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10th anniversary of the Titanic Express massacre: Statement from Burundian diaspora group Action Contre Genocide

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STATEMENT ON THE 10th COMMEMORATION OF THE TITANIC EXPRESS MASSACRE

On December 28th, 2000; the PALIPEHUTU-FNL terrorist organization attacked the Titanic Express bus at Mageyo in Burundi, and selectively killed all ethnic Tutsi and anyone who looked so or who happened to be travelling with a Tutsi. Twenty-one innocent people including children aged less than 5 years were thus massacred in cold blood.

As we commemorate this terrorist attack, the Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada expresses the deepest sympathy to the victims’ families and to all those who lost their loved ones in this ignoble attack.

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada recalls that this anniversary is made even bleaker by the impunity that PALIPEHUTU-FNL has been enjoying together with the ruling CNDD-FDD and FRODEBU, although both parties were found by UN inquiry commissions to have prepared and carried out genocide against the Tutsi in Burundi (Report S/1998/777, pages 10-24; Report S/1996/682, page 74).

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada strongly condemns once more the sustained support that the international community has brought to these organizations despite the unspeakable atrocities that they have committed.

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada condemns further the de facto amnesty that PALIPEHUTU-FNL has acquired as the United Nations and major world democracies supported peace negotiations in Burundi that put the enthronement of terrorist organizations before justice.

The Toronto branch of AC Genocide Canada recalls the United Nations that if impunity is prevailing in Burundi, it is because they have failed their obligations as parties to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which binds the signatories to punish organizations which commit genocide.

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada invites the United Kingdom, Canada, and all other countries whose citizens were killed in Titanic Express massacre, to realize that:

(a) the decade-old promise by the Burundi government to investigate the Titanic Express attack has not materialized so far;

(b) as long as Burundi is governed by an organization like CNDD-FDD which, like the PALIPEHUTU-FNL, has committed genocide against the Tutsi without ever being tried, no reliable investigation can be made in the Titanic Express massacre or in any other atrocities;

(c) under Burundi’s current regime whereby the Head of State Pierre Nkurunziza, is a convict himself for his leading role in crimes against humanity, Burundi gives no hope of justice for the victims of atrocities that were committed by PALIPEHUTU-FNL, CNDD-FDD and FRODEBU organizations;

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada urges the United Nations to assign the above investigations to a neutral, international commission, and to establish an International Tribunal for Burundi that would try the accused in accordance with the UN report S/1996/682, Paragraph 496 .

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada reaffirms her belief that granting amnesty to organizations like PALIPEHUTU-FNL, CNDD-FDD and FRODEBU who have committed inamnistiable crimes, is double standard to the people of Burundi for whom crimes that are internationally punished, are deemed normal political activities and swept under the carpet with consent of the international community.

The Toronto Branch of AC Genocide Canada calls once again for the trial of all people and all organizations like PALPEHUTU-FNL, CNDD-FDD and FRODEBU who committed genocide and other crimes against humanity in Burundi.

Done at Toronto, December 28th, 2010.

Emmanuel Nkurunziza

Secretary,
Toronto Branch of AC-Génocide Canada www.acgenocide.blogspot.com

Written by Richard Wilson

December 28, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Posted in War crimes

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Background and links on the Titanic Express massacre

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On December 28th 2000, twenty-one unarmed civilians, including my sister Charlotte Wilson (a British aid worker), and her Burundian fiancé Richard Ndereyimana, were murdered. They were killed after their bus, bearing the ill-fated name “Titanic Express”, was ambushed in Bujumbura-Rurale, close to the Burundian capital Bujumbura.

According to survivors, the attackers opened fire on the bus at around 3.30pm local time (1.30pm in the UK), shooting out the tyres and forcing it to crash. A large, well-armed group then surrounded the vehicle, ordered the passengers out,  robbed them, and separated them according to their ethnicity. Several Hutus and Congolese were released unharmed. The remaining passengers were stripped to their underclothes, made to lie face down on the ground, and shot. Most of the victims were Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis. Charlotte Wilson was the only European on board.

Who carried out the attack?

The Titanic Express massacre took place in an area dominated by a Hutu-extremist rebel group known for its hatred of Tutsis, Palipehutu-FNL (aka “the FNL”). One survivor recounts that the attackers specifically identified themselves, saying “We are the FNL, not your FDD” (FDD was the FNL’s largest rival at the time). Others have simply described them as “rebels”.

In March 2001 Amnesty International listed the Titanic Express attack among several believed to have been carried out by the FNL. In May 2001, the International Crisis Group attributed the Titanic Express attack to FNL “troops under the order of… Agathon Rwasa”. A Human Rights Watch report from April 2000 lists a number of  carried out a number of similar attacks in the same area earlier in 2000.

In 2002, a document emerged which appears to be a detailed report by the FNL, signed by Commandant Albert Sibomana, of the Titanic Express attack, listing what was looted from the bus, how many people were killed and how many bullets were expended in killing them. Dozens of smaller attacks were listed in the same report.

Sibomana’s track record is bloodthirsty even by the standards of Burundi’s conflict. In February 2000, he reportedly oversaw the massacre of hundreds of his own comrades, after a split within the FNL.

At the time of the Titanic Express attack, Agathon Rwasa was FNL “Chief of Operations” around Bujumbura. In early 2001, he ousted the FNL’s then leader Kossan Kabura, and assumed overall control of the whole group.

