Breaking the international silence over the Gatumba massacre
Four years ago this week – on Friday 13th, as it happens – more than 150 people, half of them children, were shot, hacked, and burned to death at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. The victims, supposedly under UNHCR protection, were almost all Banyamulenge Congolese Tutsis, singled out by their attackers, who left non-Tutsi refugees in the camp unharmed. Here is Thabo Mbeki's account of what happened:
The killers came in the dark of night. They attacked a Burundi army camp located nearby, charged with the responsibility to protect the refugees. This was to stop these soldiers intervening as the murderers did their dirty work of murdering in cold blood well over 150 children, women and men as they slept.
The killers came in the night and hacked to death perfectly innocent people who were already suffering because violent conflict in their country had turned them into refugees. They poured petrol on the shacks in which the people lived and set them alight. Many of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Those who tried to run away were shot down in cold blood.
With cold and deliberate intent, they did not touch even one of the other refugees who stayed in other shacks a mere few metres away, but belonged to other Congolese ethnic groups.
The only fault of the dead was that they were Banyamulenge. A mindless and criminal hatred drove the killers to carry out an unpardonable crime against humanity. What they hated was the fact that the Banyamulenge were Banyamulenge. The murderers viewed the mere fact that the Banyamulenge exist as human beings as unacceptable.
They therefore took it upon themselves to commit cold-blooded murder, to ensure that the Banyamulenge cease to exist…
Mbeki goes on to talk about the group that claimed responsibility for the attack:
There is an armed group in Burundi called the Palipehutu-FNL. This group, whose leader passionately presents himself as a born-again Christian, has refused to lay down arms and join the Burundi peace process. As the Barundi have courageously engaged the process to bring peace to their country, preparing for democratic elections, Palipehutu-FNL has taken the conscious decision that it will not join the peace process.
In action, it has made the unequivocal statement that it is determined to continue killing other Barundi, utterly contemptuous of the people's heartfelt desire for peace, and unmoved by the fact that 300,000 people have died in a decade-long conflict. Active in the vicinity of the capital city, in Bujumbura Rural, Palipehutu-FNL has unashamedly carried out operations that make the statement that this organisation, wrongly described as a Front for National Liberation, has nothing to do with the national liberation of the Barundi, and everything to do with the commission of violent crimes against the people of Burundi.
Perhaps it should have not come as a surprise that, by its own admission, Palipehutu-FNL was involved in the Gatumba massacre of Friday, August 13. This armed group has become so accustomed to the shedding of innocent blood that it made bold to make the statement that it was responsible for the Gatumba massacre. It went further to say that it had no fear of retribution for its crimes, because it was certain that it had become untouchable.
Human Rights Watch gave further details of the FNL's admission of responsibility:
Pasteur Habimana, spokesman for the movement, was the first to make such a statement. Early on the morning of the attack he called several Burundian journalists to castigate them for having broadcast reports that the perpetrators of the massacre had come from the Congo and were mostly Rwandan rebels and Mai Mai.
Even after it became increasingly clear that accepting responsibility for the attack might be seriously damaging to his group, Habimana as well as the national secretariat made no retraction. They did elaborate on several reasons why the FNL had made the attack. They referred to the many killings of civilians that had gone unpunished in the years of conflict in Burundi, seeming to suggest that attacking the Banyamulenge was a justifiable response to these previous killings. Habimana also claimed that the FNL force had attacked the military and police camps and had pursued soldiers and police who fled from their camps to the refugee camp. There, said Habimana, Banyamulenge had brought out arms that had been hidden and fired on the FNL. As the days passed, he elaborated this explanation to the point of calling the refugee camp the Banyamulenge general staff headquarters. No evidence supports these claims.
The Gatumba attack was also roundly condemned by the European Union, Britain, the United States, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and many other countries around the world, all of whom urged that the perpetrators be prosecuted. The African Union and the UN Security Council both issued statements urging that those responsible be brought to justice "without delay". In December 2004, UN resolution 1577 reiterated the need for justice, and an end to Burundi's culture of impunity. Under heavy international pressure, the Burundian government issued arrest warrants for the Palipehutu-FNL leadership.
Despite the calls for justice to be done "without delay", the victims of Gatumba are still waiting, four years on. Calls for the attack to be referred to the International Criminal Court came to nothing. A UN investigation into the massacre petered out within a year. When, in April 2005, the Palipehutu-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa called a press conference in the Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam and appeared in public for the first time, no attempt was made to arrest him.
When I queried this with the UK Foreign Office at the time, they told me that:
The Government of Tanzania is trying to persuade the FNL to end its armed struggle so that peace and security can be brought to the whole of Burundi and that elections can be held in safety. We support these efforts to bring an end to Burundi's civil war. The Government of Burundi has agreed to meet the FNL in Tanzania to discuss ending the fighting.
But our position on the FNL remains unchanged. FNL leaders responsible for crimes against humanity and human rights violations must be brought to justice. We will continue to resist any moves to grant Rwasa or other FNL leaders immunity… We are clear that breaking the culture of impunity in the region is key to peace in the Great Lakes. The FNL and other groups must be sent a signal that they cannot negotiate immunity.
If and when Rwasa and other FNL leaders return to Burundi we will push strongly for the Burundian authorities to try them as soon as possible for the crimes of which they have been accused or admitted responsibility for (such as the massacre in Gatumba in August 2004).
Despite these hopes, Palipehutu-FNL carried on killing people. Elections were held, and judged free and fair, despite the FNL's continued violence. But at the international level there was no more talk of bringing them to justice over Gatumba. Simply by popping up in Tanzania and saying that they were ready for peace, the FNL had effectively unravelled all the commitments that had been made to the victims of the atrocities they had committed.
One Burundian friend of mine often talks of the uncanny ability of regional politicians to 'launder' themselves of the crimes they have committed, and the extent to which the international community is willing to play along. Compare and contrast the above quote from Thabo Mbeki with another one – this time from a speech he made in June 2008:
Let me first acknowledge the delegation from the Republic of Burundi both from Government and Palipehutu-FNL, led respectively by the Minister in the Burundi Presidency, General Evariste Ndayishimiye and the Palipehutu-FNL and its President, Agathon Rwasa. I am very pleased to extend a warm welcome to our dear friends from Burundi.
This year, the FNL declared an end to their campaign of violence – again – and are now angling for government posts and a blanket amnesty as their price for disarming and demobilising. Amid reports that the group was continuing to recruit child soldiers, the FNL leader returned from Tanzania to the Burundian capital Bujumbura on May 30th. It remains to be seen whether the UK government – or any of the others who spoke out against the Gatumba massacre four years ago – will keep the promises that they have made.
At 1.30pm this Saturday, two survivors of the Gatumba massacre will be giving their own account of the events of that day, at a public commemoration being organised by the Ubuntu peacebuilding organisation, and held at Amnesty UK's Human Rights Action Centre in London.
Similar events will be held around the world, as the massacre survivors – and those who lost loved ones in the attack – seek to challenge the international community's selective amnesia over what happened in Burundi on the night of August 13th 2004.Take action - Fax your MP!
Take action - sign the Gatumba petition
Burundi, human rights, Current Affairs, Politics, Africa