Archive for November 2010
Video piece about Charlotte’s murder – “Rights Universal”, Channel 4, 2008
*UPDATE* – Amnesty International have issued an “Urgent Action” calling for Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s release. The Committee to Protect Journalists have visited him in prison, where Jean-Claude told them that “international pressure” would be vital to secure his freedom.
It’s just short of a decade since my sister Charlotte was murdered. She was 27 – two years older than me. We had a close, if sometimes stormy, relationship, and for a long time the world felt a lot colder and less colourful than it had done before. While my life has changed a great deal since then, the nature of this sort of experience, I think, is that one never quite sees things in the same light again.
Charlotte’s death set my life on a new trajectory, of which this blog is a small part. I left my job, did a lot of campaigning, went abroad for a while, and ended up writing a book about my sister’s life and death, which in turn led to other writing opportunities. My second book, “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, covers a very different subject area, but Charlotte’s influence is there. My sister had been taking time out to teach science in a rural Rwanda school, after finishing a PhD in microbiology. She was haunted by the effect of AIDS on the community in which she was living, and planned to pursue a career in HIV research on her return to the UK. Her passion for this issue, and in particular her belief in the need to challenge the many myths around the disease – was one of the things that prompted me to look in depth at AIDS denialism when I came to write “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.
Charlotte was killed not in Rwanda, but in neighbouring Burundi. She had recently got engaged to a Burundian teacher, Richard Ndereyimana. They were travelling to meet his family when their bus was ambushed by a Hutu-extremist militia group, the “Forces Nationales de Libération” (FNL), high in the hills above the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Hutu passengers were released unharmed. Those presumed to be Tutsi – including Richard Ndereyimana – were lined up and shot. Charlotte was killed with them. In all, 21 people died. The attack became known as the “Titanic Express” massacre, after the bizarre and ill-fated name of the bus in which they were travelling.
The 10th anniversary of the massacre falls on December 28th this year. I’ve decided to mark it with a 24-hour “Twitter marathon”. I’ll be knocking back a lot of coffee and posting a message every 15 minutes from 1.30pm on the 28th, the time that the attack began, to 1.30pm on December 29th.
There’s a rich array of material online about Burundi’s complex, albeit often-ignored, recent history. I’ll be aiming to profile the best of it over the course of the 24 hours – from eye-opening video footage and witness testimonies to niche blogs, bizarre quotes from Richard Nixon, and painstakingly-detailed human rights reports.
Alongside this, there are two particular issues that I’ll be seeking to highlight.
Firstly, despite compelling evidence, no serious effort has been made to prosecute those who carried out the massacre in which Charlotte died, amid a climate of near-total impunity for the elites on both sides. Despite being given numerous cash payments, offers of government jobs, and “provisional” immunity from prosecution, the FNL have continued to pose a threat, and are now reported to be mobilising for a new “holy war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Secondly, while the war criminals remain free, Burundi’s independent media has taken a massive hammering. Journalists are routinely harassed, attacked, threatened and jailed. One of those now languishing in prison is Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who over the years has helped enormously with the campaign for justice over the Titanic Express massacre, and whose support was indispensable when I was researching my first book.
Jean-Claude was arrested in July this year and charged with “treason” after making critical comments about Burundi’s armed forces. The Burundian government has previously been responsive to international pressure in cases like these. Given all that Jean-Claude has done over the years it seems somehow appropriate that I mark the 10th anniversary of Charlotte’s death by doing what I can to highlight his case.
I’ll be available on the day to speak to any journalists who might want to cover the story, and can also be contacted beforehand via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, or 07969 802 830. See here, here and here for some previous media things I’ve done on this.
The Twitter stint will begin at 1.30pm UK time (3.30pm in Burundi) on December 28th – www.twitter.com/dontgetfooled
Guest post: “the Burundian diaspora will need to pick up signs, rally, blog, write letters to editors to educate the donors’ taxpayers” – Thierry Uwamahoro
Yes, you saw right! That was a “Free Kavumbagu” sign among the thousands of other rally signs that either made you laugh or left you scratching your head as you attempted to understand what they meant or who their intended audience was.
This Saturday (10.30.10), hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked to Washington, DC to join a rally whose objective was to restore sanity in the discourse of American politics.
However, American politics are never too far from world affairs as the American people pride themselves in calling their President, the “Leader of the Free World”. As a Burundian residing near Washington, DC, I was drawn to think of a fellow Burundian – a journalist – who was not part of the “Free World” as the Rally to Restore Sanity went on.
Jean Claude Kavumbagu is an internationally-renowned journalist and human rights defender who has been unjustly arrested five times in this decade, but has never been found guilty. Today, he remains behind bars, despite promises by Burundian authorities and global calls for his release.
On July 17th, 2010, Jean Claude Kavumbagu was arrested and later jailed over an article that he published on his online journal “Net Press”. The article questioned the preparedness of the Burundian security forces, were the Somalia based militia Al-Shabab to attack Bujumbura (Burundi). The Burundian government considered the publication of such article “treason”, a charge that carries a life imprisonment sentence. Paradoxically, treason is an offense that Burundian law only recognizes when the country is at war due to external aggression. This is not the case today!
Last September, after meetings with some of Burundi’s highest officials, Omar Faruk Osman (President of the Federation of African Journalists) and his delegation left Bujumbura (Burundi) on a highly promising and optimistic note summed up in these words: “We agreed with the leadership of the country the urgency to resolve the case of Kavumbagu and our message was clear that was no longer a mere Burundian affair but an African and international press freedom case”.
Jean Claude Kavumbagu’s freedom has become a national, regional, continental and global issue. The Union of Burundian Journalists and the entire Burundian civil society, the East African Journalists Association, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Federation of African Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, FrontLine, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch; to name just a few – have all called for the release of Jean Claude Kavumbagu.
But all these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Mr. Kavumbagu has –this week – passed the 100 day mark behind bars in the notorious “Mpimba” prison, despite his constitutional rights to freedom of opinion and expression. The call for Kavumbagu’s freedom must not fade. This is no time to despair and quit.
But why carry the call to Washington, DC? This week, according to the journal Arc-en-Ciel, Washington hosted a high level delegation comprised of Burundian security apparatus heavyweights: the Director of military cabinet in the office of the President (Major General Evariste Ndayishimiye), the Minister of Internal Security (General Alain Guillaume Bunyoni) and the army chief of staff (Major General Godefroid Niyombare) alongside the top civilian advisor to the President. The delegation’s goal, according to trusted sources, was to promote greater cooperation between Bujumbura and Washington, and to secure funding for capacity building projects for Burundian securities forces.
If Washington and the American taxpayers are to fund these forces (the same forces that are carrying out the arrests of journalists), one can safely assume that Washington will have a greater voice in demanding that these security institutions improve their human rights record; or, at least, that should Washington voice any concern, Bujumbura would listen.
Ideally, a few months after celebrating our 48th independence anniversary, Burundians should not be expecting foreign powers’ coercion to be the safeguard to our freedoms. However, we have to be realistic. When a given government’s budget is financed at the tune of 70% by the international community, the perverse outcome is accountability to its donors (instead of its citizens). It is unfortunate! In the meantime, the Burundian diaspora will need to pick up signs, rally, blog, write letters to editors wherever they reside to educate the donors’ taxpayers. This Saturday, a few Americans learned of Burundi and of another name that they weren’t able to pronounce: Kavumbagu.