‘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: http://www.sacbee.com/110/story/519889.html

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: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6919569.stm

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: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4644590.stm

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: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2001/04/30/global12849.htm) 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”:  http://hrw.org/english/docs/2003/12/21/burund6789.htm

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. http://www.monuc.org/news.aspx?newsID=7964

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


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