Burundi, UN agree on truth commission, tribunal

May 23, 2007

BUJUMBURA, May 23 (Reuters) – Burundi has agreed to set up a truth and reconciliation commission and a tribunal to try people who committed crimes during the central African nation’s 12-year civil war, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Burundi would set up the two bodies soon and that the government had agreed not to give amnesty for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and other serious violations.

“I think this is an important element in the process of peace, justice and reconciliation in Burundi,” Arbour said at a news conference at the end of her five-day visit to Burundi.

The coffee and tea-growing central African nation is emerging from the ashes of civil war that began in 1993 and killed more than 300,000 in a clash between rebels from the Hutu majority against the dominant Tutsi minority.

Analysts say one of the biggest tests for President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government is whether it will carry out a thorough reconciliation process, which is likely to implicate some of its allies and perhaps senior officials.

Nkurunziza himself was a Hutu rebel leader.

“The country needs a more reinforced justice system that will inspire confidence in the population that impunity is eradicated, that they can turn to their state institutions for protection and reparation,” Arbour said.

Even since Nkurunziza took power in August 2005 after his election, the culmination of a U.N.-backed peace plan, Burundian security agents have been implicated in assassinations, torture and extrajudicial killings.

The truth commission and the tribunal will be set up after national consultations to be led by a nine-member panel with three members each from the government, the United Nations and civil society groups.

Arbour said negotiations were still ongoing as to how the two bodies would work together, and on the scope of freedom and authority the tribunal’s prosecutor would have.

“The United Nations advocates of course a large degree of independence for the prosecutor to conduct inquiries,” she said.

Donors are meeting in Burundi on Thursday and Friday, and the watchdog Human Rights Watch this week urged them to make ending impunity a condition of aid.


“Titanic Express” now available in paperback

April 21, 2007

Ziauddin Sardar, Independent
“incredibly moving”

Bronwen Maddox, The Times
“An astonishing chronicle”

Jon Swain, Sunday Times
“I have watched in growing admiration how, with dogged persistence, Richard Wilson has conducted a singular crusade, not just to bring his sister’s murderers to justice, but to understand who they were and why they killed her.”
Click here for the Titanic Express paperback edition

International pressure helped free Burundi dissidents

April 21, 2007

From South African Mail and Guardian

Pressure from the international community, NGOs and civil society led to the acquittal recently of five alleged coup plotters imprisoned in Burundi in August this year. The men were arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government, but the accusations were widely believed to have been fabricated by elements in the government. Well-placed sources in Burundi said the judge’s decision to acquit five of the accused was a “political decision due to international pressure.”…

…Had it not been for his lawyer’s rapid public denouncement of the torture, which led to a visit from the minister of human rights, who acknowledged the torture, Niyonzima believes that he and the other alleged coup plotters would be dead.

“In terms of the law we were innocent, but in terms of the political will, we were the enemies,” says Niyonzima.

He believes that they owe their liberty not to the court system but to the pressure applied to the government by civil society, human rights organisations, the European Union and other foreign donors.

“We will lodge a complaint on an international level,” says Niyonzima.

Comment is Free (Guardian), December 22 2006

December 23, 2006

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.

Hertfordshire Mercury, November 11 2006

November 11, 2006

Brother’s book on massacre victim

IN December 2000 vibrant volunteer worker Charlotte Wilson was mown down in cold blood in the small African country of Burundi by heartless Hutu extremists.

The “Titanic Express massacre” hit the world headlines and rocked the Hoddesdon community where she had lived and gone to school.

Now her brother, Richard Wilson, has looked back over her short life in a moving new book, Titanic Express – the ill-fated name of the bus on which she was travelling from Kigali in Rwanda to Burundi when the attackers ambushed the vehicle, robbing, stripping and gunning down 21 passengers.

Among them was Charlotte’s Burundian fiancé, ex-monk Richard Ndereyimana, whose family she was on her way to meet for the first time in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura.

She was made to lie face down on the ground as rebels blasted seven bullets into her body.

