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The Policy Decision

The province of Bujumbura-rural, which surrounds the city of Bujumbura on three sides, is composed of rugged, mountainous terrain well-suited to guerrilla warfare. In late 1997 and 1998 FNL combatants moved into the region from areas further north, winning some support from a population made up largely of poor Hutu cultivators. Where local people did not willingly help the FNL combatants, the rebels took food and other goods from them by force. They sometimes forced local people to accompany them to carry pillaged goods and even to spend some months working for them. Some of them raped women, although the FNL code supposedly prohibits sex as well as smoking and drinking. In a number of ambushes, rebels attacked vehicles and killed civilians. When rebels and soldiers engaged in combat, civilians were sometimes caught in the crossfire or were later attacked by soldiers in apparent reprisal for rebel attacks in the area.5

In July and August 1999, the rebels launched increasingly frequent and damaging raids in and around Bujumbura, killing dozens of civilians as well as some soldiers. The army retaliated with attacks that killed more than one hundred civilians as well as combatants and the government tightened an existing curfew. These measures failed to satisfy Tutsi extremists in Bujumbura who demanded more drastic action to protect the city and to repress the rebellion.6

With rumors circulating of a possible coup and of violence being organized by extremists, the government decided to impose a policy of regroupment on most of Bujumbura-rural, particularly on areas inhabited largely by Hutu and near the city. In attempting to justify the decision, Buyoya later said he had had to make "a difficult choice between two evils." He continued

violence was threatening Bujumbura, residents of Bujumbura-rural were seriously threatened by the rebellion, the capital was threatened by large-scale massacres, so we had to take the bull by the horns and take appropriate measures to stabilize the situation.7

Some highly placed officials as well as knowledgeable foreign observers believe that the decision was motivated as much by political pressure from extremists as by military considerations.8

In 1996, the government had begun using regroupment elsewhere in the country to try to prevent the spread of the rebellions and to cut the rebels off from support by local populations.9 In several regions, the policy helped reduce rebel attacks on both military and civilian targets, but only at the cost of imposing enormous suffering on the people required to live in the camps. After insurgent activity diminished in most areas and faced with international criticism, the government had dispersed most of the camps by late 1998. In mid-1999, it had revived the regroupment policy in parts of southeastern Burundi before deciding to extend it to the area of the capital in September.

Forced Displacement

In one community after another in late September and early October 1999, soldiers forced people to leave their homes with little or no notice. They arrived in the rural areas where most people live in homes scattered across the hills and simply fired in the air before ordering the frightened people to gather at designated sites. Often they forced them to leave without allowing them time to gather belongings or even food to take with them.

In some cases, soldiers shot and killed those who did not follow their orders quickly or completely enough. One man stated that his older brother was killed at Buhonga because he refused to go to the camp site.10 Another man forced to go to Buhonga camp related that he, his wife, and seven children were driven from their home by soldiers at around 2 p.m. on the afternoon of September 21. He said that three women had been killed by soldiers firing their guns "carelessly" that day.11

A man from Kamutwe camp stated:

The morning of regroupment, the soldiers came and shot into the air. This scared many people and they all fled their houses to go where it was safe. Soldiers herded everyone towards Buhonga and then only after towards other camps at Mboza, Kamutwe, Raro, and Nyamaboko.

He added that two of his cousins who hid rather than leave their home were found by soldiers and shot.12

A resident from Muberure camp said:

The day of regroupment there was a panic. There had been no meetings to prepare people for this. Very early in the morning, the soldiers shot in the air. They had a system planned for getting people out of their houses and driving them to the site. The people fled from one group of soldiers to the next until they were herded into one corridor which was the only path they could follow. The soldiers ordered people to go towards the site. They said, "If you don't go, you will be considered accomplices [of the rebels].

This witness said that soldiers shot and killed four people that day.13 Another witness from Muberure stated that soldiers shot six people whom they found in a Pentecostal church. Still another man from Muberure declared that hesaw thirteen of his neighbors shot by soldiers on the day of regroupment, including a fifteen-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy.14

Two witnesses from Nyamaboko camp said they had seen soldiers shoot civilians during the regroupment process. One was a woman who said she had seen her uncle, a brother-in-law, and a neighbor killed by soldiers. She and her children had then fled with just the clothes on their backs.15

