WORLD REPORT 2001 - Burundi

Human Rights Developments

A peace agreement offered hope of ending a seven-year-long civil war, but combat between the largely Hutu rebel forces and the Tutsi-dominated government forces increased after its signing in August. Early in the year, fighting was worst in the south and east and, more sporadically, around Bujumbura, the capital. In August and September rebels continued pressure in the south and east, stepped up attacks near and in Bujumbura, and began combat in the central parts of the country. They targeted Tutsi civilians as well as Hutu who did not support their movements. Tutsi soldiers killed Hutu civilians, sometimes in reprisal for rebel attacks, sometimes because they suspected them of supporting the rebel movements. By October, more than a thousand civilians had been slain, thousands of others raped or otherwise injured, and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes or deprived of their property. More than 120,000 persons had been slain since the war began in 1993.

Among the worst reprisal attacks by soldiers was the December 1999 slaughter of at least forty civilians at Kabezi and the late September 2000 killing of more than twenty civilians in the Bujumbura neighborhood of Kamenge.

Soldiers and former soldiers also attacked civilians with no apparent provocation. Several checking identity papers shot an unarmed member of parliament, Gabriel Gisabwamana, in December 1999, and three soldiers and a former soldier shot and killed an Italian church worker at a roadblock in early October.

Rebels killed dozens of persons in ambushes on roads outside the capital. In one particularly serious ambush at Mageyo, they killed fifteen persons, including three children, and wounded twelve. In some incursions into the city, rebels seemed more intent on robbery than on killing, but in late September during their third attack at Mutakura, a poor, ethnically mixed neighborhood of the capital, they killed thirteen persons, including women and children.

Unidentified assailants killed and injured dozens of civilians in August and September through ambushes of vehicles, attacks on their homes, and a grenade thrown in the Buyenzi market in Bujumbura.

In January, former South African president Nelson Mandela assumed the role of mediator in the peace negotiations, replacing former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, who died in late 1999. From his first meeting with the nineteen delegations representing the Burundian government and various political parties, Mandela sounded the moral tone that would dominate his efforts. Throughout the year he condemned such government abuses as forcibly regrouping civilians in camps and jailing persons unjustifiably. In September, he condemned the rebels for ignoring a proffered cease-fire and for continuing attacks on civilians.

In late August, supported by the presence of President Bill Clinton and other international leaders, Mandela pushed most of the nineteen delegations into signing a peace accord. The rest signed a month later, but many reserved approval of one or more of the articles. Even more important, the two major armed movements making war on the government refused to sign because they had been excluded from early stages of negotiations by Nyerere. The two, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD, usually called just FDD) and the Forces for National Liberation (FNL) of the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People (PALIPEHUTU), later refused to join the talks, even at Mandela's urging.

The Burundian war became increasingly intermeshed with the war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Burundian rebels allied with Congolese opponents of the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and Burundian army soldiers cooperated with the RCD and Rwandan troops. Both Burundian rebels and Burundian soldiers attacked civilians in the DRC. (See Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Burundian rebels also attacked from Tanzania, leading to insecurity at the border and occasional skirmishes between Burundian and Tanzanian soldiers. During the course of the year, the rebels apparently grew in numbers and obtained new arms and other equipment, some of it said to have been furnished by Congolese authorities eager to support groups that challenged the RCD and Rwandans. Hundreds of Rwandan Hutu opponents of the Rwandan government, including former Rwandan army soldiers and militia members, also joined in the Burundian war. The Rwandans provided important support to the FNL until February 2000, when cooperation broke down and the FNL killed more than a hundred of the Rwandan allies.

The war began after soldiers of the minority Tutsi group killed Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president who was from the majority Hutu group. In the weeks immediately after, Hutu, sometimes under the direction of officials or party leaders, killed tens of thousands of Tutsi, and the Tutsi-led army slaughtered tens of thousands of Hutu, sometimes in reprisal, sometimes in places where there had been no attacks on Tutsi. The army permitted civilians to resume control, but the government was paralyzed by violence from extremist Tutsi militia and from Hutu opposition groups that took up arms. Major Pierre Buyoya, who had governed before the election of Ndadaye, took power in a coup in 1996, pledging to restore order. He established a "partnership" with elements of the opposition and began negotiations with the rebels, but he also oversaw first use of "regroupment camps," a practice extended in September 1999 to the region surrounding the capital.