She was just 27 – a brilliant young woman with a PhD in molecular biology, who had been living in Rwanda as a volunteer teacher with Voluntary Service Oversees (VSO) in the village of Shyogwe.

As Richard writes her story, he explores the underlying ethnic tensions between the Tutsis and Hutus which also caused the horrifying genocide of 800,000 in Rwanda in 1994.

He admits he even mused about getting someone with a gun to do to his sister’s murderers what they had done to her. But at the same time he tries to understand why they turned into cruel killers.

Charlotte was born in 1973 in Milan, northern Italy, where her parents, Margot and Peter, were teaching English.

They returned to England, where Richard was born, followed by their sister Catherine in 1978. But by the time they moved to Hertfordshire, their father had been diagnosed with leukaemia and died not long after at the age of 34.

Now Charlotte is buried with him in the same quiet grave at centuries-old St Margaret of Antioch Church in Barley, near Royston, where her grandparents, Tony and Ann Wilson, lived.

The children went to Haslewood Junior School – now St Catherine’s – in Haslewood Avenue, Hoddesdon, and lived in the town in Stortford Road for 17 years. Charlotte then moved on to Sheredes School in Cock Lane, Hoddesdon.

She was clever and studious, but was bullied at school and teased about her NHS glasses.

Her brother recalls: “Her response was to glower even more disdainfully from behind those NHS glasses, to read even more books, to enunciate her consonants ever more clearly.

“There was no getting away from it – Charlotte was ‘posh’. Being posh in 1980s Hoddesdon, was a crime unforgivable. The fact that we were a single-parent household, had a black and white TV and no car and bought our clothes from Oxfam didn’t stop us from being posh,” he said.

They went to church, sang in the choir, did their homework and went bird watching and listened to classical music, says Richard, who read philosophy at University College, London.

After her death, her family received an airmail envelope from Charlotte “To my family, to be opened in the event of my death” which she had written in February 2000, requesting to be buried in Barley and saying: “I am sorry for getting myself killed, but apart from that I have no regrets and I have lived life to the full”.

After the massacre her grieving family began their campaign for justice against rebel group Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), which was responsible for the killing.

Richard read harrowing witness statements from survivors. There were suggestions that Charlotte’s fiancé may been tortured and his eyes gauged out and nose macheted off before being shot.

Richard pestered the Foreign Office and Metropolitan Police in his attempt bring the killers to justice, as well as dealing with his own deep sense of loss.

He contacted other aid bodies, foreign journalists and Richard’s family in Burundi and got close enough to the FNL leaders to get under their skin.

Speaking to the Mercury, 31-year-old Richard, who now lives in Wandsworth, south London, with his wife Heleen, said writing the book more than three-and-a-half years after she died did reopen old wounds.

The Charlotte Wilson Memorial Fund (www.cwmf.org.uk) has so far raised £20,000 to help children at the village where she taught in Rwanda.

l Titanic Express, pictured above, published by Continuum is available at Amazon, Waterstones and other bookshops, priced £16.99.


London Anglican, October 23 2006

October 24, 2006

A brother’s tribute to his sister travels from London to Rwanda.


On 28 December 2000, Charlotte Wilson, a 27-year-old VSO teacher in Rwanda, was killed when the bus she was travelling on was ambushed in neighbouring war-torn Burundi. Twenty others died with Charlotte, including her Burundian fiancé.

In London, Charlotte attended the Church of Saint Alban the Martyr in Holborn. The vicar, Father Howard Levett, says Charlotte was an unassuming, sensitive, yet lively and highly intelligent young lady. She joined his adult confirmation class in 1995 and became a very faithful communicant member of the church thereafter.

Charlotte had hoped to get married in Saint Alban’s. Instead, Father Levett conducted her funeral on 18 January 2001. The packed variety of peoples and cultures that attended were ample testimony to the remarkable influence Charlotte had on many people during her short lifetime.

