Rwandan-American social worker and former refugee. Meet Peace Izabayo.
This Refugees International (RI) report examines the status of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, as the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to either remove this population from Israel or place large numbers in indefinite detention. The report examines Israeli government policies that have denied protection to asylum seekers and alarming new proposals that would put this vulnerable population in greater peril.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest and most populous countries in Africa; so almost inevitably, any problem in the DRC is a big problem. In previous years, Refugees International has traveled to the DRC to report on internal displacement and gender-based violence – tragedies that afflict millions of Congolese civilians. But during our visit to the country this month, my colleague Mark Yarnell and I will focus on a problem that seems – at first glance – far more limited: the arrival of just over 20,000 refugees from neighboring Burundi. At a time of desperate humanitarian need and severe political turmoil elsewhere in the DRC, why focus on such a “small” problem? The answer is that it only takes one match to start a five-alarm fire
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By Siobhan O'Grady
Willy Nyamitwe, a top advisor to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, is in Washington this week to rally U.S. support after reports Rwanda is arming Burundian refugees and pressuring them to join opposition rebel groups.
But unless Nyamitwe backtracks on his dismissal of other reports — that Burundian government forces have carried out mass rape and extrajudicial killings — as part of a slanderous, anti-government campaign, he might not be received warmly in his meetings at the State Department, currently scheduled for Friday.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Nyamitwe defended Burundian police and soldiers as professionals who would never engage in mass rape. Last week, the top U.N. official for human rights said his team has documented 13 instances of gang rape allegedly carried out by Burundian forces.
“Rape can be used as a weapon in some parts of the world, but not in Burundi,” Nyamitwe told FP on Wednesday, leaning across the interview table with his hands tightly clasped and his eyebrows raised. “Rape can also be used as a weapon to tarnish the reputation of people.”
He then pointed to allegations against former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn — both of whom were accused of sexual assault — as proof that those who call themselves victims at times accuse powerful figures of sexual abuse to advance their own political agendas.
“Some can be accurate, and others can be only a package of lies sometimes,” Nyamitwe said. In Burundi’s case, he said, the political opposition is using rape as a narrative to discredit the government’s legitimacy.
Claims like these, along with Burundi’s December announcement that it would treat African Union peacekeepers as an invading enemy army, have made the international community increasingly frustrated with officials in Bujumbura.
In an email to FP Wednesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner suggested Nyamitwe and his colleagues’ behavior is stalling progress on Burundi peace talks that could end civil unrest and restore stability in the small Central African country.
Toner said Nyamitwe “could be influential in finding solutions to the situation, rather than continuing the divisive rhetoric, stifling of political dissent, and violence and intimidation that has characterized the government of Burundi’s response to the crisis to date.”
Burundi’s slow descent into turmoil began last year, after Nkurunziza — a former Hutu rebel commander — announced his intent to run for a third presidential term. He claimed this did not violate the country’s constitution; his opposition claimed it did. And soon the two sides were pitted against each other in what quickly spiraled into mass civil unrest.
Roughly 250,000 civilians, fearing both retaliation from the government for their political views and a return to the civil war that killed 300,000 between 1993 and 2005, have since fled Burundi as refugees to neighboring countries, including Rwanda. At least another 439 people have died since last April, and nine mass graves have been identified by the U.N., which is concerned minority Tutsis are being targeted.
Those who have stayed behind have told human rights groups that clashes are often ethnically motivated. But Nyamitwe told FP that a genocide in Burundi would be “impossible” because the military is evenly divided between Tutsis and Hutus, the two major ethnic groups in Burundi and Rwanda. That policy is the result of the Arusha peace accords, a power-sharing agreement signed by Burundian officials that set quotas to allow the minority Tutsi population significant representation in the military and other ministries.
But Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told FP that although the agreement allowed a multiethnic community to flourish in Burundi, the Nkurunziza administration’s recent targeting of Tutsis could now threaten to dismantle the relative ethnic stability the country has managed since the end of the civil war.
After rebels stormed multiple military bases in mid-December, observers said government forces retaliated with their own series of attacks. Most of those victims are believed to be Tutsis.
“The claim that there’s no risk of genocide and everything’s under control — that’s a way of playing the international community, and it’s part of an ongoing approach by the government,” Siegle said. “That’s what they want you to believe, but unfortunately they’re deploying ethnic violence as we speak.”
