My first book, Titanic Express, focusses on the death of my sister Charlotte in a massacre in Burundi in December 2000. To give some background on my involvement in the recently launched “Stop Funding Hate” campaign, I wanted to share this excerpt (p42).
There was a knock on the door around three that afternoon. The tactful and sympathetic man on the doorstep was from the Daily Mail, and he was asking to speak to Mrs. Wilson. He told my mother how sorry he was to intrude at such a difficult time, but he had a letter that he would like to give her. Would she be prepared to look at the letter, have a think about what it said and then give him her answer in around an hour? My mother agreed.
The letter from the man from the Mail offered his condolences, and asked if my mother would be willing to give an interview to his newspaper about Charlotte’s life. When he returned an hour later, my mother invited him in, sat him down, and calmly explained why she simply couldn’t do it.
She told him that she was an English teacher, and for the last ten years she had been working with people who’d fled from some of the world’s most troubled countries. Iranians and Iraqis, Congolese, Somalis, Bosnians and Kosovans, Turkish Kurds, Eritreans and Ethiopians – even a couple of Burundians had made it into her classroom. All had lost some members of their family – some had lost everyone.
Several were still receiving treatment for the torture they had suffered. Those who were allowed to work at all had grinding, menial jobs. Large numbers faced the prospect of being forcibly returned to the warzones they had fled, amid government protestations that these countries were “safe”.
She had lost count of the number of times a student had mentioned in class that another loved one back home had been killed. And she had lost count of the number of newspaper articles she had seen portraying refugees as liars, cheats, frauds, “bogus” people.
When the stories had first begun, in the mid 1990s, my mother had dismissed them. But then they’d continued, year after year, painting a picture that she just could not recognise of the desperate, traumatised people that she worked with every day. She and her colleagues had begun to wonder if there was something more complicated going on. It hadn’t escaped their attention that so many of these stories were emanating from the Daily Mail, and its sister paper the Evening Standard. My mother had seen the effect of these stories on government policy, and she’d seen the effect of those increasingly harsh policies on her students. She would feel she was betraying them now if she had anything to do with the Daily Mail.
The man from the Mail took this so well that I felt quite sorry for him. More than anything, though, I felt proud of my mother. I knew something of the horrors she had heard from her students over the years, and the effect she herself had suffered from being so close to such suffering. I knew how angry she had been about the distortion and duplicity of newspapers like the Daily Mail. And yet, just three days after suffering one of the worst blows of her life, faced with a representative of an organisation that she and most of her colleagues regarded as something close to “hate media”, she’d shown a calmness and dignity that I found quite extraordinary.
Choir at the UK commemoration of the August 13th 2004 Gatumba massacre
On the 12th anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, the UN has warned that Burundi is again facing the prospect of genocide – amid “systematic torture directed towards certain political and ethnic groups”.
The UN has also spoken out against the worrying escalation in “genocidal rhetoric”.
There’s a more detailed briefing from Amnesty International here on the deteriorating situation.
On a warm summer’s day in Amsterdam, many years ago, I had a small moment of revelation about what it means to be English.
It was England vs Denmark – our fourth game of the 2002 World Cup. We’d beaten Argentina in the group stages, avenging the defeat that sent us crashing out in 1998. And despite the six more years of hurt that had passed since “Football’s Coming Home” became England’s unofficial national anthem, I still believed we could go all the way.
I was in a bar, watching the game with my girlfriend. Being Belgian, Heleen shared neither my enthusiasm nor optimism about the match, but gamely indulged me. We’d been together less than a year, still in the phase of happily tolerating each other’s foibles.
It felt like a good time to be English. If the 90s notion of “Cool Britannia” had lost some of its charm, I still had the sense of a nation that was far more hopeful, outward-looking and at ease with itself than during my childhood – an era punctuated by strikes, riots, and IRA bomb attacks.
And it was a glorious game – England were 1-0 up within five minutes, when Sorensen fumbled a header from Rio Ferdinand. Michael Owen made it 2-0 soon afterwards. Heskey scored a third just before half time.
