have strong views about what needs to be done in order to ensure long-term peace and true reconciliation. If the Sacramento Bee is interested in hearing some of these voices, I would be very happy to put you in touch.


Richard Wilson

Justice, Not Platitudes

November 27, 2007

Robert Krueger’s new book on Burundi is excellent, yet deeply flawed.

Robert Krueger’s new book provides an impressively detailed – and long overdue – account of the atrocities by Tutsis against Hutus in Burundi during the 1990s. But his view that Burundi’s war criminals should not be prosecuted for their crimes – and by extension that Burundi’s victims should be denied their right to justice – flies in the face of international human rights standards, and does not reflect the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Burundians I have heard from since my sister Charlotte was murdered by Hutu-extremists in Burundi in December 2000 (

Neither is Robert Krueger’s view shared by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, who have carried out detailed research in Burundi since the early 1990s. These groups share the view of many Burundians that the ongoing failure to punish those responsible for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity is a driving force behind the abuses which still go on today, under the new, ostensibly “democratic” government:

Few who have lost loved ones in violent circumstances would dispute that forgiveness has a role to play. But what’s disappointing is that Mr. Krueger appears to conflate the slow, painful and deeply personal victim-led process of forgiveness with a formal, government-led arrangement in which ”forgiveness” is equated with “immunity from prosecution”, and in which amnesty can be granted to the perpetrator against the victim’s will.

What Mr. Krueger fails to mention in his account of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, is that the majority of victims – including the family of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – opposed the granting of amnesty to their abusers. Many felt embittered by the process, not “reconciled”, and – perhaps most damningly of all – many felt that the TRC had undermined rather than advanced the process of communal reconciliation:

Even with such problems, South Africa’s TRC is widely regarded as the most successful such “experiment”. In the majority of cases, according to Human Rights Watch, (, amnesty processes have yielded results ranging from the disappointing to the disastrous. In Sierra Leone, for example, arguably a far more apt comparison with Burundi than South Africa, a 1999 amnesty preceded a massive upsurge in violence by the RUF rebels. In Zimbabwe, amnesties have repeatedly been granted in the name of “reconciliation”, with the predictable result that violence and abuse have become endemic. In Rwanda, a series of de facto amnesties for massacres of Tutsis actually preceded the 1994 genocide. As Robert Krueger himself notes, the violence that began in Burundi in 1993 had its roots in the unpunished crimes of the 1970s – and was itself preceded by the granting of a general amnesty.

Another disturbing distortion is the conflation of justice with “retribution”. Most victims I know want to see their loved ones’ killers prosecuted not out of some crazed “blood lust” (many oppose the death penalty), but to stop the perpetrator from doing it again, to deter others, and to restore the dignity of the dead. It seems deeply unfortunate that the most basic, common sense rationale for justice as practiced worldwide from Japan to Djibouti, should be deemed inappropriate in a situation as manifestly unjust as Burundi.

Faced with a history as horrific and complex as Burundi’s, it is all too tempting to throw up our hands and ask “why doesn’t everyone just forgive each other?”. But it seems sad that someone who has witnessed the consequences of impunity firsthand should take such a seemingly simplistic view. To suppose that the cycle of corruption, impunity and abuse can be ended while killers retain their power and influence seems both naive and irresponsible.

Few would dispute Mr. Krueger’s opinion that prosecuting every perpetrator in Burundi may prove an impossible task. But to move from this to the conclusion that no-one should therefore be prosecuted is a bit like saying that because a government can’t cure everyone with TB, they shouldn’t try to cure anyone.

