The small central African country experienced its worst day of fighting in months. But rumors of genocide are still just that.
BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Burundian authorities claimed to have repulsed a coordinated attack by opposition forces on three military installations here on Friday, after heavy fighting rocked the lakeside capital from around 4:00 a.m. until mid-morning local time.
“The shots in the night conclude with the today defeated attack,” presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe wrote on Twitter. He later Tweeted pictures that purported to show a ministerial meeting on the government’s 2016 budget proceeding today as scheduled.
The assault by unidentified gunmen reportedly targeted a military camp in the northern Ngagara district as well as two facilities in the south of the capital, one of which was a training college for officers. Sustained gunfire could be heard throughout the city until well after daybreak, punctuated by occasional explosions. Sporadic fighting has continued into the afternoon.
The tiny central African country of Burundi has been in turmoil since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza defied protests to seek a third term in office. The opposition claimed the move was unconstitutional — and that it violated the terms of a peace accord that ended the country’s 13-year civil war in 2005 — but supporters of the president argued that he should be allowed to stand for office again because he was not popularly elected in his first term.
The government cracked down on the protesters who opposed Nkurunziza’s third term, eventually provoking an armed resistance. Over the last six months, tit-for-tat killings have become a daily occurrence in the capital, as police attempted to regain control of opposition strongholds. In a country that experienced two genocides in the last half-century — the latter of which helped spark the 1994 slaughter of roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists in neighboring Rwanda — the sudden escalation in violence has prompted a flurry of panicked statements from Western diplomats in recent weeks.
“I am not saying that tomorrow there will be a genocide in Burundi, but there is a serious risk that if we do not stop the violence, this may end with a civil war, and following such a civil war, anything is possible,” Adama Dieng, the U.N. special adviser for the prevention of genocide, said on Tuesday.
But most Burundi watchers say political violence remains a greater threat than ethnic violence. Many of the most powerful political leaders are Hutus, but the country’s military was successfully integrated after the civil war, and although it is thought to be divided over the current crisis, those divisions have so far defied ethnic lines.
“[T]he current crisis is political, with attacks targeting opponents of the Nkurunziza government, not a specific ethnic or religious group,” academics Kate Cronin-Furman and Michael Broache wrote in a recent Washington Post article. “The risk is therefore of worsening violence against the perceived opposition, with the possibility that such attacks might become widespread or systematic enough to qualify as crimes against humanity.”
Residents of neighborhoods affected by the fighting today described a city on total lockdown. Most people remained in their homes, too afraid to venture outside. Those who risked helping the wounded reported being unable to transport them to the hospital for medical care.
“We had called [an] ambulance, but we didn’t get one,” said one resident of Cibitoke, a heavily opposition neighborhood, who attempted to help two injured men lying in the street.
Military spokesman Col. Gaspard Baratuza told a state-run radio station that 12 attackers were killed and 21 captured in this latest round of fighting, the worst since a group of renegade generals launched a failed coup attempt in May. Baratuza said that five soldiers were also injured, but denied that any had been killed. His account conflicted with that of another senior military official quoted by Agence France-Presse, who said there had been “dozens of deaths among the attackers and we have also suffered losses.”
The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates a trauma center in Bujumbura, has not yet received any patients because ambulances have been unable move freely in the city, MSF spokesman Yann Libessart told Foreign Policy.
“As soon as security allows it, MSF will deploy its medical teams and launch a mass casualty plan if needed,” said Libessart.
Friday’s attacks, which the government has blamed on its opponents, marked a significant escalation in the grinding, low-level conflict that has left more than 240 dead since April, according to the United Nations. And according to some experts, it fits with the opposition’s emerging strategy to wear down the government and provoke an international intervention.
Not long after the shooting started this morning, rumors of ethnically motivated killings by the government began to circulate on social media: Tutsi men were supposedly being singled out at checkpoints, others bound and shot execution style. None of these rumors could be immediately confirmed, and the fact that the streets remained deserted for most of the day would seem to cast doubt on their veracity.
“This is most likely an attempt by certain opposition activists to piggyback on the violence we’ve seen today and revive the genocide narrative,” said Padraic MacOireachtaigh, a photojournalist and frequent commentator on Burundian affairs. “It feeds into a framing of Burundi’s violence that inserts an ethnic motivation into police brutality and aims to provoke some kind of international intervention.”
Calls to members of the armed opposition today went unanswered.
But if fears of an ethnic slaughter remain premature, there is good reason to believe the government has been ruthless in its treatment of its opponents. Opposition activists and sympathizers have reportedly been tortured and killed, including the son of prominent rights activists Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who was murdered after being taken into custody by police in November.
Last night, the country’s beleaguered civil society appears to have suffered another blow: Marie Claudette Kwizera, a staff member at the prominent human rights organization Ligue Iteka, may have been taken into custody by government intelligence services.
“We are extremely concerned that Kwizera was picked up last night by men believed to belong to Burundian intelligence services,” said Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. “Last week the Ligue Iteka issued a hard-hitting report on the country’s human rights crisis, and we fear that Kwizera is being punished for the important work of her organization.”
Photo credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images