(London) – Burundian authorities should urgently investigate the massacre on September 18, 2011, of dozens of people in a popular bar in Gatumba, about 15 kilometers west of the capital, Bujumbura, Human Rights Watch said today. The exact number of victims is not yet confirmed, but initial reports indicate that more than 30 people may have been killed. In their search for the perpetrators, the authorities should use the minimum necessary force and bring the perpetrators to justice, not conduct extrajudicial executions.
Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch how a group of men, some in military uniform, armed with guns and grenades, arrived at the bar, blocked the entrance, and fired indiscriminately at the crowd. Local sources told Human Rights Watch that, to their knowledge, most of the victims were not affiliated with any political party. However, a local resident said the bar-owner, who was reportedly among the victims, was a member of the ruling party.
“The brutal killing of unarmed men and women in Gatumba on Sunday evening is the single worst incident of violence in Burundi for several years,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The perpetrators should be identified and brought to justice without delay.”
The incident took place on September 18 at around 8 p.m. in a bar called Chez les amis, at Gatumba, in Mutimbuzi commune. A local resident said he had counted at least 26 bodies at the scene. Other sources have reported a death toll of over 30, with the police spokesperson quoting a figure of 39 in a radio interview on September 19. Several other people were wounded and at least 13 were being treated for injuries at the military hospital in Bujumbura on September 19.
Human Rights Watch is still gathering information on the exact number and identity of the victims. Several members of a local football club, who had gone to the bar to celebrate a match victory, were among the dead. Local residents believe that some of the assailants may have been members of Burundian armed opposition groups operating near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, the identity of the perpetrators has not yet been confirmed.
This is not the first attack of its kind. For example, in May 2011, four people were killed when armed men burst in on a bar in Bisoro in Bujumbura. However, the number of victims at Gatumba was significantly higher than in other incidents.
The scale of the latest incident has shocked many Burundians.
“We thought these things belonged in the past. We didn’t think they could ever happen again,” one man told Human Rights Watch. “Now we are afraid for what might happen next.”
The Burundian government has declared a three-day period of national mourning. A high-level delegation, headed by President Pierre Nkurunziza and several government ministers, visited Gatumba after the incident. Nkurunziza ordered the security forces to find the perpetrators within one month.
Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to conduct a thorough investigation and to prevent any reprisals in the aftermath of the shooting.
The incident occurred against a backdrop of politically motivated violence in Burundi, in which dozens of people have been killed in 2010 and 2011. The victims have included members and former members of the former rebel group National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL), as well as members of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD).
Tension has increased in Burundi over the past few weeks. Whereas most of the victims of killings in previous months were low-level rank-and-file members – or former members – of the FNL, those targeted recently have included more prominent individuals. They include demobilized FNL commander Audace Vianney Habonarugira, shot dead in July 2011; Dédithe Niyirera, FNL representative in Kayanza province, killed in Kayanza in late August 2011; and former FNL commander Edouard Ruvayanga, killed in Bujumbura on September 5. During the same period, several other demobilized FNL members have received anonymous threats warning them that they would suffer the same fate.
The political violence has been characterized by a pattern of reprisals, with killings by one side typically followed by killings by the other. In the majority of cases, the perpetrators have enjoyed complete impunity.
“We urge the Burundian security forces to use the minimum necessary force in their hunt for the perpetrators of this latest atrocity,” said Bekele. “The shocking killings in Gatumba shouldn’t be used as a pretext to target former rebels who have laid down their arms or opposition party members who have not been involved in criminal activities. If the authorities find the perpetrators, they should be arrested, charged, and tried – not summarily executed.”
The FNL was one of several rebel groups operating during Burundi’s 16-year civil war, which pitted a minority Tutsi-dominated army against Hutu rebel groups. One of the predominantly Hutu groups, the CNDD-FDD, joined the government in 2004 and won elections in 2005. The FNL, which is also Hutu-dominated, continued fighting until 2009. It then signed a ceasefire and became a political party.
The FNL put up candidates in the 2010 elections, but, along with other opposition parties, then boycotted the elections, accusing the CNDD-FDD of fraud. The CNDD-FDD, under the incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza, won the 2010 elections virtually unopposed and remains the ruling party. The elections were marred by violence and human rights abuses.
Several FNL and other opposition leaders fled into exile and remain outside Burundi. Some former members of rebel groups have taken up arms again and returned to the bush. The western part of the country, particularly the province of Bujumbura Rural where Gatumba is located, remains an FNL stronghold. Most incidents of political violence have occurred in this area.