The eminently pragmatic solution agreed – under international pressure – by the Burundian authorities in 2005 ( is the formation of a “special chamber” within the Burundian judiciary to prosecute those suspected of leading and orchestrating the worst of the violence, combined with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with more junior figures. But like the nominally-democratic government of Cambodia, the government of Burundi has many members who are themselves implicated in serious crimes. In Cambodia, it took years of international pressure before the government finally followed-through on its promise to deliver justice for the Khmer Rouge victims. In Burundi, the authorities have likewise, to date, shown a marked reluctance to honour the part of the 2005 deal that involves war criminals getting prosecuted. In the meantime, these criminals continue to kill, rape, embezzle, and destabilise the country. It is sad that, rather than using his influence to press the Burundian government to keep their promises, Mr. Krueger chooses instead to downgrade the right of victims – guaranteed in article eight of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to “an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals”.

Robert Krueger’s new book is excellent in many ways. But he has done Burundi’s victims a gross disservice by perpetuating the idea that a distorted and politicised notion of ”forgiveness” could serve as a meaningful substitute for justice. The 21 victims of the December 2000 “Titanic Express” massacre – my sister Charlotte among them – deserve better than that. So do the 156 Congolese Tutsi refugees massacred by the same group at Gatumba in August 2004 and the thousands of others, both Hutu and Tutsi, who have been killed in the past two decades. The families of the dead want justice – not platitudes – and we have already waited too long.

(NB – this piece began as a response to this article in the Dallas Morning News)

Campaign Against the Arms Trade, June 2007

June 13, 2007

Titanic Express

On December 28th 2000 my sister Charlotte, a British aid worker, was dragged from a bus in Burundi, robbed, forced to lie face down on the ground, and shot. Twenty other passengers of the oddly-named ‘Titanic Express’ bus, mostly Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis, shared the same fate. In the moments before she was killed, survivors say, Charlotte was told: “It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like”.

From the first days after my sister’s death, I was driven by the need to know more about who had killed her, and why. Slowly I built up a network of Burundian contacts, many of whom had lost loved ones at the hands of the same group, the Hutuextremist Palipehutu-FNL. This led, in 2002, to the recovery of an explosive report, written by the attackers themselves, detailing how the massacre was carried out. The document says little about the victims, noting only that 21 people were killed. But with meticulous care, the killers list the clothes and personal effects they looted from the dead, the guns used, and even the number of bullets expended: In the process of murdering Charlotte and her twenty fellow passengers, Palipehutu-FNL fired off 963 rounds of ammunition. This alone must say something about the easy availability of weapons in a country that ranks among the poorest in the world.

Arms trade and conflict

Burundi’s brutal war has claimed upwards of 300,000 lives since 1993. In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the estimates run into millions. The conflicts ravaging Central Africa are driven by a potent mix of economic stagnation, entrenched corruption, poisonous racial ideology and breathtaking political cynicism. But without the abundant supply of arms, their impact would be far less deadly.

On the night of August 13th 2004, Palipehutu-FNL carried out one of their largest massacres to date, killing more than 150 Congolese Tutsis in an attack on the Gatumba refugee camp. Cartridges recovered from the scene were traced as far afield as Serbia, Bulgaria and China.

Successive UN reports have implicated dozens of western companies in illegal profiteering from the DRC war, which is intimately connected to the Burundi conflict. Those named include the UK-based Zimbabwean arms dealer John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, the British owner of the “air cargo firm” Avient

In September last year, a UN investigation revealed the nature of the “cargo” that Avient had been transporting. A 2006 report in the Sunday Times said that:

“Ukrainian and Russian aircrews recruited by Avient on behalf of the Congolese airforce were flying blanket bombing raids that in all probability were killing and maiming civilians caught in the war zone thousands of feet below.

Rudimentary bombs made from industrial gas cylinders filled with TNT were being rolled out of the backs of giant Antonov transport aircraft flown at high altitude in indiscriminate raids.”

International awareness

To date the UK has proved reluctant to follow up the UN’s allegations, but Bredenkamp’s offices were raided by the Serious Fraud Office last year as part of the BAE corruption inquiry. One more reason to hope that CAAT succeeds in getting the inquiry reopened is that it may help shed some much-needed light on Bredenkamp’s business dealings.