Following years of negotiations, the FNL agreed to end hostilities in April 2009, and began disarming. But amid ongoing instability, the UN recently reported that Rwasa was remobilising his forces for a “new holy war” from bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Later I’ll add some links to further reading on Burundi’s recent history, and the long-promised plans for a UN-backed “Special Chamber” and Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 28, 2010 at 12:05 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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December 28th 2010: Justice for Charlotte – Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

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Video piece about Charlotte’s murder – “Rights Universal”, Channel 4, 2008

Charlotte Wilson, a British citizen, was killed in a bus massacre in Burundi on December 28th 2000. It was one of many brutal ethnic attacks by the Hutu-extremist “Forces Nationales de Liberation” (FNL). Despite repeated promises, the Burundian government has made no serious effort to investigate the killings, or prosecute those responsible.

On the 10th anniversary of Charlotte’s death, her family are urging the UK government to press Burundi to keep its promises, and bring the perpetrators of this massacre to justice.

If you have thirty seconds – please show your support by joining the Justice For Charlotte Facebook group.

If you have five minutes -please contact your MP via this website, asking them to raise Charlotte Wilson’s case with the UK Foreign Office.

Charlotte’s family are asking the UK government to press the Burundian President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to fulfil his longstanding promise to set up a special UN-backed court to investigate the many abuses committed during the country’s long civil war, and prosecute the worst offenders. Human rights experts argue that this approach offers the best hope of achieving both justice and peace in this troubled country. Charlotte’s family believe that the establishment of this special court will be a major step towards justice for the victims of the December 28th 2000 “Titanic Express” bus massacre.

If you have ten minutes please Fax a or post a letter to Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza urging him to release the journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu.

Tragically, while the war criminals remain free, one of the Burundian journalists who has done most to highlight the Titanic Express massacre,  Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, has been languishing in prison since July. He is facing a criminal trial for “defamation” and “treason” after making critical comments about Burundi’s army.

Amnesty International have listed Jean-Claude as a Prisoner of Conscience and issued the following appeal:

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in French, English, Kirundi or your own language:

  • expressing grave concern that journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been detained on charges of treason and defamation for criticizing the Burundian security services;
  • urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;
  • reminding the authorities that, as a state party to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Burundi is obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 17 JANUARY 2011 TO:

President

Pierre Nkurunziza, Président de la République, Présidence de la République, Boulevard de l’Uprona, Rohero I, BP 1870, Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 24 89 08

Written by Richard Wilson

December 27, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Marking time – December 28th 2010

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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

Written by Richard Wilson

November 30, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Groundhog Day in Burundi…

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I spoke to a Burundian friend earlier this evening who is deeply concerned about rising tensions in his home country ahead of elections scheduled for June. A video on the “Burundi Transparence” website purports to show the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth militia acting out a show of strength in scenes worryingly reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda in 1994.

Human Rights Watch put out a detailed report on the militias mid-way through last year:

Beginning in December 2008, residents of Busoni commune, Kirundo province and Kayogoro commune, Makamba province reported “militia-like” activities by former FDD combatants and members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, known as “Imbonerakure.” The youth, with the acquiescence of local administrative, police, and party officials, carried out harassment and arrests of political opponents…

In Busoni commune, Kirundo province, the CNDD-FDD youth league engaged in “night-time sports,” which involved parading with large sticks in military fashion.[229] According to media reports, these youth also chanted threatening slogans about “crushing their opponents.” Jean Minani, a prominent parliamentarian from Busoni and founder of “Frodebu-Nyakuri,” a splinter group of FRODEBU that generally aligns with CNDD-FDD, told Human Rights Watch he had observed the activities. He confirmed that the youth were armed with sticks and clubs, and chanted slogans in Kirundi which roughly translated as “Those who are not with us will be sent into exile or die.”

The International Crisis Group warned today that:

The CNDD-FDD youth wing’s physical training, war songs and quasi-military organisation raise the spectre of militia violence and a large-scale intimidation campaign. The other former rebels, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) and the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) are mobilising their own youth wings to oppose intimidation tactics. The police have remained passive or become accomplices to the ruling party’s abuses.

The ICG recommends that the international donor community:

Warn Burundian political leaders that those responsible for atrocity or other grave political crimes will be prosecuted – by the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal if necessary – and that targeted sanctions will be imposed on those resorting to massive fraud or violence to win the elections.

On the face of it this might sound reasonable enough, but to someone who’s been following the situation in Burundi for nearly a decade now, there’s an eerie sense of déja vu.

Here’s a report from 2005 on the violence that preceded the elections last time around:

[Nureldine] Satti demanded an investigation into mortar attacks that wounded five in the suburbs of the capital Bujumbura on Tuesday night, and recent reports of summary executions in Bujumbura Rural province… “We want to know the truth. The UN and the international community will not tolerate war crimes anymore. Any individual, any group responsible for war crimes will be held accountable for its acts,” he told a press conference.

And here’s a report from 2004, after Hutu-extremists massacred 160 Tutsi refugees at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi:

“The people who committed this terrible crime must be out of their heads. They are really terrorists,” Mrs [Agnes] Van Ardenne told reporters after visiting the refugee camp at the weekend. She said the suspects should be tried by the International Criminal Court. The FNL has indicated it will face its responsibility and appear before the court in The Hague. There will be no mercy for the perpetrators of the massacre, Mrs Van Ardenne said.

And here’s a UN security council statement from 1996:

The Council shares the Secretary-General’s deep concern at the situation in Burundi, which has been characterized by daily killings, massacres, torture and arbitrary detention. It condemns in the strongest terms those responsible for such actions, which must cease immediately… It reiterates that all who commit or authorize the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law are individually responsible for such violations and should be held accountable.