The government claimed to be protecting civilians by regrouping them, but it aimed primarily to sever the links between rebels and their civilian supporters. By early January 2000, soldiers using force and threats had moved some 350,000 civilians into the camps around Bujumbura, where they lived in inhumane conditions. In the process, the soldiers shot and killed at least twenty civilians and injured scores of others. At first, they forbade humanitarian workers access to the camps, leaving the displaced with no food, water, or help in building shelters. Later they allowed humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance, but several sites were so difficult to reach that relief workers could provide residents with little or no aid.

Soldiers on a number of occasions selected camp residents whom they suspected of rebel sympathies and beat them to obtain information or to force them to join the government side. During such beatings, soldiers often tied suspects tightly with their arms behind their backs and sometimes suspended them in the air. In some cases, they beat the suspects to death. In other cases, persons arrested by soldiers were taken to military installations and have not been seen since.

Soldiers allowed camp residents to work their fields only irregularly, making it difficult for them to produce crops to supplement the meager food deliveries. They frequently exacted unpaid labor from residents and forced both adults and children to accompany them as guides or porters, including through areas where there was a high risk of rebel attack. Civilians, including children, were sometimes killed or injured on these work details. Soldiers supposedly protecting several camps raped women or coerced them into providing sexual services against their will. Soldiers and national policemen looted and destroyed the homes and other property of camp residents and sometimes stole goods from them within the camps, notably at Kavumu on May 7.

Soldiers were rarely held accountable for their abuses. In an exceptional case, one soldier was sentenced to death for having killed six and wounded seven civilians at Ruyaga camp. A commission of inquiry into the looting at Kavumu had not published a report months afterwards.

Rebels on several occasions launched attacks on Burundian soldiers from inside or near regroupment camps, exposing camp residents to crossfire. In attacks at Kavumu and Kabezi in February and Kinyankonge in May, at least six civilians were killed and twelve wounded. In March, rebels fired on a mixed group of soldiers accompanied by child porters and wounded three children. Rebels sometimes required camp residents to provide them with money, food, or other goods. On April 23, rebels raided Ruziba camp and killed one resident who balked at meeting their demands.

In January President Buyoya responded to heavy international criticism by announcing that the government would close the regroupment camps, but only after President Mandela exacted a similar promise from him in June did authorities move effectively to disband the camps. By October, most of the camps around Bujumbura were closed, but officials continued using "temporary" regroupment to make it easier for soldiers to "cleanse" areas of rebels. A substantial number of civilians were killed in many of these operations. In late July, soldiers allegedly killed fifty-three civilians, including eighteen women and sixteen children, in the eastern province of Ruyigi and in August they reportedly slaughtered several dozen more at Nyambuye near Bujumbura.

Political leaders and ordinary people insisted upon justice for past massacres. For many Tutsi, this meant justice for slaughter of Tutsi in late 1993, which was termed "acts of genocide" by a panel established by the U.N. Security Council, and for subsequent killings. For many Hutu, it meant justice for Hutu killed by Tutsi soldiers and civilians since 1993, but also for the massive slaughter of tens of thousands of Hutu in 1972. Into this debate President Mandela introduced the idea of freeing "political prisoners," including not only those jailed solely for their beliefs, but also those guilty of crimes of violence who had acted for political or ideological reasons.

The FDD adopted the closing of regroupment camps and the freeing of "political prisoners" as preconditions to beginning negotiations with the government. Although the first condition was largely met, the second was not and the FDD took this as a pretext for continuing combat.

The Arusha Agreement provided for both an international commission of inquiry into past killings and a national truth and reconciliation commission. It called for an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, but this institution would be established only after the international inquiry was done.