The match finished 3-0. As we emerged into the sunshine, we found ourselves in a beautiful Amsterdam square filled with crowds of cheering, white-clad, England fans.
“Ingalund, Inglalund, Ingalund!” sang the English, raising their beer glasses in the summer air.
“Ingalund, Ingalund, Inga-laa-und!”
“Ingalund, Ingaland, Ingalund!”
We smiled and nodded.
Then they turned their attention to the increasingly-uncomfortable non-English audience passing through the square.
“If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!”, sang my compatriots, referencing – arguably somewhat simplistically – the role played by England during World War II.
“If it wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts!”.
By this point, my Belgian girlfriend was pretty uncomfortable too.
“Stand UP… if you’re Ingalund!”, they shouted
“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”
“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”
“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”
As they looked around the square, trying to make eye contact and gesturing for us to stand with them, I knew I had far more of an affinity – far more of a sense of solidarity and kinship – with the awkward Dutch passers-by, and the beautiful Belgian I was with, than with my drunk English compatriots.
The June 23rd referendum on Britain’s EU membership looks likely to be very tight. For sensible, pragmatic reasons, much of the debate has centred around the argument that Britain – and England – will be safer and more prosperous within the European Union than outside it.
But I know that in practice – as with last year’s referendum on Scottish independence – for many English people this vote will partly be about how we see ourselves as a nation.
There is an idea of England, and Englishness, that emphasises our separateness – that will always define itself in opposition to the rest of Europe, distrusting the French and the Germans, and patronising the Belgians, Scots, Welsh, Irish, and Dutch. An idea of England defined, perhaps above all else, by the defeat of Germany in “two World Wars and one World Cup”.
This version of our national identity is expressed so loudly, brashly, and frequently, that it can start to seem like the only way. Either you “stand up” and join the white-clad drunks hurling chauvinistic abuse at random passers-by, or you vacate the square.
But there is another way of thinking about English identity – one that can be outward-looking, not insular, despite our island status. An idea of Englishness that, rather than augmenting differences, emphasises our closeness to – and solidarity with – our European neighbours.
Amid the jingoistic focus on vanquished Germans, it’s worth remembering that the starting point for British engagement in World War I was the commitment to support our allies in Belgium – while our role in World War II began with a decision to defend the Poles.
In myriad ways, Britain, and England, have been actively engaged with the rest of Europe for centuries. It seems to me that our EU membership can be seen as the natural – and happily now far more peaceful – continuation of this.
So on June 23rd I will “stand up”. But I’ll be standing up for a very different kind of England than that represented by my brash, beer-swilling compatriots, long ago in that square in Amsterdam.
In voting Remain, I’ll be standing up for an England at ease with its identity as a European nation – and for an idea of Englishness based on co-operation and respect, not division and chauvinism.
I’ll also be standing up for the beautiful Belgian who is now my wife – and for our two young children, who are as at home on the continent as they are here in London.
Eyewitness: “I’m afraid that today a lot of people could be killed in Burundi”
Yesterday I ran the London marathon with my sister Catherine. We were doing this in memory of our older sister Charlotte, who was killed in a vicious massacre in Burundi in December 2000. As I ran I was acutely conscious that, fifteen years on, many more lives are now at risk in Burundi today.
National elections are due in the next few months, and the ruling party CNDD-FDD seems determined to suppress dissent, and prevent its rivals from contesting the election effectively. In the run-up to the elections, CNDD-FDD has been brutally attacking opposition parties, and harassing human rights activists and the independent media.
In recent weeks, thousands have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, reporting violence and threats from the ruling party’s armed youth militia, the Imbonerakure. Yesterday a number of deaths were reported at anti-government protests in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Today it has been reported that Burundi’s iconic human rights campaigner Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has been arrested (following a long spell in detention last year), and arrest warrants issued for other leading activists.