Not one of these declarations has been honoured. Efforts to refer the Gatumba massacre to the International Criminal Court quickly stalled amid a lack of political will – and silence from the International Crisis Group. The UN’s longstanding promise of a “special chamber” for Burundi remains little more than a twinkle in Ban Ki Moon’s eye, having got lost in endless negotiations with the same Burundian government officials who would likely become defendants were it ever to get off the ground.

Threatening to prosecute people – as distinct from actually putting war criminals on trial – certainly has the advantage of being free and not particularly timeconsuming. But if the International Crisis Group is really in the business of trying to stop Burundi’s political elite from organising yet more mass-killings, it’s difficult to see how, on past form, getting donors to issue yet more empty threats is likely to make any difference at all to the situation. 

Written by Richard Wilson

February 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

A Place At the Table – Camden People’s Theatre April 16th – May 2nd

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From Indie London

DAEDALUS Theatre is presenting A Place at the Table at Camden People’s Theatre – from April 15 to May 2, 2009…

A Place at the Table draws on Burundian traditions and mythology and varying accounts of the recent history of the Great Lakes region of Africa in what is described as a bold new work of visual and verbatim theatre.

The international company includes artists from Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and campaigner Richard Wilson, who has spoken on and written about Burundi extensively since his sister, Charlotte Wilson, was killed in the country in the year 2000, is an advisor.

Performers include Naomi Grosset, Lelo Majozi-Motlogeloa, Jennifer Muteteli, Anna-Maria Nabirya, Susan Worsfold and Grace Nyandoro (singer).

Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of Burundi, was assassinated in October 1993, just three months after his election. His assassination was one of the root causes of the subsequent ten year civil war in Burundi, and is closely tied to the causes and effects of several other conflicts in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly those related to Hutu and Tutsi ethnicity.

A Place at the Table is directed, designed and produced by Paul Burgess, who has recently designed Cradle Me (Finborough Theatre), Our Country’s Good (Watermill Theatre), On the Rocks (Hampstead Theatre), Triptych (Southwark Playhouse), The Only Girl in the World (Arcola Theatre) and Jonah and Otto (Manchester Royal Exchange).

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Justice not therapy…

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Vintage stuff  by Ken Roth and the late great Alison Des Forges, in defence of the basic principles of international justice, and individual responsibility. From the Boston Review:

[Helena] Cobban argues that criminal prosecutions are a “strait-jacket” solution imposed from outside Rwanda. But the Rwandan government itself initially requested the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (though it later opposed it) and decided on national trials for the more than 100,000 jailed in Rwanda on charges of genocide…

Cobban’s analysis is most troubling when she resorts to medical metaphor. She acknowledges the planning and organization of the genocide by state authorities, detailing how killers coolly and regularly slaughtered Tutsis as daily “work.” Yet in her view, these were not horrible crimes but a “social psychosis,” not acts of volition but a “collective frenzy”; the architects of the genocide are not more culpable than ordinary killers but “sicker.”

Cobban’s analysis resembles that of the perpetrators themselves. They argued that the slaughter was “spontaneous,” committed by people driven mad out of fear and anger. Rwandan killers have indeed been traumatized but their ailment resulted from their conduct rather than causing it.

Mob psychology cannot explain choices made during the genocide: why some individuals killed for reward or pleasure, or from fear of punishment, while others did not. To judge the killers as merely “sick” devalues the courage and decency of the millions who resisted this inhumanity, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

Cobban’s medical metaphor allows no place for individual responsibility. A person plagued by cancer is a victim of unfortunate circumstance, but is not at fault. Murderers, let alone orchestrators of genocide, are different. When they corral victims into churches and stadiums and systematically slaughter them with guns and machetes, the killers are not the latest hapless victims of the genocidal flu. They are deliberate, immoral actors. Treating them as no more culpable than children who refuse to wear coats and catch cold is both wrong and dangerous. Wrong because it does a deep disservice to the victims, as if their deaths were a natural accident, not a deliberate choice. Dangerous because it signals to other would-be mass murderers that they risk not punishment but, at most, communal therapy sessions.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 22, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Alison Des Forges

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Earlier this week I had an invitation to a public meeting in London at which the renowned Human Rights Watch investigator Alison Des Forges would be speaking. Alison had taken a close interest in the December 2000 massacre which claimed 21 lives in Burundi, including that of my sister Charlotte. She had been enormously encouraging of our efforts to secure justice, and gave warm and generous feedback when “Titanic Express” was published in 2006. We’d been in touch a number of times over the years but I’d never met her in person.

In the months after Charlotte’s death, when I was desperately trying to understand the background to the brutal regional conflict which had claimed her life – and in the years that followed-  I also learned a huge amount from the wealth of material that Alison Des Forges has written, such as the extraordinary book (the full text of which is available online at the HRW website) “Leave None to Tell the Story”.

I wanted to go to Wednesday’s meeting but wasn’t able to make it. One always assumes there will be another opportunity. This morning I was devastated to read that, on her return from Europe, Alison Des Forges had been killed in the plane crash in New York State on Thursday evening. The news was announced by Human Rights Watch yesterday:

“Alison’s loss is a devastating blow not only to Human Rights Watch but also to the people of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people. Then she wrote the definitive account. There was no one who knew more and did more to document the genocide and to help bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Des Forges, born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, began working on Rwanda as a student and dedicated her life and work to understanding the country, to exposing the serial abuses suffered by its people and helping to bring about change. She was best known for her award-winning account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and won a MacArthur Award (the “Genius Grant”) in 1999. She appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. She also provided documents and other assistance in judicial proceedings involving genocide in four other national jurisdictions, including the United States.

Clear-eyed and even-handed, Des Forges made herself unpopular in Rwanda by insisting that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the murder of  30,000 people during and just after the genocide. The Rwandan government banned her from the country in 2008 after Human Rights Watch published an extensive analysis of judicial reform there, drawing attention to problems of inappropriate prosecution and external influence on the judiciary that resulted in trials and verdicts that in several cases failed to conform to facts of the cases.

