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Gatumba massacre campaign round-up + Agathon Rwasa’s attempt to un-claim responsibility

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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 survivors’ call for justice was backed by a strong statement from the respected global watchdog Human Rights Watch, who had investigated the attack in detail in 2004.

“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.”

For Iwacu Burundi, radio journalist Abbas Mbazumutima recalls taking the call from FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana, claiming responsibility, and witnessing the horrific aftermath of the attack:

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.

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Written by Richard Wilson

August 24, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

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