Charlotte’s brother, Richard Wilson, has written a book called Titanic Express, the name of the bus his sister was travelling on when she was killed. Published this summer, it records his meticulous efforts to bring the killers of Charlotte to justice. It is also a wonderful tribute to his sister and a very honest account of his own journey towards understanding and forgiveness.

Thanks to a chance meeting between Richard Wilson and Ann Peterken, who worships at St James Church in Hampton Hill, a copy of Titanic Express has reached the secondary school in Shyogwe where Charlotte taught science. Ann went on a CMS visit to Rwanda in late September and stayed in Shyogwe for five days, the very place where Charlotte had been so happy and fulfilled.

In the photo, Ann is presenting Titanic Express to the headmistress, the Revd Immaculée Nyiransengimana, beneath a framed painting of Charlotte in her choral attire for the Shyogwe church choir. Immaculée worked with Charlotte and she and many other people in Shyogwe remember Charlotte with love.

Titanic Express by Richard Wilson (ISBN 0-8264-8502-2) is published by Continuum. See https://titanicexpress.wordpress.com for press reviews and other information.

Bredenkamp raided by UK Serious Fraud Office

October 22, 2006

The home and offices of John Bredenkamp, the UK-based arms dealer implicated in a 2002 UN report on illegal weapons sales to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and named in Titanic Express, have been raided by the Serious Fraud Office, according to the Daily Telegraph. Last month, the Sunday Times ran an exposé on another UK-based businessman named in the book, Andrew Smith of Avient Air, who was implicated in the same UN report, and whose company now stands accused of participating in indiscriminate bombing raids in the east of the DRC. 

Guardian, Comment Is Free, September 14 2006

September 14, 2006

Caught in the crossfire

The arms trade has caused the deaths of millions of civilians – we need to bring it within the framework of international law.

“It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like,” my sister Charlotte was told, shortly before being gunned down by members of the Forces pour la Liberation Nationale (FNL) armed group in war-torn Burundi. The UK post-mortem found that she had been shot seven times in the back with an eastern European semi-automatic rifle. Her killers may have been illiterate members of a ragtag peasant army, but they knew where the guns were coming from.

In the five years since, I’ve been haunted by the idea that the man who sold them those guns might be walking the same streets as me here in London, drinking in the same pubs, and catching the same tube trains. While the violence ravaging Central Africa might seem distant and unreal, it begins here, in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made, and many of those brokering the sales are British or Britain-based.

Charlotte was one of 21 people murdered when a bus, the inauspiciously-named “Titanic Express”, was ambushed close to the Burundian capital in December 2000. It was one among hundreds of similar attacks. Bullets recovered from the notorious August 2004 Gatumba refugee camp massacre – in which more than 150 Congolese Tutsis died – have been traced to as far afield as Bulgaria, Serbia and China.

More than 300,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in Burundi’s bloody conflict since 1993. In the wider region – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the death toll runs into the millions. The financial cost, too, is devastating. Across Africa, $15bn is lost every year through the impact of war, cruelly undermining prospects for economic development. Poverty, inter-ethnic rivalries, and a culture of impunity all play a part in fuelling the violence. But without the ready and abundant supply of guns and ammunition, these conflicts would be far less deadly.

Each year, arms manufacturers produce enough bullets to kill every man, woman and child on the planet, twice. Each day, 1,000 more people die through gun violence, most of them civilians like Charlotte. The world over, armed groups exploit the easy availability of guns to wage war against governments and against each other, catching civilian populations in the crossfire. Yet there are no internationally agreed standards regulating small arms sales.

As a result, the arms trade is out of control. Most of the suffering is in the developing world; while most of the profits are here in the west. But neither are we in the west immune, as my family knows all too well. Britons, being global travellers, are at risk from the global flood of guns. And the sheer volume of guns and bullets being manufactured means some inevitably find their way into the hands of criminals and terrorists in the UK. It’s in all of our interests to get the small arms trade under control.

Three years ago, Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launched the Control Arms campaign for the creation of an international arms trade treaty (ATT). The principle is simple: no transfers of guns, bullets, grenades or mortars should be allowed to places where they are likely be used in human rights abuses against civilians. Countries that sign the treaty will be agreeing to place strict limits on the movement of weapons from and through their territories.