The European Union – and a number of EU member states, in particular the Netherlands – are deeply implicated in the crisis now facing Burundi. The CNDD-FDD-led government is heavily bankrolled by the Netherlands and the European Commission aid programme, to the extent that the government would struggle to cling to power if this support was withdrawn.
In theory, European Commission aid money is conditional on recipient governments respecting the “Cotonou Agreement” – which commits signatories to tackling corruption, respecting human rights, and upholding the rule of law.
In practice, the European Commission has continued to fund the Burundian government despite mounting evidence of torture, extrajudicial killings, attacks on the media, and endemic corruption.
As ever, the lack of global attention on Burundi is an exacerbating factor. The country receives little media coverage at the best of times – but with so many other crises taking place right now there is a danger that Burundi will slip even lower down the international agenda.
CNDD-FDD appears to be counting on the fact that – as has happened in Burundi so many times before – it can commit acts of violence and repression without any great international outcry.
The European Commission, too, seems unlikely to change course unless it is forced to do so by the weight of public opinion.
But pressure has started to increase. Last year, Members of the European Parliament issued a strongly-worded statement denouncing the Burundian government’s abuses, and calling for “a clear and principled EU policy vis a vis Burundi that addresses the on-going serious human rights violations”. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, condemned the EU’s “weak” stance on Burundi.
Burundians in Europe have been contacting their MEPs urging them to press the European Commission to use its influence to help end the Burundian government’s repression. If you have a moment to support this call, please write to your MEPs via www.theyworkforyou.com.
Messy, chaotic – but a breakthrough nonetheless: Ten years after his troops massacred over 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a UNHCR camp in Burundi, ex-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa this week received a court summons to answer questions over the attack.
This follows a long and determined campaign by survivors and relatives of the dead, which included the submission, in August last year, of a criminal complaint against Agathon Rwasa and his former spokesman, Pasteur Habimana. That in itself was a momentous achievement amid Burundi’s volatile and corrupt political landscape – where impunity is the norm and not one political leader has yet faced justice over the many massacres that took place during Burundi’s ten-year civil war. Over the past year, the Gatumba case has been stopped and restarted by the Burundian authorities, with the campaigners facing down pressure for them to drop the charges. The government’s shambolic handling of the case has continued this week, with Rwasa arriving at court to be told that the hearing had been postponed without explanation. Yet this is still the closest that the former FNL leader has yet come to facing justice over the mass-killings he has committed – and Pasteur Habimana has already appeared at the court four times.
Readers of this blog will know that I have a very personal interest in this issue – four years before the Gatumba massacre – in December 2000 – FNL troops under the command of Agathon Rwasa ambushed a bus close to the Burundian capital and killed 21 of the passengers – including my sister Charlotte and her fiancé Richard Ndereyimana. Like Gatumba, the attack was genocidal in character – Hutu passengers were released unharmed, with a message for the authorities: “We’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”.
Yet the Gatumba campaigners have shown that there is something you can do when a crime like this is committed – even in Burundi.
Agathon Rwasa’s supporters and sympathisers have sought to portray the case as a politically-motivated conspiracy by the Burundian ruling party to undermine their leader’s electoral ambitions.
This conveniently paints out of the picture the huge efforts that the Gatumba survivors have made – the pressures they have faced and the obstacles they have surmounted – in getting this case to court. It also ignores, again, the central fact of this case – the 160 living, breathing human beings – half of them children – whose lives were extinguished by Agathon Rwasa’s men on August 13th 2004. They are the reason that Rwasa is now, at last, facing some measure of justice.
Sandra Uwiringiyimana, who at the age of 10 narrowly survived the Gatumba massacre in August 2004, has given a moving testimony to the UN Security (video here), concluding with this eloquent plea for justice:
“That is my story. I will tell it to anyone who will listen. Not because it is easy. Every time I tell it I am back in Gatumba, a ten-year-old in a burning tent.