In the six years since my sister was killed, I’ve been shocked by the lack of international awareness of the horrors ravaging Central Africa and the complicity of western profiteers. It was for this reason that I decided to write a book about my family’s experience, and our efforts to understand the conflict that claimed Charlotte’s life.

Since writing it, I’ve had more opportunities to get involved in efforts to limit the arms trade. Most recently I’ve been pleased to support the Disarm UCL campaign (, aimed at persuading my old college to divest its £1.5 million of shares in the arms trade. Across the globe, wars are causing massive population displacement, hindering development, and destroying civilian infrastructure. This disruption inevitably deprives millions of their right to an education. It therefore seems particularly wrong that a university, especially one tied to a teaching hospital, should be profiting from the warfare industry.

The more I’ve learned about the conflicts in Central Africa, the harder it has been to detach what happens in Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC from what happens here in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made. If the cycle of violence is ever to be ended, then we have to get the international arms trade under control.

Titanic Express by Richard Wilson is published by Continuum, priced £10.99.

For more info see

Guardian, Comment is Free, May 30 2007

May 30, 2007

The Gower Street gunrunners 

University College London should know better than to defend its investments in the arms trade – and pull out instead.

The details of last November’s air strike on a religious school in the tribal Bajaur region of Pakistan are still shrouded in controversy.

The authorities claim that the school was an al-Qaida training camp, and that all of those killed were terrorists. Survivors insist it was an ordinary madrasa, and that the 82 victims were students, not militants. Local residents say that the attack was carried out not by Pakistani forces, but by US drone aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles. The government has denied this – but sought to prevent journalists from travelling to the scene, and has so far resisted calls for an independent inquiry.

The aptly-named “Hellfire” missile is a ubiquitous feature of the “war on terror”. What’s less well-known is that my old college, University College London (UCL), has serious money invested in one of the companies that helps to build them.

Last year, an investigation by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) revealed that University College London has £845,530 worth of shares in Cobham PLC, which makes components for the Hellfire. A further £746,097 was invested in another blandly-named weapons manufacturer, Smiths Group. With these two investments, UCL has earned itself the dubious honour, according to CAAT, of having more money tied up in the arms trade than any other UK university.

For an institution that promises an “education for global citizenship“, aims to contribute to “the resolution of global problems“, and claims the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham as its spiritual father, this seems especially bizarre.

The nature of the modern arms trade is complex and fragmented. We can’t know for sure that the particular missiles used in the Bajaur air strike contained Cobham’s components. But neither can we rule it out. If the survivors are telling the truth, then it’s possible that the hellfire that rained down on that Pakistani school last November, killing 82 people, was funded, in part, by UCL.

Hellfire missiles have been used widely both in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, too, the Apache helicopter and F16 fighter, which Smiths Group helps to manufacture. The Hawk jet, for which the company supplies weapons system components, has been sold to some of the most insidious regimes in the world. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe deployed them during his country’s involvement in the apocalyptic war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indonesia’s Suharto used them to bomb civilians during the vicious occupation of East Timor.

Malcolm Grant, UCL’s Provost, has defended the college’s investments by pointing out that the two companies also manufacture non-military products, and that neither produces an entire weapons system singlehandedly. But to those on the receiving end of the weapons that Smiths Group and Cobham PLC help to make, these facts are unlikely to be much consolation.

The impact of the arms trade contrasts sharply with UCL’s proud history of promoting humanitarian principles and opposing all forms of discrimination. According to the British Medical Journal, 85% of major conflicts since the second world war have taken place in poor countries – while the vast majority of weapons is exported by rich nations. Of the hundreds of thousands killed in war across the globe every year, most are civilians, and most live in the developing world. Alongside all the other human costs, the disruption caused by conflict inevitably deprives millions of their right to an education. Perhaps the best way for UCL to start resolving “global problems” would be to stop participating in them.