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In October 1993 President Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu who had been freely and fairly elected several months before, was assassinated by Tutsi army officers. In the ensuing weeks of violence, thousands of civilians took up arms. In some cases, they protected themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods, cooperating across ethnic and political divisions. But more often groups of Hutu or Tutsi acted under the pretext of self-defense to attack persons of the other group. Hutu often followed the direction of Hutu political leaders or administrative authorities and Tutsi often attacked led by Tutsi military or civilian leaders. Tens of thousands of civilians, Hutu and Tutsi, perished in these attacks as well as in further deliberate killings by soldiers of the Tutsi-dominated Burundian army.5

From early 1994 through July 1996 successive bi-ethnic, multi-party governments tried and failed to resolve fundamental differences over governing the country. During this period, most self-defense groups ceased their activities, but a few developed into ethnically-based militia that sporadically continued the violence of late 1993. The Tutsi militia based in the capital and other urban areas (notably, Sans Echecs, "Those Who Cannot Fail" and Sans Défaite, "The Undefeated") blocked government initiatives by bringing urban life to a standstill in what were known as "dead city" (ville morte) operations. Throughout 1995 and 1996, they also drove large numbers of Hutu civilians from Bujumbura and other urban areas and defeated armed group of young Hutu, sometimes with military help. Some members of the Burundian armed forces trained the Tutsi militia and provided them firearms, ammunition, and grenades. In return, they relied on the militia to further their own political and personal interests as well as their ethnic agenda.

Major Pierre Buyoya took power in a military coup in July 1996, pledging to restore order. He brought the Tutsi militia under control, in part by incorporating many of their members into the army. Radical Tutsi protested against the signing of the Arusha Accord and attempted to revive the militia Puissance Auto-défense-Amasekanya in mid-2000 but the authorities promptly jailed some of the organizers and the effort failed.


Successful in ending militia activity, the government proved unable to suppress the largely Hutu rebel movements, the FNL and the FDD, which grew stronger after Buyoya took power. In early 1997 the FDD moved into the southern provinces of Bururi and Makamba, penetrating even Rutovu, the home commune of Buyoya and others of the military elite. The government then launched a "civilian self-defense" program which the then minister of the interior Colonel Epitace Bayaganakandi described as a voluntary and spontaneous initiative of local people seeking to protect themselves.6 But in many communities authorities compelled local residents to engage in the nightly patrols, ordinarily with soldiers but sometimes alone. In some parts of the country, most or all Hutu adult males were required to participate, but Tutsi were often excused. Hutu with money or ties to authorities could also escape the onerous work. Those designated to serve received no indication of how long their participation would be required. According to witnesses from Cibitoke, Muramvya, Kayanza, and Karuzi provinces, anyone who refused to do this work after being designated for it by the administrators would be punished by authorities, either by beatings, fines, or short-term imprisonment. Resisters could also be accused of supporting the rebellion, a charge which could lead to long prison terms or even summary execution. According to witnesses from Cibitoke, even those who participated regularly could be beaten or fined as much as 5,000 Burundian francs (U.S.$6) for missing one night of patrols or for falling asleep on duty. Participants ordinarily patrolled unarmed or armed only with traditional weapons.7

Arms Training for Tutsi

In response to further demands for action from radical Tutsi politicians, military authorities launched another component of the "self-defense" program.8 They invited Tutsi to training sessions to learn to use firearms. One perceptive observer described this part of the "civilian self-defense" program as "organized disorder" (desordre organisée), intended to limit the training to Tutsi alone. Information about the sessions was passed by word of mouth rather than publicly announced. On one of the rare occasions when a Hutu learned of a session and tried to attend, he was turned away. Women as well as men attended the classes, held in afternoons and on Saturday mornings.9 The program operated mostly in urban areas, beginning in Bujumbura in 1997 and somewhat later in other urban areas like Gitega. There were also reports of Tutsi being trained in several rural communes in Bururi.10

In interviews with Human Rights Watch researchers, military authorities acknowledged that the sessions had taken place as recently as early 2000 but sought to minimize their importance. They also rejected the charge that the military distributed firearms to Tutsi who participated in the sessions. They said that most participants already owned their own weapons before attending the classes. They further asserted that the government was acting appropriately in training weapons owners in the responsible use of their firearms, reducing the likelihood of accidental injury or death.11 Tutsi who had taken the training might put it to use by patrolling their own neighborhoods if they deemed it necessary, but they were apparently not obliged to do so.