“She never forgot about the crimes committed by the Rwandan government’s forces, and that was unpopular, especially in the United States and in Britain,” said Roth. “She was really a thorn in everyone’s side, and that’s a testament to her integrity and sense of principle and commitment to the truth.”

Des Forges was not only admired but loved by her colleagues, for her extraordinary commitment to human rights principles and her tremendous generosity as a mentor and friend.

“Alison was the rock within the Africa team, a fount of knowledge, but also a tremendous source of guidance and support to all of us,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “She was almost a mother to us all, unfailingly wise and reasonable, absolutely honest yet diplomatic. She never seemed to get stressed out, in spite of the extreme violence and horror she had to deal with daily. Alison felt the best way to make things better was to be relentlessly professional and scrupulously fair. She didn’t sensationalize; her style was to let the victims speak for themselves.”

Corinne Dufka, another colleague who worked closely with Des Forges, wrote: “She always found the time to listen and helped me see outside the box. Alison inspired me to be a better researcher, a better colleague, a more giving mentor and a more balanced human being. She was also funny – her sardonic sense of humor, usually accompanied with that sparkle in her eye, lightened our burden.”

An historian by training, Des Forges wrote her PhD thesis on Rwanda and spent most of her adult life working on the Great Lakes region, despite an early stint in China with her husband, Roger, a professor of history and China expert at the University of Buffalo.

Des Forges graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and received her PhD from Yale in 1972. She began as a volunteer at Human Rights Watch, but was soon working full-time on Rwanda, trying to draw attention to the genocide she feared was looming. Eventually, Roth had to insist she take a salary. She co-chaired an international commission looking at the rise of ethnic violence in the region and published a report on the findings several months before the genocide. Once the violence began, Des Forges managed to convince diplomats in Kigali to move several Rwandans to safety, including the leading human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya.

As senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch since the early 1990s, Des Forges oversaw all research work on the Great Lakes region, but also provided counsel to colleagues across the region and beyond. She also worked very closely with the International Justice Program because of all her involvement with the Rwanda tribunal.

“The office of the prosecutor relied on Alison as an expert witness to bring context and background and detailed knowledge of the genocide,” Roth said. “Her expertise was sought again and again and again by national authorities on cases unfolding in their courts of individuals facing deportation, or on trial for alleged involvement in the genocide.”

Most recently, Des Forges was working on a Human Rights Watch report about killings in eastern Congo.

Update – I was looking again just now at the online version of “Leave None To Tell The Story”. Since I first read it, back in 2001, Alison wrote an updated foreword, which gives one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of the links between what took place in Rwanda, and the lesser-known conflicts in Burundi and the DRC:

In mid-1994 officials of the former [Rwandan] government, soldiers, and militia fled to the Congo, leading more than a million Rwandans into exile. They carried with them their ideology of Hutu supremacy and many of their weapons. They sought the support of local Congolese people as well as of the government, hoping to broaden their base for continued resistance against the RPF. They insisted that Rwandan Hutu and different Congolese groups were a single “Bantu” people because they spoke similar languages and shared some cultural traits. They said Tutsi were “Nilotic” invaders who, together with the related Hima people of Uganda, intended to subjugate the “Bantu” inhabitants. This “Bantu” ideology – and the RPF determination to counter it – informed the framework for much of the military conflict in the region for the next ten years.

In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Yoweri Museveni, invaded the Congo. Rwanda wanted to eliminate any possible threat from the former Rwandan army and militia who were re-organizing and re-arming in refugee camps in eastern Congo. Uganda sought greater political influence and control over resources in the region. Together with their Congolese allies, the Rwandan and Ugandan troops moved rapidly westward, at first hunting down the remnants of the Rwandan Hutu from the refugee camps – combatants and civilians alike – but then setting another objective, that of overturning Mobuto and his government. They succeeded, but in 1998 the new Congolese government, led by Laurent Desire Kabila, turned against its former supporters. Kabila told the Rwandan and Ugandan troops to go home, thus provoking a new war. This second Congo war at one point involved seven African nations and a host of rebel movements and other local armed groups, all fighting to control the territory and vast wealth of the Congo. Casualties among civilians were enormous, from lack of food, medical care, and clean water as well as from direct attack by the various forces.

The real nature of this war, like that of the first, was for a long time disguised by the references to the genocide. In demanding a return to national sovereignty Congolese officials spoke in anti-Tutsi language and crowds in Kinshasa killed Tutsi on the streets. Rwanda sought to justify making war by claiming the need to eliminate perpetrators of the genocide who were operating in eastern Congo with the support of the Congolese government. Rwandan authorities continued to stress this supposed security threat from the other side of the border long after the numbers and resources of the former Rwandan army and militia had diminished and their members were widely scattered.

In 1997 and 1998, in the hiatus between the two Congo wars, soldiers and militia of the genocidal government, supported by thousands of new recruits, crossed from the Congo and led an insurrection in northwestern Rwanda. The RPF forces suppressed the rebellion at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, many of them civilians who happened to live in the area. A substantial number of the rebel combatants had not taken part in the genocide and seemed more focused on overturning the government than on hunting down Tutsi civilians, but others continued to harbor genocidal intentions and singled out Tutsi to be attacked and killed.