A new code of penal procedure went into effect in January 2000 that for the first time guaranteed the accused access to legal counsel before trial. It also strengthened restrictions on preventive detention and provided greater protection against physical abuse of detainees. Even as authorities introduced the new law, they recognized that implementing it required more resources than they had. In fact, the reforms were not widely implemented during the year, but judicial authorities did liberate some two hundred detainees against whom there was little proof or who had been detained for long periods of time. Some 9,000 remained in jail, the majority of them Hutu. Most were accused of crimes related to the 1993 massacres and had not yet been tried. Conditions of detention remained miserable due to overcrowding, poor nutrition, and lack of medical services. The International Committee of the Red Cross, absent from Burundi for several years after the killing of three of its delegates, returned in 1999 and immediately brought improvements in jail conditions.

Defending Human Rights

The Burundian human rights league, Iteka, continued its strong programs of monitoring abuses and education concerning human rights and undertook a campaign to establish an international criminal tribunal for Burundi. The Association for the Defense of Burundian Prisoners (ABDP) assisted prisoners both in preparing their cases for court and in improving the material conditions of life in the prison. It also drew public attention to an important case where a detainee was tortured and beaten to death and sought to bring the responsible officials to trial. To assist the backlog in the judicial system, Iteka provided transport to witnesses and complainants and ABDP transported judicial personnel to courts often many miles from their homes.

In general, human rights monitors worked without difficulty, but in a number of cases soldiers or officials excluded them from areas of alleged abuses, supposedly to protect them from harm. Following publication of information critical of the government, two human rights workers received a series of threatening phone calls, but there was no indication that these had been officially inspired.

The government established a National Human Rights Commission in April to monitor the situation of human rights generally and to ensure that governmental bodies observe human rights. The commission included representatives from the president, the vice-president, and the ministers of defense, justice, communications, and human rights.

The International Community 

The international community focused on ending the war, in part because it understood how unstable the entire region was, in part because it was determined that Burundi not suffer a genocide like that which devastated neighboring Rwanda-with a population similarly divided on ethnic lines. President Clinton's brief stop to encourage signing of the Arusha Agreement underlined the importance the U.S. gave to ending combat in the region. The U.N. Security Council followed the diplomatic process closely, twice receiving direct reports by former President Mandela. The OAU, the E.U., and various individual governments, like the United States, all provided high-level diplomatic support to the peace process throughout the year and many donors helped pay its hefty expenses.

The U.S., like others, downplayed the need for justice as potentially impeding a settlement. At the same time they hoped to keep open the option of some form of international accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. To improve judicial proceedings within Burundi, the U.S. provided some U.S. $3 million to support Burundian nongovernmental organizations under the Great Lakes Justice Initiative.

Donors gave humanitarian aid, but, except for France and Belgium, they did not resume the development aid that had been cut when an embargo was imposed after Buyoya's 1996 coup. President Mandela tried to push the immediate renewal of assistance, but donors refused at a September meeting because a cease-fire had not taken effect. The government faced bankruptcy early in the year, but the World Bank gave $35 million to stabilize the economy.

Most international actors, including the U.S., condemned the regroupment camps and demanded their closure. After several months, however, the Belgians implicitly accepted the camps and stressed merely the need to improve conditions for residents. When President Buyoyasuggested that some regroupment camps might be transformed into "villages," the European Commission delegate immediately warned that no E.U. aid would be given without evidence that affected people favored this move.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights began the year with a strong statement condemning the human rights violations inherent in the regroupment policy, a position that was reiterated by the special rapporteur for Burundi, Marie-Therese A. Keita Boucoum, in her report to the commission in February. The special rapporteur, named in 1999, visited Burundi only briefly in late 1999, but spoke out clearly against killings and other abuses by both military and rebels.

The field office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights reduced its staff in late 1999 due to a security alert and did not substantially increase its personnel in 2000 after the security situation improved. Handicapped also by budget cuts, the office worked largely for improvements in the judicial system. It did not publicize any abuses that it documented, although it did address some of them with the authorities. Although the field office at one time circulated reports confidentially among the diplomatic community, it apparently stopped doing so in mid-1999.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:

Emptying the Hills: Regroupment in Burundi, 7/00

Neglecting Justice in Making Peace, 4/00