Although regulations require the registration of firearms, many Tutsi did not obtain the necessary authorizations for weapons they owned and kept at home. Most assumed that authorities would overlook such negligence, as in fact they did. Those who acknowledged the ownership of unregistered weapons at training sessions were apparently not subject to any sanctions.12 Far fewer Hutu dared risk unregistered ownership of firearms, fearing that discovery of such weapons would lead to accusations of being rebels in disguise.13

The weapons training conducted by Burundian soldiers exclusively for Tutsi, the tolerance of Tutsi ownership of weapons, and the patrolling by armed Tutsi of their own neighborhoods-alone or with soldiers-led Hutu politicians to charge that the military was mobilizing Tutsi civilians for the exclusive defense of their own ethnic group.14

"Guardians of the Peace"

Threatened by rebel advances in Cibitoke province military authorities took the "self-defense" program a step further by organizing armed groups of Hutu under military control. They recruited former rebels who had been captured or surrendered as well as local residents who had performed well in the patrols. Most participants were aged fifteen to thirty and were known simply as "the young men" (les jeunes or in the Kirundi version of the French, abajeunes). According to participants and other local witnesses, "young ones" worked closely with soldiers, particularly in patrolling the Kibira forest where there were a significant number of rebel bases. They generally received a month or so of military training from Burundian army officers and were permitted to use firearms when on duty. Some of them stayed at military posts, both to provide services like cooking or fetching water for soldiers and to be safe from reprisals by rebels.15 When rebel activity in the area decreased, the "young ones" were credited with having contributed substantially to this success. Subsequently military authorities established similar groups in the adjacent province of Kayanza where some seventy paramilitaries worked in each of the three communes that bordered the Kibira forest, Kabarore, Muruta, and Matongo. On several occasions in 2001, travelers along the main road to Kayanza which borders the forest saw armed civilians in groups of twenty moving along the road, presumably heading home after having spent the night patrolling in the forest. In addition, the paramilitaries in Kayanza served to guard camps for internally displaced persons.16

With the FDD advance into southern Burundi in 1997, military authorities began to organize armed paramilitary groups in the communes of Rumonge, Buyengero, and Burambi in Bururi province and later in Nyanza Lac, Vugizo, Mabanda, Kibago, and Kayogoro communes of Makamba province and in several communes of Rutana province. Known at first also as abajeunes, they were renamed "Guardians of the Peace" (gardiens de la paix) and, numbering more than three thousand, began to play a major role in fighting the rebels.17

5 Commission International d'Enquête sur les Violations des Droits de l'Homme au Burundi depuis le 21 octobre 1993, "Rapport Final," (Paris, July 1994), pp. 90, 92, 103, 148, 161, 179.

6 Human Rights Watch, Proxy Targets: Civilians in the War in Burundi, (New York, 1998), p. 116.

7 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, December 11, 2000; Human Rights Watch, Proxy Targets, p. 116.

8 Human Rights Watch, Proxy Targets, p. 115.

9 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, December 12, 1999.

10 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, December12, 1999 and Gitega, June 7 and 8, 2000; Human Rights Watch, Proxy Targets, p. 114.

11 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, December 12, 2000 and June 14, 2001. Human Rights Watch, Proxy Targets, p. 115.

12 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, June 15, 2001.

13 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, February 15, 2000.

14 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, June 15, 2001.

15 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, December 11, 2000.

16 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, May 18, 2000 and February 7, 2001; Kayanza, August 24, 2000; Human Rights Watch observation, September 9, 2001.

17 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, October 17, 2000 and June, 2001

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