Events in Burundi, a virtual twin to Rwanda in demographic terms, first influenced and then were influenced by the Rwandan genocide. Burundi was already immersed in its own crisis with widespread ethnic slaughter in late 1993. These killings, as well as international indifference to them, spurred genocidal planning in Rwanda. After April 1994 Burundians viewed with horror the massacres of others of their own ethnic group in Rwanda, Tutsi identifying with victims of the genocide and Hutu identifying with those killed by RPF forces. Burundian Tutsi and Hutu feared and distrusted each other more because of the slaughter in Rwanda and each group vowed that its members would not be the next victims. Former Rwandan soldiers and militia at times joined Burundian Hutu rebel forces, bringing them military expertise and reinforcing their anti-Tutsi ideas. RPF soldiers on occasion came south to help the Burundian army prevent a victory by Hutu rebels.

Within Rwanda the RPF used the pretext of preventing a recurrence of genocide to suppress the political opposition, refusing to allow dissidents to organize new political parties and eliminating an existing party that could potentially have challenged the RPF in national elections. Authorities jailed dissidents and drove others into exile on charges of “divisionism,” equated to an incipient form of genocidal thinking even when opponents sought to construct parties that included Tutsi as well as Hutu. During 2003, under RPF leadership, Rwandans adopted a new constitution that enshrined a vague prohibition of “divisionism” and made liberties of speech, press, and association subject to regulation – and possible limitation – by ordinary law. In presidential and legislative elections, the RPF came close to asserting that a vote for others was a vote for genocide – past or future. With such a campaign theme and with a combination of intimidation and fraud, the RPF re-affirmed its dominance of political life.

In the years just after the end of the genocide, many international leaders supported the RPF as if hoping thus to compensate for their failure to protect Tutsi during the genocide. Even when confronted with evidence of widespread and systematic killing of civilians by RPF soldiers in Rwanda and in the Congo, most hesitated to criticize these abuses. Not only did they see the RPF as the force that had ended the genocide but they also saw all opponents of the RPF as likely to be perpetrators of genocide, an assessment that was not accurate either in 1994 or later. So long as the parties were defined this way, international leaders acquiesced inÑor even actively supportedÑthe RPF activities in the Congo. Similarly international actors frequently tolerated RPF limits on civil and political freedom inside Rwanda, readily conceding the RPF argument that the post-genocidal context justified restrictions on the usual liberties.

As the ten years after the genocide drew to a close, the international community moderated its support of the current Rwandan government and exerted considerable pressure to obtain withdrawal of its troops from the Congo. Some international leaders began to question the tight RPF control within Rwanda; diplomats and election observers from the European Union and the United States noted abuses of human rights that marred the 2003 elections. Despite these signs of growing international concern, the RPF-led government appeared firmly seated for the near future. Whether it will be able to assure long-term stability and genuine reconciliation may depend on its ability to distinguish between legitimate dissent and the warning signs of another genocide.

Human Rights Watch reissues this book – substantially the same as the original printing – to ensure that a detailed history of the genocide remains available to readers. Since its first publication in English and French, the book has appeared in German and will shortly be published in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. The horrors recorded here must remain alive in our heads and hearts; only in that way can we hope to resist the next wave of evil.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

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Titanic Express case to feature in Channel Four short tomorrow evening

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At 7.55pm on Monday evening I’ll be on Channel Four,  in the first of a series of short films for the week of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I’ll be talking about the massacre that formed the subject of my first book, Titanic Express – in relation to article eight of the UDHR, the right to justice. The film was made by Native Voice films, in collaboration with Amnesty International, and will be showing on Channel Four’s “3 minute wonder” slot. To give some sense of the detail that can go into a TV production, this 3 minute short took the best part of two days to film, with many hours more for editing. It was a fascinating process to be involved with, and from the edits I’ve seen so far I think they’ve done an excellent job.

There’s more background here about the Titanic Express ongoing campaign, and more here on the history of the case.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Human Rights Watch on the deadly consequences of UN wishful thinking in Congo

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William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the [2006] Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…

Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…

Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.

Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.

If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.

Burundi’s “forgiving” government criminalises homosexuality

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Burundi’s Christian evangelical President, Pierre Nkurunziza, may be having difficulty living up to the New Testament exhortation to forgive those he sees as his enemies, but he’s following the Old Testament strictures on homosexuality rather more rigidly. The Burundian Parliament has just rushed through legislation which will, for the first time in the country’s history, criminalise gay relationships, and President Nkurunziza is expected to endorse it shortly.

Burundi now appears to be following what we might call the “Ugandan model” of church-led jurisprudence, where those responsible for torture, mass-killings, and rape (so long as the victims are women, obviously) get pardoned by the state, leaving it free to expend its resources persecuting and publicly vilifying men who sleep with other men.

At moments like this it’s traditional for western media types to shrug their shoulders and say things like “Well, it’s their culture, isn’t it? Surely we have to respect their ways”.

So I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts from the veteran Burundian commentator and former statesman Gratien Rukindiza, who describes the new law as “retrograde, reactionary and fundamentalist”, and suggests that Burundi’s leaders “believe they are closest to God when they hurt the Burundian people”.

“The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay“, Rukindikiza points out. “He runs a city more populous than the whole of Burundi. The city is wealthier than Burundi. He is a respectable, honest man who will probably one day be President. Does the mayor of Bujumbura dare visit the mayor of Paris knowing that in Burundi, the law would send his host to jail?”

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 1:32 am

Amnesty International adopts Alexis Sinduhije as a “Prisoner of Conscience”

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Amnesty International has added its voice to those highlighting the worsening human rights situation in Burundi – and in particular the arbitrary arrest of the journalist-turned-opposition activist Alexis Sinduhije. I met Alexis in person back in 2002, and he helped me enormously when I was researching Titanic Express. I’ve been following events closely since he was arrested earlier this month.

