More than two years have passed since Jean Bigirimana, a Burundian journalist for the newspaper Iwacu, went missing. The uncertainty surrounding his fate continues to send a chilling message to many in Burundi and highlights the impunity surrounding disappearances and other serious abuses.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that intelligence officials arrested Bigirimana on July 22, 2016, in Bugarama, 40 kilometers away from the capital, Bujumbura. In early August, two decomposed bodies were found in the Mubarazi river in Muramvya province, not far from Bugarama. One of the bodies was decapitated and the other weighed down by stones.
At the time, Willy Nyamitwe, a senior advisor to the president, tweeted that the government was deeply concerned about Bigirimana’s “mysterious disappearance” and was investigating. Yet when the two bodies turned up, no autopsies or DNA tests were conducted, and they were buried before being identified. Two years on, Nyamitwe’s words ring hollow.
For Antoine Kaburahe, Bigirimana’s colleague at Iwacu, there remains no doubt. “We can now dare to write that Jean is no longer of this world,” Kaburahe wrote this week. “They killed him.”
Bigirimana’s disappearance and possible killing fall into a pattern that has become all too typical in Burundi. Last month, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into crimes committed in Burundi since 2015 reported that “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” continue. The commission also noted that several missing people have not been found and that unidentified bodies continue to be discovered in various parts of the country, giving “reason to fear” that intelligence services and the police continue to arrest people, who they later kill before discarding the bodies.
With unidentified bodies emerging across the country, it is doubtful the government will launch an independent investigation into Bigirimana’s disappearance. But where some see despair, Kaburahe sees inspiration. He wrote that Bigirimana lives on through his colleagues who refuse to keep quiet or forget and they will honor his legacy by continuing their work. Whoever took Jean Bigirimana wanted to send a message, but his colleagues will not be deterred.