Two former presidents of Burundi, opposition members, civil society and women activists have appealed to regional leaders and the international community to urgently help bring an end to the current violence in their country.
In a document entitled ‘Urgent Call: Burundi on the Edge of a Humanitarian Catastrophe’, and addressed to the Heads of State of the sub-regional bodies EAC, ICGLR and COMESA; African Union, European Union; US; UN; international NGOs and other partners of Burundi, the leaders called for foreign intervention to dissuade President Pierre Nkurunziza from vying for the upcoming elections and to deploy peacekeepers to end violence against unarmed civilians by security forces and a militia linked to the ruling CNDD-FDD party.
The call, they say, is grounded in the “deterioration of the political and security situation along different massive violations of human rights observed in Burundi recently.”
The petitioners, who include former presidents Sylvestre Ntibantunganya (1994-1996) and Domitien Ndayizeye (2003-2005), blame the current unrest on President Nkurunziza’s “unconstitutional” bid for a third term in office, an attempt they say also violates the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Accord, which helped end a 12-year civil war.
They accuse the government of arbitrary arrests, abductions and torture in the wake of growing opposition to Nkurunziza’s bid for another five years in office and last week’s failed coup attempt.
In the May 18 document, the leaders condemn the arbitrary closure of private media outlets including Radio Publique Africaine, Isanganiro, Bonesha and Radio Television Renaissance.
Today, they say, the only radio that’s operational is the state broadcaster, the Radio-Télévision nationale du Burundi (RTNB), which they say only serves the interests of government.
With no local independent media to report about the ongoing violence, the petitioners say crimes are going unreported.
They say alleged coup plotters, opposition leaders, civil society activists, women groups leaders and protesters are increasingly becoming victims of state-sponsored killings, abductions, arbitrary arrests and torture.
Killings at a hospital
They condemn last Friday’s “brutal” attack on Bumerec Hospital in the capital Bujumbura by Police, who were reportedly searching for supporters of the failed coup, killing several patients in the process.
Lists of people suspected of opposing the candidature of Pierre Nkurunziza have been drawn up, they say.
“To facilitate their arrest, those lists were sent to all (points of entry and exit) controlled by the CNDD-FDD militia “Imbonerakure”. The latter are involved in those police operations,” the petitioners, who include Jean Minani and Leonce Ngendakumana, who signed on behalf of opposition political parties, added.
Other signatories include Armel Niyongere, Anne Spes Nishimwe and Justine Nkurunziza (on behalf of civil society), and Christine Mbonyingingo and Vestine Mbundagu (Movement of women and girls of Burundi).
They accused security forces loyal to President Nkurunziza and the pro-government dreaded Imbonerakure (the foresighted) militia for committing gross human rights abuses.
“This militia is organised and operates under the command of the former General Director of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), Lt Gen Adolphe Nshimirimana.”
In complicity with elements of the SNR, members of the Imbonerakure militia illegally carry out interrogations and arbitrary arrests, they say. “The same militia keeps the population nationwide under terror which leads the population to massively flee the country.”
The leaders say Imbonerakure have turned a bar-cum-restaurant owned by Lt Gen Nshimirimana, known as “Iwabo w’Abantu”, and located on National Road No.1, in Kamenge commune on the outskirts of Bujumbura, their headquarters. There, they say, the militia and elements of the army and police torture and kill abductees.
During the torture sessions, the perpetrators of the atrocities “stifle the cries of the victims until their last breath,” the document reads in part. “To achieve this, they play music with full volume.”
According to several testimonies, corpses of the victims are taken away overnight in vehicles to unknown destinations, the petitioners add.
They accuse the government of using the security forces and the Imbonerakure militia to violently crush “peaceful demonstrations.”
The consequences are alarming, they note.
Warning that the consequences of the Burundi crisis would be felt beyond the country’s borders, the former presidents, opposition members and civil society activists say that more than 50 people had already been killed and hundreds others injured as a result of live bullets by the Police and the Imbonerakure militia.
The petitioners say another 500 peaceful protesters had been arrested and are currently “languishing in prisons where they constantly undergo torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
“The plan to hamper freedom of the press and people’s right to information was finally unveiled with the closure of Radio Publique Africaine, the most popular private radio,” they wrote.
Buildings housing the radio station and other private broadcasters were bombed and torched, they added. “Today, crimes are committed in silence, outside (of) the media spotlight”.
“Today, peace and security in Burundi and in the sub-region are in serious jeopardy,” the leaders warn, citing the arming of CNDD-FDD’s Imbonerakure militia, which they accuse of committing human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, attacking peaceful demonstrators, restricting freedom of movement, among others.
They say the militia works closely with the National Intelligence Service and other security organs.
Nkurunziza’s government has previously denied that the Imbonerakure had been trained and armed, insisting they are only members of the ruling party’s youth wing.
But the petitioners’ claims are corroborated by testimonies from terrified refugees that have streamed into Rwanda over the last few weeks, who accuse the Imbonerakure of intimidating and attacking those they suspect are opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term bid.
Some have also suggested that Imbonerakure use the same methods employed by the Interahamwe militia, blamed for the slaughter of more than a million people during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
There have also been reports that remnants of these genocidal forces, FDLR, might have in recent days crossed into Burundi from their hideouts in DR Congo to join the Nkurunziza camp in its violent crackdown on protesters.
Bujumbura has, however, rejected these allegations that first emerged when protesters said that they had captured some FDLR elements in their running battles with police and suspected Imbonerakure militia.
Earlier this week Nkurunziza sacked three cabinet ministers as he continued to stamp his authority in the wake of last week’s failed coup d’état, which also saw the arrest of at least three army generals and others believed to have been among the supporters of Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare’s coup attempt.
Niyombare remains at large.
Now former presidents Ntibantunganya and Ndayizeye and their co-petitioners say Burundians need a “robust protection plan” since they have lost confidence in President Nkurunziza given his close links to the brutal Imbonerakure militia and continued “massive human rights violations.”
They want the international community to urgently deploy “a peacekeeping force to ensure immediate safety of people and property in Burundi to avoid an imminent bloodbath”.
The politicians also called for an immediate end to “all extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and other massive human rights violations in progress”, postponement of the upcoming polls to ensure “transparent, fair, equitable, inclusive and democratic elections”, and to reopening of private media.
It emerged yesterday that the local and parliamentary poll, initially scheduled for May 26, had been postponed by only a week, to June 5, but Bujumbura remains coy on the presidential elections, due to take place on June 26, despite continued calls from regional and international players to postpone the poll.
More than 100,000 Burundians have crossed to neighbouring countries over the last four weeks, with more than 26,000 in Rwanda.