From Amnesty International:

UA 318/08 Arbitrary arrest/ prisoner of conscience

BURUNDI Alexis Sinduhije (m)

Alexis Sinduhije, the President of the Movement for Security and Democracy (Mouvement pour la Sécurité et la Démocratie, MSD), a political opposition group, was arrested on 3 November during a MSD party meeting. Thirty-six others were also arrested, but have since been released. Alexis Sinduhije is currently detained in Mpimba Central Prison in the capital, Bujumbura. He is a prisoner of conscience, held solely for expressing his political views.

The ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy, (Conseil national de défense et de la démocratie-Forces de défense et de la démocratie – CNDD-FDD), has recently denied opposition parties the right to peaceful assembly by preventing them from holding meetings without government authorization. Human rights monitors initially thought the arrests were made because the meeting had been held without authorization. The MSD had also had problems registering as a political party.

On 11 November, Alexis Sinduhije was brought before the deputy prosecutor at the Prosecutor’s office in Bujumbura. He was subsequently charged for showing “contempt for the Head of State” (“outrage au chef de l’etat”). The charges were based on documents seized during the arrests which were apparently critical of the President’s development policies. His file should go before the advisory chamber (chambre de conseil) within several days when the acting Judge will decide whether or not to grant him provisional release.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The arrest of Alexis Sinduhije has raised considerable concern amongst members of civil society and the international community about the protection of civil and political rights in Burundi. The United States, the European Union and the UK strongly condemned Alexis Sinduhije’s arrest. The CNDD-FDD has shown increasing intolerance towards political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders perceived as being critical towards them.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible, in French, English or your own language:

– expressing grave concern that Alexis Sinduhije has been detained on a charge of“contempt for the Head of State”, simply for being critical of the President’s development policies;

– urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;

– reminding the authorities that Burundi is a state party to both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

APPEALS TO:

President

Pierre Nkurunziza

Président de la République

Présidence de la République

Boulevard de l’Uprona

Rohero I

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Président/Excellence

Minister of Justice and Keeper of Seals

Monsieur Jean-Bosco Ndikumana

Ministre de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

Ministère de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

BP 1880

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 21 86 10

Salutation: Monsieur le Ministre

First Vice-president

Monsieur Yves Sahinguvu

Premier Vice-président

Présidence de la République

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Premier Vice-président/Excellence

The Prosecutor of the Republic

Monsieur Elyse Ndaye

Procureur Générale de la République
Parquet Général
BP 105

Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax : +257 22 25 88 44

Salutation: Monsieur le Procureur / Dear Procureur

COPIES TO: diplomatic representatives of Burundi accredited to your country.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat, or your section office, if sending appeals after 31 December 2008.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:13 pm

US State Department calls for release of Alexis Sinduhije

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From the Washington Post

The State Department protested the Burundian government’s arrest Monday of an aspiring presidential candidate and former journalist who was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people this year by Time magazine.

Burundian authorities arrested Alexis Sinduhije at his political party’s headquarters in Bujumbura on Monday, along with other party staff members.

“We believe that is unacceptable. We believe he should be released immediately,” Russell Brooks, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Friday. “It remains our hope the government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.”

An ethnic Tutsi reporter who adopted a Hutu war orphan, Sinduhije has become a national celebrity in Burundi, a small central African country that has been plagued for more than 15 years by violence between the two ethnic groups.

In 2001 Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine, an independent radio station that promoted reconciliation between the groups.

His reporting has drawn international praise. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists honored Sinduhije in 2004 with its International Press Freedom Award. He has also appeared as a guest on PBS‘s “Charlie Rose” show.

“We wanted to set an example of how relations between the ethnic groups could be humanized,” Sinduhije said in explaining his journalistic mission at the 2004 award ceremony. “We hired former fighters, both Hutu and Tutsi . . . to become fighters for peace and truth.”

Joel Simon, the committee’s executive director, said Sinduhije’s radio station “was a beacon” for those searching for an “alternative to the kind of politics of racial division which had brought Burundi to the brink of genocide.”

Simon said Sinduhije has been repeatedly threatened, beaten and jailed for his work as a reporter. Sinduhije left journalism in December 2007 to compete in Burundi’s 2010 presidential election. The government has refused to formally register his political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

“We don’t think this is a press freedom case,” Simon said, noting that the charges were nevertheless “trumped up.” He said, “We’re obviously very concerned about him, and this treatment illustrates the environment in which Burundi’s election is taking place.”

Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Augustin Nsanze, declined to comment on the arrest.

Over the years, Alexis Sinduhije has been immensely supportive of efforts to get to the truth over the Titanic Express massacre, and secure justice for all Burundi’s victims. Click here for more background on his arrest.

Human Rights Watch condemns Burundi ruling party’s attack on Alexis Sinduhije

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Click here for more background on this story.

From Human Rights Watch

(Bujumbura, November 5, 2008) – The detention of political activist Alexis Sinduhije and 36 others by Burundian police on November 3, 2008, highlights the growing obstacles to the free exercise of civil and political rights in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said today. Sinduhije, well-known as a former radio journalist, has been trying since February to form an opposition political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD).

The detentions follow extensive harassment of leaders of several parties opposed to the dominant National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of the Democracy (CNDD-FDD).

“It looks like the ruling party is calling in the power of the state to silence the voices of dissent,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch.

Dozens of police armed with Kalashnikovs entered the MSD headquarters shortly after noon on November 3, indicating they had information that an illegal meeting was being held. A search warrant that they contended legitimized their entry was delivered two hours later, carried no docket number, and listed another premises – Sinduhije’s residence – as the place to be searched. It gave the charge against Sinduhije as “threatening state security.” Police officers searched and confiscated several documents, one of which they said contained “subversive material.” They proceeded to arrest everyone on the premises, including political activists, a receptionist, and a driver who was later released.

