Ask anyone in Bujumbura and they will tell you the same thing: dark days lie ahead.
In the last two days, neighborhoods in Burundi’s capital worst hit by recent violence have started to empty, following warnings by President Pierre Nkurunziza, Minister of Public Security Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, and other officials that people should hand in their weapons by November 7 or face the consequences.
Burundians take these warnings seriously, having seen relatives, friends, and neighbors shot dead by the police during nightly raids. Panic has set in, and some residents of Bujumbura have been packing up their belongings and fleeing.
The latest victim was Welly Nzitonda, 28, a driver who lived in Mutakura neighborhood. The police stopped him yesterday morning as he tried to leave and took him away. His body was found later, with initial reports indicating that a police officer shot him dead.
Nzitonda’s death is the latest devastating blow for his father, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, Burundi’s best-known human rights activist and president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH). Mbonimpa, in his late 60s, narrowly escaped death when a gunman, whom Mbonimpa recognized as someone who worked with the intelligence services, shot him in the face in August.
On October 9, Mbonimpa’s son-in-law, Pascal Nshimirimana, was shot dead as he was driving to his house in Bujumbura. Nshimirimana, a businessman, was not involved in human rights work or political activities. His family is convinced he was targeted because of his father-in-law’s work.
How much more suffering and violence can one family bear? Mbonimpa is a principled and fearless activist who never hesitates to denounce abuses by all sides. Is this the price for speaking the truth?
Judging by the foreboding tone of official speeches – warning people that when the “authorization” is given, the operation will start – more people are likely to be killed. Political opponents have engaged in armed violence too, killing and injuring policemen. The police have responded without restraint, in repeated instances forcing residents out of their homes and shooting them dead. In many cases, there is no evidence these residents were connected with the attacks on the police.
The police have a duty to restore security and disarm people who have weapons illegally, and they can use lethal force when lives are at imminent risk. But that does not give them a license to kill.
Nkurunziza and the Burundian government should urgently rein in the security forces. The looming November 7 deadline does not have to be the prelude to more horror. The government can still pull the country back from the brink.