Gatumba - support the survivor's call for justice!
More or less unedited, and mercilessly graphic, the film is largely silent except for the sobbing of the dazed survivors, which can be heard constantly in the background. The smoke still rises from the charred bodies and burned-out tents as the cameraman makes his way around the remains of the refugee camp, meticulously documenting the scene. As the film goes on, we see various Burundian dignitaries arriving, trying to look as if they have some kind of control over the situation, while soldiers and UN peacekeepers wander aimlessly around the remains of the camp. But the look on everyone's faces is one of dazed, incredulous horror.
The extremist group Palipehutu-FNL, which claimed responsibility for the attack, continues to assert, in the face of all the evidence, that Gatumba was not in fact a UNHCR refugee camp, but a military base. I think there is something almost Orwellian in the psychology of that claim.
This film - which I didn't even know existed until the moment it was shown to me – answers it more eloquently and comprehensively than words ever could.
Watching the film with us was Janvier Mudagiri, one of the survivors of the Gatumba attack. The Foreign Office had, at the last minute, denied him a visa to travel to the UK from the Netherlands, where he now has permanent residency. I, along with several of the organisers, had spent much of last Thursday trying to persuade them to change their minds - never expecting that they would – before the decision was unexpectedly reversed. Another small testament to the power of campaigning, I suppose, but it seemed like an unnecessary piece of bureaucratic cruelty. We were less lucky with Janvier's fellow survivor, Dorkasi Nankumi, who is now based in Finland, and whose visa refusal we were unable to overturn.
Coming after the film, Janvier's account was almost too much. In chilling detail, he recounted how the attack had unfolded, and reminded us that five of the Gatumba survivors had subsequently died from their injuries in hospital, bringing the final death toll to 165, while many others continued to live with crippling physical injuries.
The circumstances of Saturday's event were made all the more cruel by the fact that the Palipehutu-FNL had, just the day before, renewed their demand for immunity from prosecution and significant political power (without, naturally, the formality of having to be elected) as the price for ending their campaign of war crimes, and crimes against humanity. On Friday, Agence France Presse reported that the group was demanding "one of the two vice-presidencies and 13 out of the government's 26 ministries, including the interior, foreign affairs, defence, finance, planning, justice, agriculture, education, health, trade, labour and energy portfolios".
It's hard to see how acceding to such demands would help to advance peace, democracy or human rights in Burundi. Those who have lost loved ones at the hands of Palipehutu-FNL are particularly hurt that some elements of the international community now appear to be pressurising Burundi's elected (and Hutu-led) government to make just such a concession. It's difficult to think of a clearer illustration of the cycle of impunity in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa – and the extent to which the international community is all too often directly complicit.
Speaking at Saturday's event, Janvier Mudagiri called on the international community to ensure that those who carried out the Gatumba attack are brought to book for what they have done, and that justice is done for the victims of Gatumba.
Both the European Union and the UK government strongly condemned Gatumba at the time, and called for justice. Both also exert significant leverage in the region – and international pressure for human rights improvements has been shown to work in the past. If you would like to support Janvier's call, please write to your MP or MEP about the Gatumba case, and urge them to call on the UK government and European Union to use their leverage to persuade the Burundi government to refer Gatumba to the International Criminal Court.
Take action - write to your MEP
Take action - sign the Gatumba petition
Burundi, human rights, Current Affairs, Politics, Africa