A sign welcoming visitors to Murwi, a commune in Burundi’s northwestern province of Cibitoke. Burundian military and police summarily executed at least 47 members of an armed group who had surrendered in Murwi and Bukinanyana communes between December 30, 2014, and January 3, 2015.

© 2015 Human Rights Watch

On the night of Dec. 29, members of an unidentified armed group crossed the Rusizi River from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Burundi. According to local residents, some 100 to 150 well-armed men slipped across the murky river into the hills. The morning after they crossed, the armed group fought with soldiers of the Burundian National Defence Force and police in the country’s westernmost province, Cibitoke. In the four or five days that followed, the fighters scattered and broke up into groups while being hunted by the army and the police. There were some clashes and the Burundian security forces said they killed at least 95 members of the group. Two Burundian soldiers and two civilians also died.

Col. Gaspard Baratuza, the spokesman for the military, said on Jan. 5 that all the fighters who died were killed in combat. But by then word was spreading through phone calls and messages from the hills, saying that the military had executed a large number of the fighters after they surrendered. Baratuza, in a news conference in Cibitoke, denied it: “To say that [some people] were executed after putting down their weapons with their hands in the air, I say and I repeat: The military are professional and know what they are doing. They cannot do that. I am absolutely certain.”

If the Burundian military were responsible for summary executions, however, parts of the more than $60 million in U.S. annual funding to the Burundian army would be called into question. This would not be based on the decision of an individual in the U.S. Army or State Department, but rather on congressional triggers via the Leahy Law, which is designed to prevent U.S. assistance to units responsible for human rights violations.

In mid-January I sat in a local detention center in Cibitoke with five captured members of the group, all of whom said they had been led to Congo with the promise of work and claimed they were not aware that they were expected to join an armed group. One of them, a skinny 18-year-old with hollow eyes, told me that his group’s intention was to establish a base in the Kibira forest, in western Burundi. From there, they would “wage war” on the Burundian government. He explained that he had been in Congo for a month, but that he had never fired a gun during his training. Another detainee, 26 years old, bore a large machete scar on his head from the fighting. The captured fighters all knew they were lucky to be alive.

During the 17 days I spent interviewing local residents, I learned that between Dec. 30 and Jan. 3 the Burundian army and police summarily executed at least 47 members of the group who had surrendered. Armed members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure, also participated in the killings. Residents said they saw military and police give some Imbonerakure firearms; other Imbonerakure carried machetes.

The executions were committed in front of scores of villagers. I spoke with over 50 people, 32 of whom had witnessed these events; all interviews were conducted anonymously. They described how the fighters clearly surrendered and put down their weapons before the security forces gunned them down.

Rugano, one of the locations where the executions allegedly took place, is an isolated village at the top of a steep hill only accessible by motorcycle. One of several Rugano residents told me he saw the military and police execute six members of the armed group on the bank of the Kaburantwa River in the valley below the village. “The rebels were hiding in a small bush,” he said. “They were surrounded. The police and military were saying, ‘Come out, come out! We will not do anything to you!’” When the rebels surrendered, the soldiers tied them up with their arms behind their backs. He said: “Then the police and soldiers pushed them to the ground and told us all to leave…. I started to move back and I heard a succession of single shots…. I returned to see the bodies. I saw two straightaway. Both had been shot in the head.”

This sequence of events was replicated in other locations. In one of the most serious incidents, soldiers and police captured and gunned down 17 members of the armed group in Kibindi forest — the furthest the fighters got between the Rusizi River and the Kibira forest — on Jan. 2. The 17 men had surrendered after a brief exchange of fire. A local resident who followed the fighting told me, “The soldiers were shouting, ‘Come out peacefully! We will not hurt you! If you don’t, we will come and find you down there!’ The rebels came out, some in small groups, others one by one, with their guns above their heads.”

The fighters surrendered with their hands up, another witness said. Some handed their guns to the soldiers, pleading with the soldiers not to kill them. The witness told me: “When the rebels were tied up on the road, the police and soldiers took photos of them with their telephones…. They lined them up on the road. Then they shot them all in a line. It was a barrage of bullets…. On the side of the road there is a cliff, and the rebels fell down.”

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Burundi’s history has been marked by violent conflict.

The assassination of democratically elected President Melchior Ndadaye — from Burundi’s majority Hutu ethnic group — in 1993 sparked a civil war that followed mainly ethnic lines between the Tutsi-dominated army and the Hutus. The conflict lasted more than 10 years and claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. The largest rebel movement, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), entered into a formal cease-fire in 2003 and won the 2005 and 2010 elections. Despite significant moves toward multiparty democracy since 2005, many political and military actors in Burundi continue to speak and act as if violence were the only avenue for gaining political power. 

Burundian armed groups still operate in neighboring Congo, taking advantage of its relative lawlessness and launching sporadic attacks in Burundi.