But as long as the criminal who admitted to leading that massacre continues to walk freely in the streets of Burundi, I have no choice. I must keep telling it. Until the international community proves my words are not only worthy of empathy, but also of accountability. Until leaders like you and the countries you represent show me that my family and all the others are not disposable.
The only way to do that is by bringing people like Agathon Rwasa to justice. Only then will war criminals know that their crimes are wrong, and will not go unpunished. Only then will millions of survivors like me hear loud and clear that our lives have value.”
In August 2004 over 150 Congolese Tutsi refugees were massacred at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Over half of those killed were children, shot, hacked and burned to death in what survivors believe amounted to an act of genocide.
The Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL claimed responsibility shortly afterwards, with eyewitness evidence suggesting that other extremist groups were also involved, including Rwanda’s FDLR and the Congolese Mai-Mai militia. Yet ten years on nothing has been done to prosecute those responsible, despite strong international condemnation and a UN Resolution calling for justice.
Survivors marked this year’s 10th anniversary by renewing their call for the former FNL leader Agathon Rwasa and spokesman Pasteur Habimana to face trial over the attack. Campaigners held commemoration events across the world – from Burundi, Congo and Kenya to Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and the United States.
My personal connection to this issue is that Rwasa’s FNL is also believed to have been behind the December 2000 Titanic Express massacre in which my sister Charlotte was killed. I was present at both the UK and Netherlands-based commemoration events.
In the US, survivors Sandra Uwiringiyimanya and Adele Kibasumba, gave a powerful TV interview about their experiences.
“The biggest thing is that someone who committed this crime is out there, and nobody cares enough to say – ‘hey this is not right’. And it’s like their lives were lost in vain…” Sandra told WXXI News.
“It’s that much more heartbreaking knowing that you didn’t only lose loved ones, but to top it off the person that committed the crime is living like a king”.
“The United Nations, and the international community… for us, the survivors it has been nothing but silence, and I think that they have ignored the massacre”, Adele added. “We want justice. Knowing that they know who did it and they’re not acting – it’s silence and ignorance to me.”
“The Gatumba massacre was a direct and deliberate attack on unarmed civilians,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The killings have been well-documented, yet 10 years later, no one has been prosecuted.”
The Burundian government should mark the anniversary by demonstrating its commitment to ending impunity for the killings at Gatumba and other grave crimes against unarmed civilians, Human Rights Watch said…
The 10-year anniversary of the massacre comes just three months after Burundi adopted a law establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed between 1962 and 2008. Tens of thousands of people were killed in Burundi during this period, many in ethnically targeted attacks. While there were numerous large-scale killings during the war, which began in 1993, the Gatumba massacre stands out as one of the largest attacks in more recent years.
The 2014 law does not provide for the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the most serious crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
“The absence of provisions for a special tribunal in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission law was a missed opportunity for ending impunity and bringing closure to decades of suffering,” Bekele said. “But the lack of a special tribunal doesn’t exonerate the government from its responsibility to deliver justice to survivors and victims’ families through the court system.”
The anniversary was covered by a range of media, including Radio France International, the Huffington Post, Radio Okapi, Afrik.com and South Africa’s Times Live, along with a post that I wrote for Amnesty UK’s blogs platform.
In the Huffington Post, Obadias Ndaba suggests that a misguided notion of “political stability” may be behind the failure to hold to account Agathon Rwasa and others suspected of involvement in Gatumba.
Mr. Rwasa, whose organization has long been labelled a terrorist group by African leaders, recently announced that he will be running for President of Burundi in 2015. This will be his second attempt at the position, as he ran in 2010 and lost. In 2008, Mr. Rwasa transformed his militia into a political party, but by 2011 he was still carrying out armed attacks against civilians. Yes, there are countries where mass murderers can run for the highest office of the land…
The fact that someone like Agathon Rwasa is free and able to run for public office twice is beyond a mere sign of dysfunction and lawlessness in central African nations — notably Burundi and Congo — it is a failure of the international community, too. The international community, with its outsized influence in the region, has lost much of its credibility by standing idly by and letting monsters roam in the name of “regional stability.”