A resident of Nyambuye camp stated that he and his neighbors had been taken completely unawares by the government decision to force them to move. They learned of the new policy when soldiers came into the community and started firing their guns in the air. He declared that four men from his community were killed by soldiers that day, including one who was married to his sister.16 A woman from the same camp said that four men, one a thirty-year-old father of two children, were shot on the Sunday morning when the round-ups began. A second woman declared that her husband had been killed by soldiers that day because he had refused to leave his home.17 Another man from Nyambuye was at mass when soldiers surrounded the church and informed members of the congregation that they could not return home and were now to live in an adjacent regroupment site.18 Two women from Nyambuye recounted fleeing at the sound of gunfire. One said that the local administrator told the people who assembled at the designated site that anyone left at home would be considered a rebel and killed.19

A resident of Ruyaga camp said that six people were killed in his community on the day of regroupment. Soldiers had begun firing at about 6 a.m. and people fled towards Ruyaga "because it was a place with a bit of security. They shot from two different points, driving people into this one safe area." He reported too that the local administrator had said that "those who stay at home will be treated as rebels."20

In Kabezi commune, south of Bujumbura, government soldiers went around the commune on September 26, informing people that the next day those who lived south of the Mugere river were to report to the communal office in Kabezi while those who lived north of this river were to assemble at the military position at Ruziba. The next day, early in the morning, soldiers began firing rounds into the air and towards the hills, frightening people out of their homes and forcing them to flee in the direction of the communal office. As thousands of people began to gather, local officials instructed people to move onto a neighboring hill and to begin building shelters. Four witnesses from Kabezi together named twelve persons who were injured or killed by gunfire that day, including at least two women and two children. They believed that the victims had been killed by stray bullets rather than deliberately targeted.21

People who were moved to Mubone and Maramvya camps also were notified in advance that they would have to leave their homes. In contrast to other cases, they made the move with no problems and without being exposed to gunfire. They were allowed to gather needed supplies before leaving for the camp.22

Making Camp

Most camp residents agreed with the judgment of one witness who said that "the first few days in camp were the worst."23 They were directed to sites, many of them on barren hilltops, far from any source of water. They were ordered to build shelters out of whatever branches and leaves they could find. Authorities provided no food, no water, and no building materials for them and said nothing about how long they would be required to live there. One mother of seven children, the youngest two years old, reported that when she arrived at the site, there was nothing there but fields and soldiers with guns.24 People slept in the open air until they were able to finish constructing their shelters. High winds and rain during the first week slowed the process, sometimes blowing over the shaky structures that had just been finished.

The local officials themselves were apparently undecided about where all of the people would finally be located.25 Soldiers sent one woman to Nyambuye where she began to build her shelter, as instructed. But the next day, soldiers directed her and others from her hill to return to Nyakibande, their place of origin, and to set up a camp there next to the church. Five days later, soldiers came again and ordered the people to dismantle the shelters they had built and to return to Nyambuye and once again start building there. When people refused, the soldiers fired in the air, which sent them fleeing back to Nyambuye. Since authorities had provided no food, water or building materials, this woman was weak from hunger and exhaustion by the time she returned to Nyambuye.26

Once assembled, people were not allowed to return home to fetch food or other supplies for periods ranging up to two weeks.27 During this period, soldiers were making sweeps through the newly vacated areas in an effort to locate rebels who might be in hiding there. Because no food was provided, many residents took the risk of leaving the camps at night to try to get supplies from home for their families.

5 Human Rights Watch interviews, Mubone, March 6; Maramvya, February 10; Bujumbura, March 15, 16, and 20, April 25 and 26, 2000.

6 Ligue Burundaise des Droits de l'Homme, Iteka, Le Burundi à la croisée des chemins, Rapport Annuel sur les Droits de l'Homme, April, 2000, pp. 9-10.

7 United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) report number 901, April 11, 2000.

8 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, December 12 and 16, 1999.

9 For earlier cases of regroupment in Burundi, see Proxy Targets Civilians in the War in Burundi, Human Rights Watch, 1998. Available on the web at

10 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, January 18, 2000.

11 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, January 18, 2000.

12 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, February 22, 2000.

13 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, February 24, 2000.

14 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, February 24, 2000.

15 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, March 1, 2000.

16 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, March 3, 2000.

17 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, March 7, 2000.

18 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, March 3, 2000.

19 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, March 15 and 20, 2000.

20 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, February 22, 2000.

21 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, March 12 and 16, 2000.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, Mubone, March 6, 2000.

23 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, January 18, 2000.

24 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, March 7, 2000.

25 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, January 18, 2000.

26 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, March 20, 2000.

27 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, February 24 and March 7, 2000.

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