Tutsis are not the only ones believed to be targeted by government forces: Many journalists have also been killed or have mysteriously disappeared. At least 100, fearing for their safety, have reportedly fled the country. But when FP asked Nyamitwe about restrictions on press freedoms, he denied any journalists were being killed or intimidated.
When asked specifically about Christophe Nkezabahizi, a cameraman who is widely understood to have been executed alongside his family by Burundian officers in Bujumbura in October, Nyamitwe said he does not know who killed him but that it was “maybe by accident.”
“He has not been killed because he’s a journalist,” he said. “He was not killed on duty.” Ernest Ndabashinze, Burundi’s ambassador to Washington who attended the interview, nodded along. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he said. “That’s all.”
Human rights organizations, including Refugees International, claim evidence that Burundians who fled to Rwanda have been armed by Rwandan government forces. It’s believed Rwanda is now siding with Burundian rebels and dipping their toes in what was initially an internal conflict next door.
Toner echoed those concerns Wednesday, saying that such allegations are “credible” and that Washington “has called on the government of Rwanda — in cooperation with [the U.N. refugee agency] and others — to conduct a full investigation into these allegations, and hold accountable those who are found to be involved.” FP reached out to the Rwandan Embassy multiple times Wednesday but could not reach a staff member.
And Nyamitwe seemed unaware the United States had taken any measures to recognize the Rwandan threat whatsoever. “Until now we have seen nothing,” he said. “The U.S. should take a position and make its position very clear so that Burundi can understand the U.S. doesn’t support any external aggression against Burundi.”
In a phone call with FP, senior Amnesty International official Adotei Akwei said such polarizing rhetoric only harms Burundi’s chances of garnering support from Washington, which is concerned by Rwanda’s potential involvement in the conflict — but also cannot ignore human rights violations taking place within Burundi’s borders.
Amnesty is “extremely concerned about how close the country is to an all-out civil war,” Akwei said. And Toner said that in meetings set for Friday, officials will raise “the need to ensure accountability for the violence and human rights abuses that have occurred in [Nyamitwe’s] country.”
But Nyamitwe didn’t seem too fazed by the allegations. He said he knew of only one rape case that had occurred since violence began in Burundi last year and that it was a supporter of the ruling party who was raped and maimed in an opposition neighborhood. Any other cases of rape that may have occurred, he claimed, were not tied to the conflict.
Still, the Burundian government would go ahead with its own investigation into the mass rapes by security forces, he said. And if they do find any officers to be responsible, their behavior will “not be tolerated.” When asked whether Burundian officials could be trusted conducting an investigation into human rights violations in the country, Toner told FP the State Department does “not believe that President Nkurunziza’s government can conduct a credible, impartial investigation into these matters.”
And Nyamitwe made it clear government officials already have their minds essentially made up that the reports are false.
“We reject this because it is only in order to tarnish the reputation of the Republic of Burundi,” he said. “Really, there is no mass rape.”
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By Conor Gaffey
Burundi is close to civil war, with genocide a real possibility, after the government refused to participate in peace talks with the opposition, according to experts.
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government rejected an invitation to take part in talks scheduled for Wednesday in Tanzania, saying it objected to the inclusion of opposition figures whom it holds responsible for the violence gripping the country, The East African reported. The United Nations (U.N.) estimates that more than 400 people have been killed in Burundi since Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, a move opponents criticized as unconstitutional.
The Burundi government’s absence on Wednesday leaves the Ugandan-sponsored peace talks in tatters and risks escalating the crisis in the country, according to Chris McKeon, Africa analyst at political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “The longer these talks drag on without an agreement, the more days of violence Burundi will experience,” says McKeon.
Explaining the decision to pull out of the talks, Joseph Bangurambona, permanent secretary in Burundi’s ministry of foreign affairs, told Reuters on Tuesday that the government was opposed to negotiating with “those who are supporting violence” in opposition parties. Bangurambona said that dialogue would resume “on condition that the mediators iron out the irregularities” but declined to propose a new date.
“It is difficult to see a clear path to peace,” says McKeon. “By refusing to engage with the opposition, the government has effectively ruled out a negotiated solution to the crisis.”
The government in the capital Bujumbura has also rejected plans for a 5,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force to be deployed in the country, with Nkurunziza saying that such an intervention would be interpreted as an attack on Burundi and the country would be forced to defend itself. “The country will have been attacked and it will respond,” he said in a state radio broadcast on December 30.
