Army's trail of death in Burundi

David Orr in Kamenge, Bujumbura, saw a litter of corpses after the tanks rolled into a Hutu militia stronghold
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A little girl in pink was slumped on the sofa just inside the door. Blood from a head wound had run down her arm to form a brown stain on the cushions. At her feet, a middle-aged woman whose body had been covered with a bedspread lay stretched on her back. A pool of blood had congealed on the concrete floor by her side. Curled up in a corner of a nearby room was a third body, that of an old woman. They had all been shot.

Maman Shimiye had stayed behind with her daughter, Yanguli, to look after the old lady, who had been sick with malaria. They were among scores of people who appear to have been butchered when government soldiers swept through two suburbs of the Burundi capital, Bujumbura early on Wednesday morning.

In a tour of the northern district of Kamenge I was shown about two dozen bodies and freshly dug graves. There were more, residents said. Those killed had been too old, too young or too sick to flee when the predominantly Tutsi army moved through the neighbourhood in an operation designed to flush out Hutu militias.

In one shuttered house I came across the bodies of three women lying on the floor. I was told they had been shot by government soldiers. Just as we were about to leave I saw one of the women move her arm. She was alive, but barely so.

Perhaps her life can be saved by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which evacuated the wounded. As I was leaving the house, ICRC delegates gave medical attention to a man and a young child with bullet wounds in their legs.

One of many slum areas surrounding Bujumbura, Kamenge normally has a population of 40,000. A stronghold of the Hutu majority in the city, it began to empty out last week when clashes erupted between extremist Hutu militiamen and the Tutsi-run army.

On Monday, President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya ordered that Kamenge be cleared of "terrorists". Residents were advised to leave during the military operation. By the time the first tanks rolled into Kamenge, tens of thousands had taken to the hills. In the event, the militiamen took to their heels. In spite of some shooting, the army met little resistance as it moved into Kamenge.

The United Nations special envoy to Burundi, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, witnessed the army's advance. He told me that he was satisfied that there had been no killings and that residents had been given sufficient warning to vacate their homes.

Visiting Kamenge during the latter stages of the army sweep, I was allowed only into those areas sanctioned by my military escort. Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard in the distance. But in Kamenge all I could see was boarded-up houses and streets, empty but for government soldiers.

On my return yesterday morning, I was permitted to drive without an escort into the heart of Kamenge, after my car had been searched at a military checkpoint. Already, hundreds of people had returned from the hills to inspect their properties and look for food. On the main road I met a student called Roger who offered to guide me through the warren of dirt tracks in the neighbourhood.

Walking down muddy paths, we went from house to house. Some are simple shacks with only a few rooms, although there are also smart bungalows with courtyards and cars parked outside. Many houses remain locked. But in every lane a few families had returned.

The distraught occupants showed us homes which had been looted or burned to the ground. In some buildings, the embers were still smouldering. Doors had been forced and the contents of rooms smashed and scattered over the floors. Cars had been set on fire.

By the wall of his cabin, a bearded man sat on a ledge, cradling his head in his hands.

Djuma Mfagutunga had left his home with his three children when he heard the sound of shooting on Wednesday morning. His wife, sick with malaria, had remained behind. When he returned yesterday he found her corpse in the yard. She had been repeatedly stabbed in the head, probably with a bayonet. On the living room floor, amongst the debris of the family's meagre possessions, lay a handful of rifle cartridges.

Nearby, I met Johali Mwamvuwa, whose elderly mother lay dead on the mud floor of their house. The old woman had been too weak to flee with other members of the family who left Kamenge last week. Fearing the worst, Mrs Mwamvuwa came back to find her mother lying in the bedroom with a bullet in her head.

She took me into the bedroom to show plastic crates from which beer had been stolen and an empty metal trunk in which she had stored her best clothes. She had no idea why anyone would want to shoot her mother, let alone take her dresses.

As Roger led me to scenes of carnage, an army car with loudspeakers drove along the main road, broadcasting a message of encouragement. All residents should return to their homes immediately, it advised.

This is the third time in a year that government forces have gone on a rampage in Kamenge. A missionary priest working nearby said he believes a hundred people or more could have been killed in the latest massacre. Dozens of corpses have also been discovered in the adjacent district of Gasenyi. While the count continues, no one knows how many people have been slaughtered.

Leaving Kamenge, I met Major Bernard Bamdomkeye, military chief of Bujumbura's northern zone. He said he would be surprised if there were bodies scattered about, and insisted there had been little shooting at Kamenge. If anyone had been killed, they had been murdered by bandits. It had been a textbook operation, he said. The army had behaved well.