Seeing the charred bodies, blackened by smoke, women survivors begin to scream in despair, crying bitterly. A young man who had managed to escape by tearing the tent cries in front of the remains of his mother. The lifeless body of his little sister was unrecognizable: it was all black, burns were deep, the bones of the fingers and part of the tibia were visible, her face half burnt.
A few brave men were eager to cover all the burned or mutilated bodies. Most had apparently been killed with a machete: the cuts were deep, gaping injuries. The circling flies, like vultures at the sight of prey, had already appeared over these dead bodies.
Cries of pain are amplified by the discovery of others killed horribly. We begged ‘Nyagasani’ God in Kinyarwanda. Among these people there who had their skulls crushed, others had been stabbed, very few had been shot. Shredded bodies gave the impression that the killers had used grenades before setting fire to the tents housing the Banyamulenge.
Even those who thought they were tough did not hold back their tears at the sight of a mother and two babies, twins, all hacked to death, lying in a pool of blood.
Among the horrific images of the carnage of unprecedented brutality, there is also this young mother killed at close range with a bullet in the back while trying perhaps to protect her baby, using her body as shield.
Her arms remain wide, frozen in a gesture of supplication or invocation. Not a chance her baby will be killed by a bullet in the head: a big hole in a tiny skull.
A cameraman for Reuters, Jean Pierre Harerimana, finds me sobbing in a corner. I could not imagine how man could be capable of such animosity: to kill, you must first kill something in yourself, your own humanity. The poor cameraman told me that he had not been able to take any pictures. He looked incessantly at the side of his lens to see what was wrong. “Everything is in order, it may be that your lens is broken,” I replied to calm him. Big tears dripped from his eyes. He quickly wiped them away. Not far from us, a photographer from another foreign agency was crying. Further away, anguished cries from an Isanganiro radio journalist, Chantal Gatore. “Even the great reporters are whining and sobbing face of such scenes,” says another journalist.
Rwasa attempts to un-claim responsibility for Gatumba
Following the renewed focus on Gatumba, Agathon Rwasa has given an interview to Radio France Internationale in which he now tries to disclaim responsibility for the massacre. Rwasa says that his then-spokesman Pasteur Habimana “did not consult me” when he claimed responsibility for Gatumba on behalf of the FNL, and that in doing so Habimana (who fell out with Rwasa in 2009) was speaking on his own account alone.
Rwasa does not, however, explain why, in the weeks and months after the Gatumba massacre, he and other FNL leaders did nothing to contradict Habimana’s claim that the FNL was responsible. If it was not true that the FNL had been involved in Gatumba, then for Habimana to claim that they were would seem like quite a serious error for a spokesman to make – effectively implicating his own organisation in an act of genocide. Yet it seems that Rwasa not only chose not to contradict Habimana, he allowed him to remain as the FNL spokesman for a further 5 years, only finally pushing him out in 2009 after allegations that Habimana was embezzling the group’s funds.
International pressure for justice over Gatumba and an end to Burundi’s wider culture of impunity
As Human Rights Watch observe in their statement marking the 10th anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, the Burundian government has taken no action to establish a long-promised special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
This is despite the fact that such a tribunal was agreed by all parties nearly a decade ago – and backed by a UN Resolution – as part of the accord which ended Burundi’s most recent civil war, amid widespread concerns that further atrocities are likely in future unless action is taken to hold to account those responsible for crimes such as Gatumba.
The European Commission is one of the largest international aid donors to the government of Burundi. Yet it is unclear what, if anything, it is doing to use its considerable influence, and pressure Burundi’s government to end the toxic “culture of impunity” by delivering justice over Gatumba and the many other crimes that have been committed.
The European Commission is itself notoriously lacking in transparency, but it is accountable in principle to the European Parliament. In the UK, you can find out who your Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are, and write to them, via www.writetothem.com.