It is exactly one month since 37-year-old journalist Jean Bigirimana vanished after leaving his home in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, for Bugarama, a town about 40 kilometers away. There are unconfirmed reports that he was arrested there by members of the intelligence services, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
As the days passed without news, Jean’s young family, friends, and colleagues at Iwacu newspaper began wondering if he might be dead. The cruel nature of such cases means there’s no certainty about the victim’s fate, and no possibility of closure.
It wasn’t until Jean’s colleagues at Iwacu launched a campaign that the government ended its silence. Three days after he vanished, police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikiye flatly denied that the security forces had arrested Jean. A week later, the president’s communications advisor, Willy Nyamitwe, tweeted that the government was investigating and was deeply concerned. He implied the opposition might be responsible, and said he feared the worst.
Then, on August 5, a dead body was found in the Mubarazi river, in Muramvya – the province he’d been heading to when he vanished. There was speculation that it might be Jean’s. An intrepid team of Iwacu journalists went to the scene to investigate. Police, judicial, and intelligence officials joined them, but found nothing. On August 7, the journalists returned alone, and discovered a dead body in an inaccessible part of the river. Two days later, a second corpse was found in the river, while media reported that a third was discovered in neighboring Gitega province.
The two bodies were eventually fished out of the Mubarazi river but were badly decomposed. One had been decapitated, the other weighed down with stones. At the morgue, Jean’s wife was so overwhelmed that she was only able to look at the corpses’ hands and feet, and guessed that neither of them was Jean. The authorities made no further attempt to identify the victims or establish how they died. There were no autopsies, no DNA tests. Police simply announced that Jean was not among the two dead, and last week local officials buried the bodies.
Is that the end of the story? No. Jean’s family has the right to an investigation to determine what happened, and, if a crime took place, to see those responsible prosecuted – as do the families of the two victims, whoever they are. The Burundian authorities should launch thorough, independent investigations, if necessary calling on outside medical or scientific expertise.
Jean Bigirimana is not the only person to have been abducted or disappeared in Burundi in the past year. Let us not forget the human rights activist Marie-Claudette Kwizera, from the Burundian group Ligue Iteka, who was taken away by a vehicle thought to belong to the intelligence services last December, nor the scores of other Burundians who have disappeared or gone missing, or been found dead, with barely any reaction by the government.
All the families have a right to full, independent, and speedy investigations into what happened to their relatives. It is high time the authorities ensure this happens.