As the crisis in Burundi continues to spin out of control, new allegations regarding gang rapes carried out by government troops as well as mass graves have deepened fears in the region. The report came from the UN who said they documented 13 separate cases where women were separated and sexually assaulted. The men, it is alleged, underwent torture and extrajudicial killings.
The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, gave a statement warning that, “All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red…This will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues.”
Unrest began early last year when President Pierre Nkurunziza made a bid for a third term. This caused many within Burundi’s political opposition to come out and demonstrate against his candidacy. These protests were dealt with harshly and Nkurunziza went on to win his third term in office. Since then, the violence has continued to spiral out of control.
For months, both Burundians and foreign analysts contended this was a purely political conflict. That opposition members as well as pro-government forces included both ethnic Hutu and Tutsi members. However, in recent weeks it seems the conflict has shifted towards ethnic violence. The UN report which detailed the sexual abuse of women also noted that one woman was told she was assaulted for being a Tutsi. Another witness to the recent violence said that while Tutsis in the neighborhood were killed, the Hutus were spared.
Burundi has already suffered through one Hutu/Tutsi genocide, around the same time as Rwanda. The current government is primarily Hutu, although it should be recognized that 40 percent of the current government is made up of ethnic Tutsis.
Members of the UN security council arrived in Bujumbura this week to discuss a plan for peace with President Nkurunziza. They are attempting to convince the president to let in 5,000 African Union peacekeeping troops that were approved for deployment. Opposition members have called for AU peacekeepers to be deployed, saying it will move peace talks forward. The call for peacekeepers was echoed on Thursday by two former presidents of Burundi.
However, President Nkurunziza has resisted this move, going so far as to state he would consider AU peacekeepers an invading force, and fight them should they arrive.
The government of Burundi has long remained defiant of peace efforts. At peace talks in Entebbe, Uganda, last month the delegation from the government arrived hours late and left early, filing out as civil society members spoke about a need to halt extrajudicial killings. The Burundi government also failed to attend the next round of peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania.
It’s estimated that more than 400 people have been killed and over 230,000 refugees have left the country since the violence began last spring. Many of Burundi’s neighbors including Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania have put pressure on the government to halt the current crisis, however so far the Burundi government has insisted they they are fighting a violent insurgency and their reaction has been appropriate.
And while there is no doubt that violent sections of the opposition that have attacked government outposts, both UN and local reports indicate that the majority of the door to door attacks, killings and crimes against humanity have been carried out by those associated with the Burundi government. Many are now hoping international pressure from the UN and the AU will persuade the government to pull back from its path towards war and genocide.
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