The government says it entered a neighborhood looking for rebels. Residents say they were looking for revenge.
- By Ty McCormickTy McCormick is the Africa editor at Foreign Policy. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he has reported from more than a dozen countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Uganda, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was the bronze medal recipient of the 2016 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize from the U.N. Correspondents Association and a finalist for the 2015 Kurt Schork Award for international freelance journalism. Prior to joining FP in 2012, he was a freelance Cairo correspondent. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and National Geographic, among others. He received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and master’s degrees from Oxford University and the Queen’s University Belfast, where he held Clarendon and George J. Mitchell scholarships, respectively.
BUJUMBURA, Burundi — In the hours after rebel forces launched a pre-dawn assault on three military installations here on Friday, the embattled government claimed to have killed 79 insurgents in a joint military and police security operation. Some insurgents died in the initial clashes with the military, the government said, while others supposedly retreated into neighborhoods known for their staunch opposition to the regime, where they were later shot by security forces and left bleeding in the streets.
“The people found in the streets are attackers who have been killed by the security,” government spokesman Karerwa Ndenzako said on Saturday.
But as the fog of battle lifts over Bujumbura, the yarn spun by the government is swiftly unraveling. Not only were some of the victims bound and shot execution style, but no gun battles took place in the neighborhood where most of the bodies turned up, multiple witnesses said. Both claims contradict the government line that soldiers inflicted additional losses on a retreating rebel force. According to residents, security services conducted door-to-door searches, stole cash and cell phones, and dragged away dozens of young men suspected of working with the rebels — many of whom were later found with bullets in their heads.
Most of the victims were young men whose families live outside the capital, but residents denied that they were involved with the armed opposition. Rebels who admitted to carrying out the attack on the military installations — and who said they lost at least seven fighters in the process — told Foreign Policy that they did not retreat into Nyakabiga, the neighborhood where at least 21 bodies were found after the government’s mop-up operation.
“These people who were killed in Nyakabiga were innocent civilians,” said a rebel fighter reached by telephone on Monday. “The police were enraged [by the rebel attacks] and took advantage of killing innocent people.”
The ethnically mixed neighborhood of Nyakabiga was at the heart of a spirited protest movement that emerged back in April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term. Many in this typically chaotic quartier of the capital, whose rough cobblestone streets run beneath the misty green hills that rise above Bujumbura, opposed the president’s bid to stay in power, which they said violated the constitution as well as a peace deal that ended a devastating 13-year civil war in 2005. Some 300,000 people were killed in that conflict.
Nkurunziza launched a bloody crackdown on the protesters, sparking armed resistance and a failed coup attempt in May. In July, he was reelected with 69 percent of the vote in a poll that was boycotted by the opposition and condemned by the international community. Since then, discontent has festered in opposition strongholds of the capital, where mostly small-scale attacks on police and security forces have been met with a spate of extrajudicial killings. In the last seven months, at least 240 people have been killed and more than 200,000 have fled the country, according to the United Nations.
The attack and subsequent killing spree on Friday represent an alarming escalation in the conflict, which Western powers fear could be a prelude to mass atrocities. Burundi has experienced two genocides in the last half century and helped spark one in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. So far, the conflict has not been along ethnic lines, with both Hutu and Tutsi opponents being targeted by the Hutu-dominated regime. As evidenced by the bloodletting on Friday, however, political conflicts can still exact a serious toll.
“This is by the far the most serious incident, with the highest number of victims, since the start of the crisis in April,” Human Rights Watch researcher Carina Tertsakian said in a statement. “The armed attacks on military facilities on 11 December were serious, and the Burundian government has a responsibility to restore law and order. However, going out and shooting people in residential neighborhoods appears entirely unjustified, and the members of the security forces responsible should be held to account.”
In Nyakabiga, one of several neighborhoods targeted by security forces on Friday, residents recounted details of a day of horror. Uniformed police stormed in around 8:00 a.m. — when fighting had died down at military installations across town — and began searching houses, one by one. On some streets, police demanded that residents come out and lay face-down on the ground; in others, they did the opposite, telling residents to stay inside lest they be confused with rebels attempting to flee.