Nkurunziza’s defiant stance and the lack of dialogue with opposition parties means that a descent into civil war and even genocide remains a possibility, says David Simon, co-director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. U.N. officials have previously warned that the conflict in Burundi is taking on an increasingly ethnic tone, reminiscent of the situation in Rwanda ahead of the 1994 genocide. In Rwanda, some 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority, as well as moderate members of the Hutu majority, were killed by Hutu extremists.
“The embattled [Burundi] government may be turning to ethnic—as in Hutu vs. Tutsi—mobilization as a last-ditch means of bolstering its own legitimacy,” says Simon. “This is what happened in Rwanda. It can still happen in Burundi, even if the basic conception of ethnicity is generally different between the two countries.”
The ongoing conflict in Burundi has forced more than 230,000 people to flee to neighboring countries, including Tanzania and Rwanda. Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, recently rejected accusations by U.S.-based advocacy group Refugees International that Burundian refugees in Rwandan camps were being recruited by non-state armed militias.
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By Conor Gaffey
Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, has rejected accusations that Burundian refugees are being recruited into non-state armed groups on Rwandan soil, Reuters reported.
Burundi has seen sporadic outbreaks of violence since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term in office in April. The ongoing conflict in the East African country has created more than 220,000 refugees with 70,000 flowing into neighboring Rwanda, according to the United Nations (U.N.) refugee agency. The biggest refugee camp in Rwanda, the Mahama camp, had a population of more than 44,000 as of October, with most of the refugees coming from Burundi, according to the Rwandan government.
U.S.-based advocacy group Refugees International (RI) released a report earlier in December on the potential recruitment of Burundian refugees by armed Rwandan groups not affiliated to Kagame’s government. Citing accounts from Burundian refugees in Mahama and from international and humanitarian officials working with them, the RI report found at least 80 alleged cases of recruitment, with some refugees claiming that the rebels were looking to establish an army of around 5,000.
Recruitment was said to be for an armed group referred to as the Imbogoraburundi, which translates as “those who will bring Burundi upright/back.” Burundian refugees also claimed they were told they would be fighting on behalf of opposition parties in their country, including the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) and the National Forces of Liberation (FNL), though these claims were not verified by the parties.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Kagame—who has been president of Rwanda since 2000—rejected such allegations as “childish” and also refuted accusations by Burundian government officials that Rwanda was seeking to destabilize its neighbor. “They talk about Rwanda giving them guns to go and fight in Burundi. I haven’t seen any evidence, not the tiniest evidence to prove that,” said Kagame, without referencing the RI report directly.
Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, senior advocate at RI and the report’s co-author, says that the recent histories of violence in both Burundi and Rwanda means that “a new rebel group is a very dangerous possibility, and the possibility of Rwanda being involved would clearly lead to regional conflagration.”
Burundi suffered a 12-year civil war between 1993 and 2005, which was fought along ethnic lines between the Tutsi army and Hutu rebels. Around 300,000 people died in the war, which ended with Nkurunziza becoming president under a peace agreement.
In Rwanda, which has a similar ethnic makeup to Burundi, a three-month genocide in 1994 resulted in the deaths of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus at the hands of Hutu extremists. The RI report’s findings are “disconcerting given the history in the region and the history of proxy support by different governments for rebel groups,” says Vigaud-Walsh.
Mahama is run by the Rwandan government in coordination with the U.N., and Vigaud-Walsh says that the report allegation that Rwandan officials are “at a minimum, turning a blind eye to recruitment and may even be facilitating it” was very concerning. The report called on the government in Kigali to maintain the humanitarian nature of asylum in Rwanda and called for the U.N. refugee agency to immediately deploy additional staff to Rwanda to monitor the situation.
Frederic Ntawukuriryayo, a spokesman for the Rwandan Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, told Newsweek that the ministry rejected the findings of the RI report. “These are baseless rumours,” says Ntawukuriryayo.
A spokesman for President Nkurunziza, Willy Nyamitwe, told Newsweek that the Burundian government had evidence for the recruitment of Burundian refugees in Rwanda and the transfer of arms into Burundi from its neighbor. “We need, first of all, for them [the Rwandan government] to recognize [and] acknowledge their defeat in all attempts to destabilize the peace in Burundi,” says Nyamitwe, adding that Rwandan authorities should “focus on their own problems.”
Outbreaks of violence in Burundi are ongoing. Nearly 90 people died on December 11 after gunmen attacked three military sites in the capital Bujumbura, and the U.S. has told its citizens in Burundi to get out of the country. U.N. officials said in November that the violence in Burundi was at risk of escalating and taking on an ethnic nature, raising fears that the country could be on the brink of a genocide similar to that which occurred in Rwanda.
