Background Briefing

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On August 13, 2004 a force of armed combatants, many of them members of the Forces for National Liberation  (Forces pour la Liberation Nationale, FNL), massacred at least 152 Congolese civilians and wounded another 106 at Gatumba refugee camp, near Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.   The FNL is a predominantly Hutu rebel movement known for its hostility to Tutsi and the victims were largely Banyamulenge, a group often categorized with Tutsi. But the massacre was more than just another case of ethnically-targeted slaughter in a region known for such horrors. At the intersection of two faltering peace processes, the attack underlined the continuing political conflicts within both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi and made them worse. Various contenders for power within these two countries as well as parties toconflicts across national boundaries immediately tried to appropriate the massacre for their own political ends. In so doing they increased the likelihood of armed conflict and the slaughter of still more civilians.

Soldiers of a recently-established United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force were unable to save the civilians because they were told of the attack only when it was over. Soldiers and police of the Burundian armed forces also failed to offer assistance but they were fully aware of the slaughter, which took place within a few hundred yards of their camps. 

The highest officials of the Burundian and Rwandan governments and leaders of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Goma, RCD-Goma) quickly asserted that the massacre had been carried out by a large, well-organized force coming from the Congo and combining Congolese Mai Mai, Rwandan rebel combatants (“Interahamwe”) and the FNL. Rapidly disseminated by the press, this version became widely known and within two weeks of the attack was mentioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in a report to the Security Council.1 

In the meantime, the FNL accepted responsibility for the attack but asserted that the refugee camp harbored Banyamulenge combatants preparing for a new war on Congo. Less well known in international circles, this version of events also spread widely, through informal channels of communication among FNL supporters and various groups in the Congo. Several civil society groups from apparently from South Kivu produced documents supporting this theory and circulated them by electronic mail.

In months before the massacre, the political transitions in Congo and Burundi were failing to make expected progress and dissatisfied contenders in each country were increasing their demands. Ethnic tensions, so often linked to political struggles, were also rising. In this atmosphere, the horror of Gatumba immediately fed fear and hatred among the Tutsi and related groups while the threats in reaction to the massacre spurred the same emotions among Hutu and groups affiliated with them. After repeated assertions that genocide was imminent—or had actually been committed--Rwandan and Burundian leaders accused the Congolese army and government of involvement in the massacre and threatened war against them.

The Gatumba massacre was a direct attack on civilians in violation of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) for which all those responsible must be fully prosecuted.  The Burundian government has issued arrest warrants for two leaders of the FNL, a promising first step that must be followed by the actual arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted extensive interviews among victims, residents of Gatumba, Burundian military and civilian authorities, and officials of various UN agencies. This report is based on that research.

[1] United Nations Security Council, “First Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Operation in Burundi,” paragraph 13, S/2004/682, August 25, 2004.

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