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Burundi: 16 Years On, No Justice for Gatumba Massacre

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August 3, 2004 – August 13, 2020: 16 years already to the day since the massacre against Congolese refugees in the Gatumba camp in Burundi. An attack that left more than 150 dead and 106 injured among Congolese civilian residents, mostly Banyamulenge.

16 years later, the victims of this armed attack on a refugee camp in  Burundi , as well as their families, are still waiting for justice to be done and compensation to be paid to them.

Criminal proceedings were opened in 2013, but this has remained at a standstill since 2014. 

Feedback on the events of Gatumba

On August 13, 2004, members of the National Liberation Forces (FNL) targeted mainly Banyamulenge refugees – Congolese Tutsis from South Kivu province, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The men of the FNL, a Burundian rebel movement made up mainly of Hutus, shot them and burned them alive, while they spared the refugees belonging to other ethnic groups and the Burundians living in another part of the camp.

Research carried out at the time by Human Rights Watch established that the police and soldiers of the Burundian armed forces refrained from intervening, even as the massacre was taking place a few hundred meters from their own camps. The soldiers of the United Nations peacekeeping force were unable to save these civilians because they were not informed of the attack until after it had ended. The victims had fled the armed conflict in DRCongo and were living in this refugee camp located near the Congolese border.

 “Fifteen years later, we remember very well what happened. I was eleven at the time, but the pain of a person burning to death is excruciating. It is not something that you forget. A survivor of the 2004 Gatumba massacre told HRW last year.

Shortly after the massacre, the FNL  claimed responsibility for the attack. But several years later, their then spokesperson, Pasteur Habimana, denied making the claim. The FNL, the armed wing of the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People-National Liberation Forces (Palipehutu-FNL), laid down their arms and became a political party in 2009, marking the end of the civil war.

But just as the attack was exploited by various armed groups and by various power-seeking figures in DR Congo and Burundi to advance their political goals, justice in this case appears to have been politicized, regrets Human Rights Watch.

What about Agathon Rwasa

One of the two FNL leaders against whom the Burundian authorities issued arrest warrants in 2004 relating to these murders is Agathon Rwasa, who remains a prominent figure in the opposition.

Rwasa was never arrested under the arrest warrant, and in September 2013, judicial authorities announced that a case had been opened to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Gatumba. Rwasa  claimed  that as a former leader of the Palipehutu-FNL, he enjoyed ”  temporary immunity  ” obtained under  the 2006 ceasefire agreement  which led to the end of the civil war. .

The spokesman for the prosecution at the time  told the media  that “  this immunity does not cover crimes against humanity and war crimes. 

The  law  adopted by Burundi to implement the 2006 ceasefire agreement explicitly excludes crimes against humanity and war crimes from the immunity granted to parties to the conflict. General amnesties for serious crimes under international law constitute a violation by a State of its international legal obligations.

The decision to open a court case coincided with Rwasa’s return to his country to run for the 2015 presidential election under the colors of the FNL. His only court appearance, scheduled for December 2014, has been  postponed indefinitely  and since then no significant progress has been made towards establishing justice.

Since the end of the civil war in Burundi in 2009, in which around 300,000 people were killed in attacks motivated mainly by ethnic considerations, political violence has continued. Many people were victims of killings  committed for political reasons between 2010 and 2012, in the wake of the 2010 elections. Many victims were members or former members of the FNL perceived to be close to Rwasa and killed by security agents state or by individuals linked to the ruling party. Suspected members of the FNL and other armed groups have also targeted members of the ruling party in retaliatory attacks. The majority of these crimes have gone unpunished.

Hundreds more  have died, victims of politically motivated killings , since the onset of a crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in April 2015. Political tensions continue to rise ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. In 2019, Rwasa received approval from his new party, the National Congress for Freedom (CNL). Since then, Human Rights Watch has documented  dozens of killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and beatings targeting actual or perceived members of this party, most of them committed with almost total impunity by security agents. state or individuals linked to the ruling party.

Call for justice for Gatumba

Human Rigths Watch calls on the Burundian authorities to ensure that the justice system remains independent from political interference and to ensure that justice is served in accordance with Burundi’s laws and international law.

”  The Burundian authorities should take the necessary measures to ensure that those responsible for the Gatumba massacre are tried in a credible and impartial manner,  ” said Lewis Mudge. “  The lack of criminal prosecution for murders committed by one side often provides a pretext for those who want to commit murders for the other side, and justice is essential to preventing further atrocities. 

For Lewis Mudge, Director for Central Africa at Human Rights Watch, it is the government’s responsibility to deliver justice to the survivors of the attack and the families of the victims.

“Ending impunity in this landmark case would help those affected by this attack turn the page after years of suffering, and demonstrate that the concept of accountability is taken seriously in Burundi,” said last year Lewis Mudge.

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