“If you peeked outside, they would shoot at you,” said one man, wearing Nike shoes and a red tank top, who like most terrified residents declined to give his name.
Security forces descended on Nyakabiga in several waves, residents said. After the police had conducted an initial sweep, members of the government’s API unit — an elite police team charged with protecting state institutions — carried out another series of raids. Multiple witnesses described how the police from both units broke down doors, threatened and beat residents, and demanded cash, cell phones, and other valuables. The military also entered the neighborhood at some point during the afternoon, but most residents said they were not responsible for any killings.
“While [the police] were beating us, they said, ‘We will kill, we will suck your blood,” recalled one man. “I am a victim, too. They wanted to take my wedding ring. I resisted and they were enraged. They hit me on the head with a pistol.”
He lifted his white baseball hat to reveal a gauze bandage on the top of his head.
Many residents fared worse. A 50-year-old milk seller named Innocent was shot and killed when he opened the door to his kiosk. Police rushed in and demanded money, said one of Innocent’s delivery boys, who attempted to hide beneath some supplies at the back of the dilapidated wooden structure but was quickly discovered. “You give us money and we will let you hide,” he said the police told him. “I did and by luck I survived.”
Multiple residents recalled Innocent as a peaceful man who had done business in the community for as long as they could remember. “He sold milk only,” said one woman who lives on the same street where Innocent’s kiosk is located. “He was not involved in any kind of politics,” she said.
Another victim worked at the Ministry of Health, according his grief-stricken fiancé. Yet another was a student at the university here in Bujumbura. Some were executed on the spot while others were whisked away in pickup trucks. None were actively engaged in a battle with security forces, residents said.
The pattern of spent bullet casings on the ground also seemed to reinforce this version of events. In addition to AK-47 cartridges that were scattered randomly underfoot in the neighborhood, distinct piles of larger 7.62 mm PK machine gun rounds could be observed at several four-way intersections. The position of the spent cartridges, which would have ejected from the weapon as it was discharged, suggests the gunner was at least 10 feet from a wall on any side. Out in the open like this, he or she was almost certainly not taking incoming fire.
“This does not look like it was a firefight,” said a U.N. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It looks like these guys went in and executed people point blank.”
Less doubtful are the attacks on military installations, which represent the most daring assault by rebel forces to date. Little is known about the size or capacity of the armed opposition, which is thought to consist of several organized rebel groups based in the country’s interior as well as a number of militias that have clashed with police in the capital.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly we are talking about when it comes to insurgent groups because they are not under a single command,” said Yolande Bouka, a researcher focusing on the Great Lakes region at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. “They operate independently and it’s not clear that they are collaborating. They all have loose ties with members of the political opposition, but they operate independently.”
Evariste Harimana, the only wounded insurgent receiving treatment in the military hospital in Bujumbura, refused to disclose any details about his group. Lying on a black gurney next to an injured government soldier who was wounded in the face by a grenade, he said only that he had been a part of the early morning attack on a military base in the north of the capital and that he had previously served in the armed forces.
The rebel fighter reached by telephone would not say how many fighters took part in the assault, but allowed that they had been “planning it for quite a long time.”
Government soldiers involved in the fighting described a rag-tag rebel force that included fighters dressed in both civilian and military garb. “They were wearing different uniforms. Some were the old textile uniforms and some wore the new ones with the Burundian flag torn off,” said Cpl. Cerius Nyansega, who was also recovering from a grenade wound in the military hospital. “Because of the length and intensity of the attack, it looked like a planned one. But they didn’t have military tactics; they were not well trained.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday condemned the escalating violence in Burundi, but singled out the “disproportionate response by security services.”
Also on Sunday, the U.S. State Department announced that it was evacuating non-essential personnel from the tiny central African nation and urged all U.S. citizens to depart as soon as possible.
“Government command and control of the armed forces and security services is not complete,” it said in a statement. “Demonstrations, gatherings, and even sporting events that are intended to be peaceful can turn violent without advance warning.”
Photo credit: Esdras Ndikumana/AFP/Getty Images