When a Human Rights Watch researcher present at the time of the search and arrests questioned police officers about irregularities, they responded that they were only “executing orders” given by Regional Police Commissioner David Nikiza, who had delivered the search warrant.

Asked to comment on the irregularities, the police spokesman, Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi, responded that the party itself was illegal and that therefore the search and subsequent detentions were justified.

Interior Minister Venant Kamana has refused to register MSD as a political party, claiming that a party cannot include “security” among its goals because security is the exclusive province of the state.

Taken into custody on November 3, Sinduhije and the others were still being held at several city jails as of the evening of November 4, without any charges having been formally entered against them. Police officers interrogated Sinduhije, in the presence of his lawyer, about statements in the confiscated documents criticizing President Peter Nkurunziza’s development policies. They suggested such statements might lead to a charge of “insulting the President.” They also interrogated him about efforts to recruit party members among young people, some of them former combatants in rival forces during 10 years of civil war.

Two other MSD members were arrested last week in Cankuzo province, one for allegedly distributing party cards, the other for having such a card in his possession.

Ntarabaganyi, the police spokesman, told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Sinduhije and the others had been arrested for holding an unauthorized meeting. A ministerial ordinance issued in early October 2008 requires political parties to obtain official authorization for meetings rather than simply informing officials of their intent to meet, as had previously been the case. Burundian law does not require groups other than political parties to obtain authorization for meetings.

Other parties have also faced harassment. Since late September 2008, police have arrested at least 25 members of UPD-Zigamibanga, a party opposed to the CNDD-FDD. Most were arrested in Ngozi province on charges of participating in an unauthorized meeting and released after paying a fine, but two others were detained in Kayanza province on charges of insulting President Peter Nkurunziza after they criticized his education policy during a private conversation.

Most local authorities on the provincial and communal levels are CNDD-FDD members. Even before the new ordinance on meetings was issued, some of them used their authority or that of the police to hinder political meetings or to shut down press conferences by opposition parties including the Democratic Front in Burundi (Frodebu), the Democratic Alliance for Renewal (ADR), and the CNDD (a party different from CNDD-FDD).

Burundi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Both of these treaties require Burundi to protect fully the rights to freedom from arbitrary detention and to freedom of association. To avoid arbitrary detention, persons detained on suspicion of having committed a criminal offense must be informed of the charge against them as quickly as possible, allowed access to a lawyer and to visitors, and be brought speedily before a judicial authority with power to order their release.

“Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law,” said Des Forges. “Officials should promptly release Sinduhije and others arbitrarily detained and permit Burundians the full exercise of their civil and political rights.”

Book Depository Tuesday Top Ten

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Those nice people over at the Book Depository asked me for a list of my top ten best books ever. Was I spot on or way off the mark? Click here to decide.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 7, 2008 at 3:36 pm

Catholic aid charity Caritas accused of materially supporting LRA terror group

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the aggressive campaign by church-funded lobby groups for the lifting of the International Criminal Court’s war crimes indictments against Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” rebels.

Now a Ugandan government spokesman has accused the Catholic aid charity Caritas of providing food and medical supplies to the LRA, a proscribed terror group who are continuing to kill and abduct civilians despite repeated attempts to persuade them to make peace.

According to Prof. Tarsis Kabwegyere, Uganda’s Minister for Disaster Preparedness, the ongoing material supplies from humanitarian agencies were helping the group to perpetuate the conflict, and he singled out the Catholic NGO Caritas for particular criticism:

Caritas should stop giving food to the rebels so that they get under pressure to sign the peace agreement. But as long as they continue to get supplies, they will see no reason of ending rebellion

There is a moral question on why [LRA leader] Kony continues to receive food. Whoever is sending food to the jungles is committing a mortal sin, especially if they are Christians.

The supplying of food and medicines by western aid agencies to demobilised ex-combatants is relatively common, as a first step towards reintegration into society. But the gifting of material support to an armed group which is still actively engaged in attacks on civilians seems like a whole different matter.

A church led initiative led to the creation in 2000 of the Ugandan amnesty commission, offering a blanket pardon to any member of the group who laid down their arms, but the leadership continued to hold out until they were indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005. Since then, the group has been focussed on getting the indictments lifted, a cause in which they have gained considerable support from the Catholic Church and other Christian organisations.

The Caritas website appears to make no mention of support being given to the LRA.

See also: “LRA Accused of Selling Food Aid”, Institute of War and Peace Reporting

Peter Eichstaedt on the international community’s naive dealings with Uganda’s LRA rebels

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From the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.

Someone defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

It’s an accurate description of the continuing situation with Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, currently holed up in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

As he has in the past, Kony continues to play humiliating games with negotiators seeking a final end to northern Uganda’s brutal 20-year war with the LRA.

He, or his so-called spokesman David Matsanga, repeatedly announce that Kony plans to sign a permanent peace agreement, and even go so far as to set dates. Negotiators scramble to an agreed rendezvous point in the jungle – but Kony never shows.

This is followed by public grumblings from the negotiators, who vow never again to be fooled.

But that “never again” lasts only a few weeks. Kony then calls someone like United Nations Special Envoy Joachim Chissano or talks mediator Riek Machar, the vice president of South Sudan, or dials up Mega FM in Gulu or Radio France International, and rambles on about how much he wants peace.

This inevitably draws yet another delegation to the jungles and which again is left sitting alone and waiting.