The idea has won support from governments around the world, with Britain in the lead. More than a million people in 140 countries have joined the Million Faces petition online, and yesterday we held a global day of action for the arms trade treaty. Next month the UN general assembly will consider whether to begin the process of developing the ATT.

Yet despite this momentum there are signs of backsliding. An international meeting today will discuss the resolution on the ATT, which the UK is promoting for the general assembly. However, that resolution fails to mention human rights, which should be the central principle of the ATT.

Today’s meeting at the Foreign Office will be a major opportunity to get things back on track. In the name of my sister and those who died with her, I hope that we grasp it. We will not make poverty history, nor be sure of our own security, until this bloody trade is brought within the framework of international law.

Click here to sign the Control Arms campaign’s Million Faces Petition

Independent, August 29th 2006

August 29, 2006

A personal struggle with the violent, hopeless heart of Africa

By Peter Stanford

Published: 29 August 2006

Forgiveness is not a popular concept these days. Instead, we seek justice, compensation and, often, revenge when others have done us wrong. These were the immediate goals of Richard Wilson when his 27-year-old sister, Charlotte, was murdered by rebel gunmen in Burundi in December 2000. A VSO worker in neighbouring Rwanda, Charlotte had been travelling on a bus – the Titanic Express of the title – with her Burundian fiancé, Richard Ndereyimana, when the attack took place. As well as the couple, 20 other passengers were robbed, stripped and then killed in cold blood.

Titanic Express begins with an account of Wilson’s battle to find out how his sister died, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Foreign Office officials and the Metropolitan police officers assigned to the case are among the obstacles he has to surmount. More than once, he contemplates commissioning someone with a gun in Burundi to do to Charlotte’s killers what they did to her.

As his investigation unfolds, however, Wilson makes contacts with other aid organisations in Burundi, foreign journalists and exiles from its corrupt political system and ethnic tensions between Tutsis and Hutus – the same animosities that caused the genocide in Rwanda in 1995. In the process, he becomes an expert on Burundian politics – a microcosm of the problems that continue to afflict parts of post-colonial Africa. Movingly, he goes beyond a desire for revenge to develop an understanding of why Charlotte’s killers did what they did. Yes, they were heartless murderers, but something had happened to make them like that. In violent, hopeless societies, everyone and everything is infected and degraded.

It is not an easy personal journey. Wilson continues to struggle with a more primitive reaction even late in the book, when he meets a BBC World Service journalist from Burundi who has close links with the rebel group behind the attack. But his honesty carries the reader with him. Intimate books charting an individual’s quest only work if the author is prepared to show himself, warts and all. This Wilson does unflinchingly.

He also goes beyond the particular to ask broader questions about grief. It is a messy, painful, isolating experience that society today is reluctant to acknowledge or support. In his anguish, Wilson speaks to and for all who cannot easily put loss behind us and get on with life as if nothing has happened.

Ex-President Domitien Ndayizeye arrested in Burundi

August 22, 2006


Nkurunziza (l) and Ndayizeye (r) in 2003

Burundi’s former President, Domitien Ndayizeye, whose meeting with the author’s mother is described in Chapter 12 of “Titanic Express”, has been arrested and accused of plotting to kill his successor, Pierre Nkurunziza – who the author describes meeting in Chapter 14 of the book.

Burundi has been plunged into crisis in recent weeks by government claims that an improbable collection of journalists, human rights activists and politicians from all the main opposition parties have been conspiring to assassinate the leadership of the ruling CNDD-FDD party and seize power themselves.

Critics claim that the alleged conspiracy is merely a pretext to crackdown on government opponents. Most bizarre of all are allegations that the South African intelligence services have played a role in the affair.  

Earlier this month, the Burundian authorities attempted to arrest the country’s leading journalist, Alexis Sinduhije, accusing him of involvement in the plot, before changing their mind under pressure from the international community.