A little more than a year ago, Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with the independent newspaper Iwacu, disappeared in Burundi. His fate remains unknown.
“Once again…we relentlessly ask the question: ‘Where is Jean?’,” Bigirimana’s colleague Antoine Kaburahe wrote in Iwacu last week. “In our culture, it’s forbidden to cry when you aren’t sure about the fate of someone close to you…We would like to know the truth so that finally we can shed our tears and release the anger that we’ve held inside for so long.”
The 37-year-old father of two went missing soon after he left his home in Bujumbura, the capital, on July 22, 2016, for Bugarama, a town about 40 kilometers away. Unconfirmed reports indicated he was arrested in Bugarama by members of the Burundian intelligence services.
As the days passed without news, Bigirimana’s family, friends, and colleagues at Iwacu began wondering if he might be dead. In early August 2016, two decomposed bodies were found in the Mubarazi River in Muramvya province, not far from Bugarama. One of the bodies was decapitated and the other weighed down by stones. Some speculated that one of them could have been Bigirimana, but local authorities buried the bodies before determining their identities, and they refused to conduct a DNA test.
Scores of other Burundians have disappeared since the country’s crisis began in April 2015. And many other bodies have surfaced, with authorities making no effort to identify the victims or investigate the circumstances of their deaths.
Meanwhile, Burundian officials have refused to work with a United Nations-established commission of inquiry, denying its members access to the country. In June 2017, the commission stressed the “persistence of serious human rights violations,” which it says are taking place “in a climate of widespread fear.”
Bigirimana’s colleagues, family, and friends, and the families of the other victims of disappearances in Burundi have a right to full, independent, and speedy investigations into what happened and, if a crime took place, to see those responsible prosecuted. They deserve no less.
As Kaburahe wrote: “Jean lives. Through his two children and his wife’s love…Through our commitment to continue our work which was also his work: to inform…[And] through our refusal to keep quiet or forget.”