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Le président rwandais assimile à des enfantillages les accusations de l’ONG américaine "Refugees International".
Paul Kagame rejette ces accusations.
Plus de 73 mille Burundais vivent sur le sol rwandais.
Et selon le rapport de l'ONG américaine, certains de ces réfugiés sont recrutés par des groupes armés, puis formés sur place, au Rwanda.
Du côté burundais, le vice-président de l'Assemblée nationale a aussitôt réagi.
Edouard Nduwimana, a déclaré que le Rwanda cherche à "déstabiliser le Burundi en recrutant, en formant et en équipant" des putschistes.
Mais pour le chef de l'Etat rwandais, des ‘’ONG sans fondement font des allégations avec des motivations politique inavouées’’.
Paul Kagame dit n'avoir vu aucune preuve de ces accusations, ni aucun indice pouvant expliquer pourquoi le Rwanda voudrait soutenir un groupe rebelle contre le Burundi.
Plus de 220.000 personnes ont fui le Burundi suite à la candidature controversée du président Pierre Nkurunziza pour un troisième mandat.
Des centaines de personnes ont été tuées.
L'ONU a d'ailleurs exprimé ses craintes de voir le Burundi glisser vers une guerre civile.
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Nairobi (AFP) - Burundi faces mounting regional pressure to accept African Union peacekeepers it calls an "invasion force", diplomats said Wednesday, with the issue a key point of talks due in Uganda next week.
The 54-member African Union said last week it would send a 5,000-strong force to halt violence that has sparked fears Burundi is sliding back towards civil war, and has pledged to send troops despite Burundi's fierce opposition.
Pushing for Burundi's acceptance of the AU force will be a key part of the latest round of talks aimed at ending months of violence, regional diplomats said.
Burundi's unrest began in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in July.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will host the next round of talks between rival Burundian factions on December 28, Uganda's Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga told AFP.
"There are 14 groups including the ruling party, opposition parties and civil society who will be attending," Kiyonga said, without confirming if Nkurunziza will attend.
Hundreds of people have been killed in months of street protests in Burundi, which have devolved into frequent armed attacks with gunfire disrupting the nights and dead bodies appearing on city streets almost every day.
Talks are to be held at Uganda's presidential palace in Entebbe, just outside the capital Kampala.
But those talks will also involve the key opposition coalition, Cnared, a grouping that presents itself as upholding the Arusha peace agreement that ended more than a decade of civil war in 2006, and which they say Nkurunziza has undermined, their spokesman Jeremie Minani said.
Burundi's government has so far refused to hold talks with Cnared present, calling it "terrorist organisation" and accusing it of being behind a failed coup in May as well as the ongoing attacks on security forces in Burundi.
In Tanzania, which borders Burundi and hosts the world's third largest refugee camp of Nyarugusu with some 110,000 Burundians, President John Magufuli called for "dialogue".
Tanzania's presidency said in a statement the issue of the AU force will be a key part of the Uganda talks.
Burundi, which itself contributes several thousand troops to peacekeeping forces -- including the AU mission in Somalia and the UN one in Central African Republic -- has said there is no need for peacekeepers in Burundi.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta this week sent an envoy to meet Nkurunziza, delivering a message condemning "the use of violence to pursue political objectives" and supporting the Ugandan-led talks.
"The leaders of Burundi must place the interest of their nation... at the fore of their activities," Kenyatta said. "The guns must be silenced."
Rwandan President Paul Kagame warned the violence in the neighbouring nation had the "potential to spill over" to Rwanda, but said he would not send troops to Bujumbura, while also rejecting claims of arming Burundi refugees as rebels.
Kagame dismissed allegations levelled by Burundian officials and aid groups that Rwanda is recruiting and arming refugees as rebel fighters.
US-based advocacy group Refugees International said last week that men and boys in Rwanda's Mahama camp, run by the United Nations and Rwandan authorities, were being recruited into "non-state armed groups" and faced threats if they refused.
The charity said the Burundian recruits are trained in Rwanda and then efforts are made to send them back to Burundi via neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I haven't even seen the tiniest evidence of that so it becomes a lot of politicking," Kagame said, calling the accusations "childish".
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By Jina Moore
NAIROBI — A Washington-based refugee advocacy organization released a report today blasting the humanitarian community, especially the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), of failing to responsibly handle sexual violence reports in a Tanzanian refugee camp. The camp houses roughly 100,000 people who have fled their homes in Burundi due to the violence that began in April, in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s push for a third term.
