Genocides sometimes slip through our periphery, especially when far more publicized stories are nearby. We all remember Rwanda, when Hutu militias killed Tutsis in shocking numbers. Yet so often we ignore its neighbor, Burundi, who suffered a similar genocide.
The actual number of Tutsis killed in Burundi genocide is still debatable, but most estimates agree that in 1993, 50,000-100,000 Tutsis were targeted and murdered. Yet while the genocide waned after Rwanda was brought under control, a civil war in Burundi went on for years. Fighting, human rights abuses and ethnic extremism continued until late 2005.
Which is why a new report by the UN on an escalation of violence in Burundi is so troubling. After nearly a decade of peace, this report pointed to signs that the government was once again arming Hutu militia groups throughout the country, and most disturbingly, training ‘youth wings’ on paramilitary exercises. It also noted a number of crackdowns on political rights and freedom of the press. The Burundian government hit back against the report, stating that the UN should provide evidence of this, or apologize for its accusations. The Vice-President went on record stating that any act to inflame genocide would not be tolerated.
Rival political tensions have been escalating in recent months due to an upcoming presidential election. In 2015, the current President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, will have exhausted his two terms allowed in office. However, despite constitutional term limits, he is expected to amend the constitution and run again. This has his opponents in an uproar, and the police, controlled by Nkurunziza, have been accused of arresting opposition speaking out against it. But to understand the tenuous relationship Burundians have with their hard fought peace, it’s important to look at its current state.
For twelve years, the country lived under a midnight-dawn curfew that was only lifted in 2006. Although citizens are free to be out after midnight, most choose to take cover. During a visit in 2012, I was able to witness the many ways this country is still simmering just under the surface.
Walking the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, at night, cars are parked haphazardly in the middle of the road. Shops, cafes and markets go quiet as midnight nears, giving an eerily abandoned feel to the nation’s capital. The only souls out on the street? Groups of child gangs, primarily made up those orphaned from the war. They sharpen their machetes on the concrete at night; the metal throwing up sparks to pass the time. Despite their numbers and weapons, they are still unsure of themselves when an opportunity presents itself. Passing by them at 1 am, a simple confident ‘what’s up’ was enough to hold them off.
Rehabilitation programs and mental health services for the victims of war here are negligible. In Gitega, central Burundi, young men carry the violence of civil war on their faces. The infamous thousand-yard stare is glazed across the eyes of men working behind a taxi stand. One, high on glue, offers to drive a family to the Rwandan border. A mother and her two children get into the car, and he speeds away through town. The women in the backseat don’t say a word, instead opting to pull out their rosaries.
The fragility of Burundi has been largely dismissed by the western audience. For contrast, when you visit the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, you will see the plentiful aid money at work. Well-maintained roads, stop lights, glowing dividers and organized markets makes it feel more like Europe than Africa. Likewise, mental health efforts here have been instrumental in bringing closure to victims and attackers alike.
In Burundi, while sitting in the largely dilapidated city square, men wander up in scraps of clothing, their bodies sunken in from years of malnutrition. One offers me a pen in exchange for marriage. I decline but he leaves the pen as a gesture of goodwill.
This is not about comparing or contrasting atrocities and genocide, but it is about what happens when one country, torn apart by war, is offered assistance, and another country is largely ignored. Burundi is staggering back to the edge of ethnic conflict and the international community has a responsibility to pay attention this time around. Because when we ignore all the elements of human history, we cannot feign surprise when it begins to repeat itself.