Kony undoubtedly enjoys this because of the ease with which he can get away with it. He clearly does not want peace.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 24, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Time Magazine names Alexis Sinduhije as one among the top 100 most influential people in the world

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I’ve just had a text message from a Burundian friend, telling me that Alexis Sinduhije has been named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Alexis is nominated among the list’s “Heroes and Pioneers” by Christiane Amanpower, CNN’s chief international correspondent, and is placed at number 36, just ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi.

It’s great that such a major news outlet is giving this recognition. I know of no other journalist in the world with such a track record of fearlessness in the face of brutality. Whether by speaking out against the abuses of Palipehutu-FNL, highlighting the involvement of the elitist Tutsi government of Pierre Buyoya in the murder of the WHO official Kassi Manlan, or blowing the lid on CNDD-FDD’s attempt in 2006 to jail the entire political opposition on the basis of a bogus conspiracy theory, Alexis has been tireless in speaking up for the truth, and opposing injustice.

Equally, outside of the African media, and the reports produced by Amnesty, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres, his work – and the life-and-death issues involved, have been a fairly well kept secret.

Alexis Sinduhije’s account of the aftermath of the 1993 assassination of President Ndadaye is still one of the most moving that I’ve ever read. I quoted from it in the final chapter of Titanic Express, and I thought I might include an extract from it here. The full version can be read by following this link.

For me as a journalist, the cycle began all in one moment on the night of October 21, 1993 at two o’clock in the morning. The army, dominated by a Tutsi majority, attacked the palace of President Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye was Burundi’s first Hutu president and had been democratically elected, in sharp contrast with his Tutsi predecessors, who had seized power through military coups. At around two o’clock that morning, mortar shelling and automatic weapons fire woke the entire city of Bujumbura. I got out of bed and began making phone calls.

Nobody knew what was happening. I was working as a reporter for the state radio station, Radio Burundi, and had just begun to work as well as news editor for an independent weekly called La Semaine. I made a few more calls, but still got no reply.

I said to my wife, Diana, that I thought it was either a military coup or an attack by members of Palipehutu, the radical Hutu party that had been banned from the recent elections. When I turned on the radio, there was no sound. I knew then that it was a military coup. With great difficulty, I convinced my wife that I had to go cover the story… As I left my house, I saw that our Hutu neighbors were also awake, and tense with anger. Many looked at me full of hate. I understood that the situation was going to degenerate into violence, but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be…

One of my childhood friends, a Hutu named Gashira, saw me and asked, “You Tutsis, why are you so arrogant? We elected our president and your soldiers killed him.” The question troubled me. It is true that I had brothers in the army, but I wasn’t responsible for their actions. I was surprised and afraid at how ready he was to include me among those who were responsible.

Over the next few days, everywhere emotion took hold of reason. In the eyes of the Hutus, the Tutsis were guilty. I hadn’t really answered Gashira’s question. Although we were of different ethnicity, we both lived in the same neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital, so I couldn’t see why he spoke of arrogance… I headed toward the palace. It wasn’t easy because the army had blocked all traffic and the Presidential Palace was more than 6 kilometers from Kamenge. I decided to walk.

After more than an hour, I reached a hotel called the Source of the Nile where foreigners stayed and which was adjacent to the Presidential Palace. Troops were everywhere. Thanks to a soldier I knew, I got access into the palace courtyard, where I found a group of soldiers pillaging the house. They had already emptied the presidential refrigerator, and were drinking and celebrating. They asked me if I wanted some champagne. I replied that I never drank before sundown and it wasn’t yet midday. One of them told me that I was missing a unique opportunity to taste champagne. We all burst into laughter. Champagne is the drink of the rich in Burundi, and then only the extremely rich… They had raided the president’s residence to drink it.

The palace roof was riddled with holes, windows were shattered, and the southern walls surrounding the palace were destroyed. “That was from a shell fired from a tank,” the soldiers explained to me, laughing. I asked if there were any dead among the president’s bodyguards, and they burst out laughing again. They replied that the bodyguard was comprised of soldiers, and that they wouldn’t fire upon their colleagues… They confirmed that… the president had died at 10 A.M. in a military camp in Musaga, 6 kilometers south of Bujumbura.

I knew that the president’s death would have grave consequences. I remembered what Gashira had said to me, but now I pretended to support the soldiers’ act. In reality, deep down inside, I hated them because I thought of the thousands of Tutsis who would end up paying for it. I was convinced that the Hutu officials in the countryside would pit the Hutu peasants against the Tutsis. Then soon after, I learned from military sources that the situation was, in fact, turning catastrophic.

Alexis went on to found Studio Ijambo, before moving onto the project for which he is most famous, Radio Publique Africaine.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 2, 2008 at 8:42 pm

From “Titanic Express” to “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

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“Don’t Get Fooled Again” is a very different kind of book from “Titanic Express”, but there are some common elements. Both, in their own ways, centre around a search for the truth, personally and politically. Both also look at how we can distinguish what’s true from what isn’t – or at least how we can tell a reasonable assumption from a completely nonsensical one – and why it is that these things matter. And both look in some detail at the issue of conspiracy theories, and the damage they can do.

In “Titanic Express”, the conspiracy theories I came across were often all-encompassing – so much so that at one point I was told that my sisters’ killers suspected me of being part of some devilish global plot to discredit them. And in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, many of the most disturbing delusions I looked at – such as the belief that HIV doesn’t exist or is harmless, seemed ultimately, again, to rest on the belief in some conspiracy or another. What I wasn’t able to do in “Titanic Express” was to look in detail at the features that define a conspiracy theory, what it is, psychologically, that attracts us to such ideas, and the tools that we can use to unravel them – so it was great to have a chance to go into these questions a bit more in DGFA.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 3, 2008 at 10:11 pm