Slaughter of the innocents

The international community claimed to have learnt the lessons of Rwanda. Yet 10 years on, the terrible cycle of ethnic violence has started again - in neighbouring Burundi. By Kate Holt and Sarah Hughes
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The Independent Online

In the wreckage, the torn-out pages of a child's book, a burnt shoe and a small pile of battered cooking pots. A team of people arrived and started to pull down the charred remains of the tents and pick their way through the possessions of the refugees who had once lived at the Gatumba transit camp in Burundi. Their job was to dismantle what little was left.

In the wreckage, the torn-out pages of a child's book, a burnt shoe and a small pile of battered cooking pots. A team of people arrived and started to pull down the charred remains of the tents and pick their way through the possessions of the refugees who had once lived at the Gatumba transit camp in Burundi. Their job was to dismantle what little was left.

Large tents made of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) green plastic sheeting flapped in the wind. In some places the plastic was blackened by smoke, in others it was all but destroyed. Scattered on the ground were the white masks and gloves dropped by the charity staff who had gathered up the dead into body bags. The men worked in silence, and the smell of charred wood and dead bodies still lingered in the air.

Just over a week has passed since 160 Banyamulenge refugees were killed in this desolate transit camp, which lies under the shadow of the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) Kivu mountains. They had come here to the Burundian border seeking respite from the war that continues to ravage the DRC, hoping if not for peace then at least for a temporary rest from the horrors they have grown up with for most of their lives. They found instead that war cannot be outrun.

At the Prince Charles Regent hospital in Burundi, where many of the massacre's survivors were taken, the doctors know the cost of war too well. The hospital is relatively well equipped with medical supplies, but the beds are rusty, the sheets are worn, and they hoped never to deal with injuries on this scale and in these numbers again.

"We were overwhelmed by victims when they arrived," says the hospital director, Dr Nzotungwamayo. "Some had only small wounds but others had been shot or injured by grenades, others cut with knives and machetes. Two pregnant women had been kicked in the stomach. Both miscarried."

In the crowded wards, women lie groaning, unable to suppress their pain. Others simply turn their backs, expressing their grief internally. Judith Nabeza, 23, is trying not to worry about her only son, Prince. He is seven years old and he lost his leg to a grenade during the attack on the camp.

That night, Judith says, she and Prince prepared for bed as normal. They lay down in the small bed in the plastic shelter where they had made their makeshift life with other families. Then the shooting began. "Prince was lying next to me and suddenly we heard all this noise and shooting," she says. "I took Prince to try and leave but a grenade went off and got his leg... and I was injured in the stomach."

Judith has known war for most of her life. She made the long, dangerous journey through the DRC to the transit camp in Gatumba to escape the violence. Her life there was not easy, but at least she thought that she and Prince would be protected.

"We came here to be safe - my husband, he left a long time ago. When the soldiers came we were so scared - nobody knew what was going on and there was shouting and firing..." She stops and briefly shuts her eyes before finishing: "Then the soldiers, they set fire to the tents. It was terrible."

The story behind the massacre in Gatumba is one of responsibility and ethnic conflict. It is the story of a country attempting to make the transition from war to peace, and of the internal and external tensions that threaten that transition. But it is also the story of the international community, of how much - or how little - protection they owe to refugees and of how well equipped they are to deal with violence when it begins.

The survivors of the massacre have been moved down the road to a former school. With United Nations soldiers overstretched in the region, protection of the refugees is in the hands of Burundian forces. Yet the refugees say that they are terrified that the new site is not secure and that another massacre will occur. Despite the deployment of UN military observers in the area, the new site remains under the protection of 40 Burundian soldiers, and women in the camp insist that these soldiers get drunk each night and rape them. The United Nations Office in Burundi (UNOB) spokesperson, Isabelle Adric, said that the allegations had to be taken seriously and that a UN investigation would be immediately launched.

Yet these latest claims by the refugees simply highlight the problems facing the UN in this region. Burundi is expected to hold its first elections by 31 October. UN officials say that the country has been making a promising transition towards peace after 10 years of conflict between rebels from the Hutu majority and the politically dominant Tutsi minority. In the capital Bujumbura, 30km away from the Gatumba camp, there are signs of prosperity. Resorts are springing up along the beach front, the houses have new corrugated metal roofs, and bars and restaurants are thriving. Yet down the road in a barren camp with basic facilities, 160 people died and no one seems able to explain how this happened, or why.

The rebel Hutu militia group Forces for National Liberation has claimed responsibility for the massacre, but controversy is raging over just who was responsible for trying to stop them from carrying out their brutal revenge.

The United Nations carries a Chapter Seven mandate in Burundi, which allows it to use force should civilians be threatened by violence. Yet both UNCHR and the UNOB say that they have had their hands tied by the lack of available forces.