Most of the recent violence in Burundi has taken the form of targeted assassinations of real or perceived opponents of the CNDD-FDD. Common to almost all these cases is the impunity protecting the perpetrators, particularly when they are believed to be linked to the security forces or the ruling party. With a near-total monopoly on power following the 2010 elections, the ruling party continues to lash out not only at political opponents, but also at civil society activists and journalists who expose human rights abuses. Repression of opponents is increasing as the May and June 2015 elections approach.

If the alleged executions in Cibitoke can be proven, however, a line that could change the country’s relationship with the United States will have been crossed.

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Burundi’s army benefits from U.S. support under the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, which aims to increase African capacity to fight terrorism and to prevent, mitigate, and resolve crises, conflict, and regional instability. Since 2007, Burundi has also received U.S. bilateral aid for its peacekeepers taking part in the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). In 2014, U.S. support for Burundi’s National Defense Force was projected at $63.5 million.

From the U.S. perspective, assistance to AMISOM may be viewed as a worthwhile investment in African forces willing to take on al-Shabab, the armed Islamist group fighting in Somalia. But from Burundi’s standpoint, the African Union mission is a cash cow. Burundian soldiers who pass through the training program and serve in Somalia get higher salaries than they would at home. Despite the risks associated with deployment in Somalia — al-Shabab has killed a number of peacekeepers, including Burundians — soldiers from Burundi are still pleased to join AMISOM.

A Burundian journalist friend once drove me around the country’s capital, Bujumbura, showing me all the brand-new houses built by returned soldiers. “Every Burundian soldier wants to go to Somalia,” he said.

The recent summary executions in Cibitoke should complicate this mutually beneficial relationship.

The Leahy Law requires that “No assistance shall be furnished … to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” The Leahy Law is an essential component of U.S. foreign policy. While its vetting process could be strengthened, at its core it is designed to prevent human rights abusers from receiving U.S. assistance, to keep the U.S. government from becoming complicit in foreign human rights abuses, and to serve as a tool for producing change.

A confidential source told a colleague at Human Rights Watch that the soldiers sent to fight in Cibitoke may have included some who had recently returned from Somalia and who would therefore have received U.S. funds or training. The military spokesman would not meet with Human Rights Watch to confirm this. Over the phone, he instead referred us to what he had already said on the public record — in short, that no surrendered fighters had been executed, that all those who died were killed in combat, and that the Burundian army was a professional army that knows its human rights obligations. When Human Rights Watch met the chief of staff of the National Defense Force in March, he too denied that the military had executed any combatants who had surrendered.

The accounts of extrajudicial executions by Burundian soldiers are serious enough that the U.S. government should urgently investigate whether any of the soldiers involved were recipients of U.S. support or training. If they were, it wouldn’t be the only cause for concern in the conduct of the U.S.-trained Burundian military. In 2014 Human Rights Watch found that some Burundian, as well as Ugandan, peacekeepers in Somalia had raped and sexually exploited vulnerable Somali women and girls on their contingent base in Mogadishu. The women and girls told Human Rights Watch they were raped or approached for sex while seeking much-needed medical assistance or water on the base. The Burundian military and the African Union opened investigations into these abuses in late 2014, but there have been no arrests. In March 2015, the Burundian Ministry of Defense presented the main findings of the investigation and stated that it had found no evidence of these abuses by Burundian peacekeepers.

The United States should also vet any future Burundian beneficiaries of ACOTA to ensure that members of the Burundian security forces who participated in the Cibitoke executions, or other gross human rights violations, are excluded from the program. Under the Leahy Law, the United States has procedures to ensure that it has a list of all security force units receiving U.S. training or assistance and that it can identify the units involved when there is credible information of gross violations. The law stipulates that the U.S. government should identify units that have committed gross violations and suspend assistance to those units if they were U.S.-trained or supported. It can only resume assistance if a report is made to Congress showing that the government in question is “taking effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.”

“Taking effective steps” is a flexible concept in Burundi. The killings in Cibitoke are part of a string of extrajudicial executions by Burundian security forces going back many years. In the past, expressions of concern by donor governments have, alongside other forms of pressure, led to the creation of commissions of inquiry by Burundian judicial authorities. But these commissions have often been politicized, with some attempting to shield those responsible for abuses and discredit information from human rights groups. In the rare cases in which their work has led to arrests of suspects, legal processes have been seriously flawed.

In February 2015, the day after Human Rights Watch published its findings, the Burundian prosecutor general announced the creation of a commission of inquiry to investigate the events in Cibitoke. The commission was given one month to complete its work, but that deadline has recently been extended by an additional month. The United States could offer assistance to that inquiry — in the form of investigators, technical expertise, or logistic support, for example — to enhance its independence and effectiveness. But the test will lie in the subsequent stages: Will those responsible for the Cibitoke killings and their commanders be made to face trial?

The onus is on the United States to ensure that members of U.S.-trained army units who may have committed summary executions are brought to justice. With the Burundian army holding firm against the truth, this may be difficult. The United States may have to be prepared to turn off the cash.