(Nairobi) – Burundian authorities should hold accountable those responsible for a 2004 massacre of Congolese refugees, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 150 refugees, most of them women and children, were killed and more than 100 others injured, on August 13, 2004, at Gatumba, in one of the worst ethnically targeted attacks in Burundi since the 1990s. The leaders of the armed group that claimed responsibility have not been brought to justice.
Almost all of the victims were Banyamulenge – Congolese Tutsi from the province of South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They had fled armed conflict in Congo and were living in a refugee camp in the Burundian town of Gatumba, close to the Congolese border. The attackers targeted them based on their ethnicity, shooting them or burning them to death, and sparing refugees from other ethnic groups and Burundians living in another part of the camp.
“The Gatumba massacre was a direct and deliberate attack on unarmed civilians,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The killings have been well-documented, yet 10 years later, no one has been prosecuted.”
The Burundian government should mark the anniversary by demonstrating its commitment to ending impunity for the killings at Gatumba and other grave crimes against unarmed civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
The main group of attackers was the predominantly Hutu National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL). The FNL, one of the last Burundian rebel groups to disarm, became a political party in 2009. However, some FNL fighters have remained active, both in Burundi and in eastern Congo.
Soon after the massacre, the FNL claimed responsibility for the attack. Its spokesperson at the time, Pasteur Habimana, justified it by claiming the camp was sheltering combatants and that the refugees were armed. He also implied that the attack was a response to the killings of thousands of civilians in Burundi in previous years and invoked the right to self-defense. Several years later, though, he denied saying that the FNL had been responsible for the massacre.
In 2004 the Burundian authorities issued arrest warrants for Habimana and for the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, but neither man was arrested. Rwasa and Habimana both live in Burundi, and their whereabouts are well known. Habimana is a leading member of a branch of the FNL that is close to the ruling party in Burundi.
The 10-year anniversary of the massacre comes just three months after Burundi adopted a law establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed between 1962 and 2008. Tens of thousands of people were killed in Burundi during this period, many in ethnically targeted attacks. While there were numerous large-scale killings during the war, which began in 1993, the Gatumba massacre stands out as one of the largest attacks in more recent years.
The 2014 law does not provide for the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the most serious crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
“The absence of provisions for a special tribunal in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission law was a missed opportunity for ending impunity and bringing closure to decades of suffering,” Bekele said. “But the lack of a special tribunal doesn’t exonerate the government from its responsibility to deliver justice to survivors and victims’ families through the court system.”
Despite the lack of large-scale ethnic killings in Burundi in recent years, political violence has persisted. Scores of people died in politically motivated killings between 2010 and 2012, in the aftermath of the 2010 elections. Many victims were FNL members or former members perceived to be close to Rwasa’s faction, killed by state security agents or people linked to the ruling party. Suspected members of the FNL and other armed groups also targeted members of the ruling party in reprisal attacks. The majority of these crimes have gone unpunished.
In neighboring Congo, tensions between the Banyamulenge and other Congolese ethnic groups persist and have led to brutal attacks on all sides.
On October 4, 2011, fighters from the Mai Mai Yakutumba, a largely ethnic Babembe Congolese armed group, ambushed and killed seven Banyamulenge humanitarian workers, singling them out on the basis of their ethnicity, in Kalungwe, South Kivu.
On June 6, 2014, at least 30 civilians were killed at Mutarule, in South Kivu, amid rising tensions between the Bafuliro, another Congolese ethnic group, and the Banyamulenge and the Barundi, who are related to the people of Burundi. Most of the victims were from the Bafuliro ethnic group.