On the Brink of War

In Burundi, more than a quarter of a million people have fled in terror as opposition militias plot their return
September 15 2016 | by

Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations, has been struggling to emerge from a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war. Burundi is a landlocked country in the African Great Lakes region, and is bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962, it has been plagued by tension between the usually-dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. In 1994 Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, became the first president to be chosen in democratic elections since the start of Burundi’s civil war, but the country has been in turmoil since April 2015 when Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term in office.

For over a year now, the political tensions have sparked bloody street protests and a failed coup attempt, and the country is facing its worst crisis since the end of a civil war in 2003. More than a quarter of a million people have fled their homes, 240,000 of them as refugees in neighboring countries Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Human rights abuses have included waves of arrests and around 600 extrajudicial killings of opponents of Nkurunziza’s third term. The rule of law is severely compromised to the point that the Catholic Church is threatened. “Not a day goes by where accusations are not made on the alleged ‘interference of the Church’ in national politics,” a source told Fides News in April. That same month the UN Security Council approved a resolution paving the way for a UN police force to be deployed in Burundi, but sources in the country were sceptical that it could help when the government has appeared to have little commitment to peace and reconciliation. Peace negotiations due to start in May 2016 were postponed.

Church targeted

The Catholic Church is influential in Burundi, where around two-thirds of the population is Catholic, and 

has been at the forefront of humanitarian and peace initiatives. This has not endeared it to Nkurunziza’s government. After a visit to Burundi at the beginning of this year, a Catholic aid official urged the government of Burundi not to threaten the Catholic Church which, he said, plays “an important role in peace building in Burundi.” It followed accusations by Pascal Nyabenda, president of the National Assembly (the lower chamber of Parliament), that the Catholic Church was playing a “purely political, not spiritual role.” Patrick Nicholson, communications director of Caritas Internationalis, pointed out that the Church’s “calls for dialogue between all sides of the conflict were aimed at bringing an end to a political and economic crisis that is causing suffering and increasing poverty in Burundi.” He added that “Burundi’s leaders must step away from the abyss, and the only way to do that is through a negotiated settlement.” The Catholic Church “gives crucial support to agriculture, schooling, and multiple social services, including health care,” said Nicholson, and warned that, “people would face great hardships if the Church’s work was discontinued.”

Mass graves

Burundi’s bishops’ conference has said the country’s future will depend on discussions “between politicians with a vision for the country, who love the nation and its citizens more than their own interests.” In April, they deplored “continuing killings and disappearances of people whose bodies were discovered in mass graves.” Bishop Bonaventure Nahimana of Rutana described the Burundi situation as “one of the most acute crises in the world, and unless we act now, there is a heightened risk of genocide, of the fighting spreading to neighboring countries and of an apocalyptic displacement of people”.

Fr. Jean Bosco Nintunze, secretary general of Caritas Burundi, reported in April that the Justice and Peace Commission of the Burundian Church has been forced to stop working, but that Caritas work was continuing. He reflected that “many Church leaders are urging the president to start inclusive talks with the opposition; they criticise the regime’s crackdown on civil society, and risk their lives for doing so.” He added that “the situation is deteriorating by the day” and said “Pray for us.”

Fleeing the violence

The President and Secretary General of Caritas Burundi led a delegation to Tanzania at the end of May to show solidarity with more than 135,000 Burundian refugees who had fled there. They visited the refugee camps of Nyarugusu and Nduta as guests of Caritas Kigoma and delivered money for medical and food assistance.

Nearly 80,000 Burundian refugees are in Rwanda, with nearly 50,000 of them in the sprawling Mahama refugee camp, where Caritas Rwanda is delivering humanitarian assistance. The Rwandan government has said, however, that it will relocate the refugees to other countries due to tension between itself and the government in the Burundian capital Bujumbura. Burundi has accused Rwanda of arming and training opponents of President Nkurunziza, although Rwanda denies this. Caritas Rwanda is working in areas where no other non-governmental organisations are present, and is focusing on caring for the elderly, the disabled, the sick and breast-feeding mothers. It offers income-generating projects and the protection of women and young girls from gender-based threats.

Fear and hunger

Fear stalks Burundi. “Everyone is scared,” says Joan, a resident in one of the flash points of Bujumbura. “By 6.00 pm the shops are closed, the streets are empty and we’re at home, hiding”. Joan is frightened “because we’ve witnessed the killings.” In addition to fear, Burundi’s humanitarian needs are vast, and the country is in desperate need of peace and development. Burundi relies on international aid for a fifth of its national income, and the last thing it needs is more conflict and civil disruption.

The children of Burundi, who account for half of a population of ten million people, live in a country where most of the population survive on less than $1 a day. According to data reported from the Global Hunger Index, three out of five children suffer from stunting. The most recent harvests have been poor, and food prices have gone up, making it harder for families to feed their children. In addition, access to basic services such as health and education are out of reach for most. Violence in and around schools keeps growing, and the living conditions of children have deteriorated drastically over the past year. More than 200 children have been captured and imprisoned with adult offenders. Others are fleeing entrapment into government militias.

Risk of genocide

In January, international Caritas organisations met in Bujumbura to plan the scaling up of the emergency response, including supporting young men through farming and helping the Church’s network of medical centers, which have treated victims of the violence, for free. At that time, Caritas Burundi President Bishop Bonaventure Nahimana called for extra vigilance given the history of a country which has suffered two genocides and a 13-year civil war in the past half a century.

Already in bad shape, relations between Burundi and Rwanda deterioratedfurther in March after a former Rwandan minister died in jail in Burundi, having been arrested for espionage. Then tensions escalated in May when Rwandan President Paul Kagame denied allegations by UN experts that his country is in fact continuing to support rebels in neighbouring Burundi. The report accused Rwanda of providing training, as well as financial and logistical support throughout 2016 for rebels seeking to overthrow President Nkurunziza.

Updated on September 28 2016
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