Little Truth and no Reconciliation
Six years ago, my sister Charlotte was dragged from a bus and shot dead in the tiny Central African state of Burundi. Twenty other passengers, among them her Burundian fiance, died with her. The killers were members of Palipehutu-FNL, a Hutu-extremist group seeking revenge on the country’s then-dominant Tutsi minority. The massacre was unusual only inasmuch as it caught the attention of the international media. Since the start, in 1993, of the latest cycle of massacre and reprisal-massacre, 300,000 civilians have been killed. The vast majority of attacks have gone unreported.
This time last year, it looked as if the cycle might finally have been broken. Following Burundi’s first elections in more than a decade, the country’s larger and more moderate Hutu-led rebel group had taken power, promising to mend ethnic divisions and rebuild the country’s once-buoyant economy. While Palipehutu-FNL continued sporadic attacks, the restoration of democracy had weakened and divided them. Many predicted that the group would be forced to capitulate – or face military defeat – within months.
The new government agreed to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine Burundi’s bloody post-colonial past, together with a special war crimes court to prosecute the worst of the perpetrators. The UN High Commission for Refugees stepped up “voluntary repatriations” of those who had fled the conflict. Shortly before the fifth anniversary of my sister’s death, Burundi’s Information Minister declared that the group’s leader, Agathon Rwasa, would soon be arrested and put on trial over the December 2000 killings.
A year on, we’re still waiting. In 12 months, international optimism over Burundi has unravelled with stomach-churning speed while no attempt has been made to prosecute Agathon Rwasa and his ilk, dozens of ordinary Burundians have been tortured and summarily killed as “FNL suspects”. Rape and torture by the security services is rife. Journalists, human rights campaigners and opposition politicians have been arrested, harassed and intimidated.
When Olucome, the country’s main anti-corruption organisation, alleged widespread financial irregularities by the new government, its director was arrested and charged with “defamation”. Other members have been beaten up, and received death threats over their work. Staff of the country’s main human rights organisation, Ligue Iteka, have also reported threats.
In June, the Burundian government announced plans to redefine the proposed “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a “Truth, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Commission”. Proposals for a special war crimes court have effectively been ditched. Many fear that the remodelled TFRC will be little more than a thinly-disguised general amnesty, of the kind that has been tried, and failed, so often before in Burundi.
Concerns over corruption came to a head with the mysterious sale of the Presidential Falcon 50 jet to a US company, Delaware Corporation FZC, for nearly $2 million less than its market value. Senior figures within CNDD-FDD accused the party chairman, Hussein Radjabu, of taking kickbacks over this and a number of other deals. (See pages 17/p23 of the Swisspeace report.)
In late July, the authorities announced that they had foiled an attempted coup, involving senior members of every major opposition party. The government quickly arrested the country’s Tutsi former Vice President, along with the Hutu ex-President, and a bizarre collection of Hutu and Tutsi extremists, anti-genocide campaigners, and independent journalists. The government’s star witness was Alain Mugabarabona, the leader of an FNL splinter group, who had confessed to being the mastermind behind the coup.
If the allegations were true, then it would have been a remarkable example of inter-ethnic collaboration. In reality, many believe that the “plot” was nothing more than a clumsy fabrication, dreamed up as a pretext for silencing criticism and eliminating political opposition.
One day Burundi’s Information Minister, Karenga Ramadhani, was claiming that Gratien Rukindikiza, an exiled politician, had implicated Alexis Sinduhije, head of the country’s largest independent radio station, in the coup plot. The next day Sinduhije’s radio station broadcast an interview with Rukindikiza, who denied saying anything of the sort and accused Ramadhani of “losing his head”. The day after that, Ramadhani announced that it had all been a misunderstanding and Alexis Sinduhije had nothing to fear.
The alleged leader of the conspirators, Alain Mugabarabona, was then interviewed from his prison cell, on a smuggled mobile phone. Mugabarabona claimed that the coup plot was a fabrication, and that he had been tortured into confessing involvement. Torture allegations by several other alleged coup-plotters were corroborated by the country’s human rights minister, who visited them in prison. Meanwhile a series of unexplained grenade attacks on bars in the Burundian capital claimed yet more lives. In late August, without irony, President Nkurunziza begged “forgiveness” for the human rights abuses committed during his first year in power, while urging the courts to “severely punish” those accused of plotting against him.
In September, Vice President Alice Nzomukunda resigned, condemning her own party’s leadership over corruption and human rights abuse, and denouncing the coup allegations as baseless. Soon afterwards, CNDD-FDD signed a peace agreement with Palipehutu-FNL, granting them immunity from prosecution, and paving the way for them to join the country’s government.
But the killings have continued. In October, thirteen more mutilated bodies were found, floating in Burundi’s Ruzizi river. In November, Amnesty International revealed that a number of “FNL suspects” killed earlier in the year were former refugees who had been told by the UNHCR that it was safe to return. For these victims, as for so many others before, the international community’s wishful thinking over Burundi had proved deadly.
A 2003 peace agreement between CNDD-FDD and the then-Tutsi-led government, endorsed and applauded by the UN, granted both sides “provisional immunity” for all crimes. Warnings by human rights groups that this would encourage further abuses were ignored. So too were calls for those implicated in war crimes to be barred from running for office. Some church groups have urged the Burundian government to go even further, and grant yet another general amnesty.
But to the Burundians I know, the idea that “peace and reconciliation” could be achieved while killers remain in power is a cruel joke. The difficult, messy truth is that democracy alone is not enough. Only by ensuring that Burundi’s war criminals are prosecuted under international law, can we hope to see a permanent end to the violence.