"Although the UNOB mandate states that 6,500 UN troops should be deployed here, we so far have only received around 3,000," Adric says. "The responsibility of the security of people in the country is with the transitional government, and in this regard UNOB works with Burundian government forces, and they were responsible for guarding the camp."

She also said that the UNOB had not considered the refugees to be in danger. "There was nothing to suggest prior to 13 August that the refugees at Gatumba were in danger," she says. There had been UN military observers in the region but they had been redeployed to Kabezi Commune south of the capital a few days before, where there has been heavy fighting and there are 25,000 displaced Burundians.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the refugees were never expected to settle in Gatumba. Reports differ as to why they had remained in such a dangerous a position for so long - some people claim that the refugees themselves preferred to stay there in the hope of returning home, others that the Burundian government failed to provide the land they had promised, while a third argument suggests that the UNHCR did not try hard enough to impose the guidelines, which state that refugees should not reside within 50km of their border of origin. David Short, the spokesman for UNCHR in Burundi, says that his organisation had repeatedly asked the Burundian government to allocate land within the recommended distance for the Gatumba refugees. The camp was less than 5km from the Congolese border.

"We have put pressure on the Burundian government from the start," he says. "We have repeatedly asked the Burundian government to assist in the speedy removal of people from the border area. We call these places 'transit centres' quite deliberately because we want to move people on as quickly as possible. We concentrate them together so that they can be quickly supplied with needs such as food, water, medical aid and education. But the areas are dangerous, often extremely dangerous, and sometimes under the shadow of guns."

Asked if the refugees in the camp had lived under a false sense of security, believing that because UN forces were nearby and international organisations were providing food and medical supplies they were safe, Short agreed. "Transit areas are inherently dangerous, any sense of security held by anyone would be false," he says. "Our priority is to move people to a safer place away from the border but we cannot do that without the co-operation of the government."

But the international medical aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which was one of the first on the scene on the morning after the massacre, and which has provided much of the medical help and psychological care for survivors in addition to paying their bills and supplying food, says that the pressure applied was simply not enough.

Veronique Parque, the head of mission for MSF Belgium in Burundi, says: "Responsibility for this massacre lies with both the Burundian government, who has a responsibility to protect refugees it has accepted on its territory, and the UNCHR who could have put more pressure on the government to try and relocate the refugees to a safer location. The UN is operating under a Chapter Seven mandate here: UN soldiers could also have been used to ensure the refugees living in Gatumba were safe."

Such reassurances mean little to Pelouse Murekatete. Pelouse is 30 years old. She holds a two-year-old child tightly in her arms. Until a few days ago she was the mother of three.

"My family came to Burundi because we had heard that Banyamulenge people like us were being massacred in Bukavu so we came over the border to be safe," she says from her bed in the University Hospital of Kamenga in Bujumbura. "I came with my husband and three children. We arrived at Gatumba and we made our home there until it is safe for us to go back to Uvira. On that night we were woken suddenly by gunshots in the camp."

Pelouse pauses and closes her eyes. "We all tried to run away," she says slowly. "But my eldest child, who was 11, got shot and killed. This little one, who is two, was shot in the arm, and my other child of five got away. I was shot in the leg and fell down. Then we heard the soldiers who were shooting say they had run out of bullets and so were going to burn the hangar down, but we were all still sheltering inside. I was injured and couldn't move. The soldiers - they just wanted to kill us all. They didn't even steal much - everything we had was burnt in our shelter."

Meanwhile, the Burundian government appears increasingly at odds over the events. The Burundian army chief, Brigadier-General Germain Niyoyankana, a Tutsi, has implied that his country will take action against rebel groups within the Congo, saying: "The DRC attacked our country and we will not wait until a second massacre takes place. We cannot die like hens." But the Burundian President, Domitien Ndayizeye, who is a Hutu, struck a more cautious note, saying it was too early to take action but that he would be speaking to the Congolese President, Joseph Kabila. Neither man commented on claims that the Burundian government was responsible for ensuring the safety of the refugees.

While the UN and the Burundian government continue to argue over who was ultimately responsible for those in the camp, Amnesty International has called for an immediate and independent investigation into the massacre, stating that swift action is needed to ensure that the rising tensions between Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC do not topple once more into chaos and declarations of war.

As official discussions rumbled on, the survivors buried their dead at a mass funeral next to the site of the massacre. Thousands gathered to remember those who had come seeking survival and found only death. The Burundian President attended with the Congolese vice-President. Burundian troops and UN-peacekeeping forces maintained a subdued but watchful presence. Another massacre, another country, another mission; as the mourners walked past, they turned their heads away.

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