Agathon Rwasa summoned to court to face justice over the Gatumba massacre
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.