What countries do we think of when we hear the word “war” in a modern context? Most of us could probably list Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and for good reason. These three countries have experienced devastation and destruction as a result of wars that have ravaged their landscapes and terrorised their populations. The international media have widely covered these conflicts, and in so doing their names have become synonymous with our notion of modern warfare. But, these nations are not the only countries that face war and devastation. This article examines the current situation in Burundi, a country whose war has been overshadowed by those in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, amongst others.
Burundi has a long history of ethnic conflict between Tutsi and Hutu populations, a conflict which brew to a boil in 1993 when the Hutu president was assassinated during a failed coup led by Tutsi soldiers. This attack led to a bitter civil war between the ethnicities which saw over 300,000 people killed in less than 10 years. In an attempt to avoid such events recurring in the future, a new constitution was created which included a provision that limited the run of a president to two terms and mandated an ethnic rotation of power every 18 months.
In April 2015, the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he was running for a third term as president, in direct violation of the country’s constitution. The day after his announcement, thousands of protestors took to the streets. The police responded to these protests by shooting live ammunition into the crowds, killing six, injuring several and charging over 60 with participation in an insurrection movement. Nkurunziza subsequently made a public announcment threatening anyone who dared question the validity of his presidential candidacy.
In May 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that Nkurunzia could run for a third term without violating the Constitution. The Vice-President of the Court fled the country the day after, having been the only member of the court to vote against the candidacy. He stated that he had received several threats and feared for his life should he remain in Burundi. Nkurunzia was re-elected in July 2015, warning that if the opposition did not put down their arms he would instruct law enforcement services to use “all possible means” to quash the opposition.
The events that followed in Burundi resulted in over 130 murders and 90 cases of torture over the course of six months, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. On December 11 of that year, following attacks from an armed opposition militia, around 300 young men were taken from their homes and arrested by Government forces. The following day over 150 of the detainees were found dead, their bodies scattered around their villages. The government has also shut down all of the country’s independent media and has subsequently shut down all independent media.
In 2017, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. The Court, however, has ruled that the withdrawal of the country does not affect the jurisdiction of the court to investigate crimes that occurred while the country was still a member. Similarly, in 2017, a UN Commission of Inquiry was established by the UN Human Rights Council. The Commission found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed in Burundi since April 2015, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. The majority of the violence has been attributed to government intelligence, police and youth forces although a small amount of the violence has been connected to opposition forces. Amnesty International have backed these assertions and warn that the current situation is the beginning of a countrywide genocide.
As it stands, the events in Burundi deserve our full attention. We must not allow the coverage of one war to detract from another. Violence of inhuman proportions is ravaging a nation that is still recovering from a devastating civil war. Men, women and children are facing the unthinkable: forced to choose between risking their lives or fleeing their homes. It is a situation that we must never become immune to and a news story we must never become comfortable with.
Image courtesy of Christine Vaufrey at Flickr