That violence has left more than 400 people dead in Burundi and pushed another 220,000, half of them women and girls, outside the country as refugees.
“Essentially what we found is as early as June, agencies were reporting high levels of sexual violence that women and girls were reporting upon arrival in Tanzania. Despite that, the humanitarian community didn’t ramp up,” said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, the senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International.
The report lays much of the blame on UNHCR, which has taken the lead in coordinating the refugee response.
“Multiple sources [said] that those leading the response did not seem to have a firm grasp of the importance of minimum standards to reduce the risk of GBV [gender-based violence], or know how to implement them,” the report says.
But Vigaud-Walsh also found that UNHCR directly interfered with a feedback mechanism other agencies built in order to field complaints from women about unsafe conditions in the camp.
The report says: “A hotline was established and complaint boxes were installed throughout the camp. UNHCR, however, demanded that the process be halted, and the boxes remained closed and the complaints unviewed. UNCHR, as the emergency response lead, determined that it should be at the helm of organizing such an effort.”
The agency also refused to receive or respond to anonymous complaints, despite several best practices that require anonymity to protect victim confidentiality, including a 2013 inter-agency protocol, developed in consultation with UNHCR and focused on protecting refugees from sexual violence.
Joyce Mends-Cole, the UNHCR representative in Tanzania, said that this criticism is a misunderstanding. “I think what we’re saying is anonymous complaints are
very difficult to deal with, not that people can’t report anonymously,” she told BuzzFeed News by telephone.
Mends-Cole said the agency has improved reception at the border, including referrals for sexual violence victims; has reached out to local communities to reduce fears about resource scarcity or competition, hoping that this will reduce crimes committed against refugees seeking firewood; and engaged with Tanzanian security authorities on issues like security patrols during firewood collection or police response to gender-based violence.
Mends-Cole also said the sheer number of refugees was a challenge to the agency. “It was difficult to manage totally in a circumstance where you had a continuing
emergency and a continuing influx,” she said.
“I’m not going to defend us where we can’t be defended,” Mends-Cole said, acknowledging errors in shelter protocols while noting that she had not seen the Refugees International report. “But I am going to put up a robust defense when we are maligned for the wrong reasons.”
The risks for women who live at Nyarugusu are multi-layered: Many have experienced sexual violence before they arrived in Tanzania; others experience violence when moving around outside the camp; and still others report incidents of and vulnerability to violence inside the camp itself.
Between May and June, agencies documented an average of 30 cases each month — nearly one every day — of sexual violence in or around Nyarugusu camp, the report says.
Women and men both told Vigaud-Walsh that women are vulnerable when they leave the camp to look for firewood, a journey that gets longer as supplies diminish.
But women who spoke to Vigaud-Walsh also told her they don’t feel safe even inside the camp, in basic places like bathrooms, showers, or even their own shelters.
That’s partly because UNHCR didn’t follow basic protocols in building or maintaining camp structures, she said.
“I’m talking about no [gender] segregation of latrines; no wooden doors on latrines, just a plastic flap. Forget about a key,” she told BuzzFeed News by phone from Washington. “It’s two to three families to one shelter, families that did not know each other.”
Vigaud-Walsh, a veteran of humanitarian emergency response missions, said she had never seen such blatantly problematic conditions so many months into a crisis. “I was appalled,” she said.
The Sphere Minimum Standards for humanitarian emergency response, established in 1997, call for gender-segregated toilets with lockable doors, in order to best protect women.
Sources told Vigaud-Walsh that some latrines originally had lockable wooden doors, but that refugees in need of cooking fuel dismantled the doors. When UNHCR protection staff were asked why those doors and locks had not been replaced, the answer was: “We cannot do everything for the refugees. They must contribute
with something,” according to the report.
Mends-Cole acknowledged that UNHCR erred on this issue.
“In terms of the number of showers and latrines that were not properly done, I simply want to say, it was done wrong,” she said.
Women also said that basic services like food distribution exposed them to risks of sexual and gender-based violence.
“I repeatedly got complaints that food distribution starts so late [that] they end at 6 p.m. Meanwhile, there is no lighting in the camp, and we know we have a problem of sexual violence [in the camp],” Vigaud-Walsh said. “Women and girls told me they were terrified of walking home at that time.”
“It’s a real problem that basic facilities and services are viewed as places of danger, rather than safe spaces,” she said.
The UN agency has since sent a technical expert on gender-based violence to work in Nyarugusu, and Vigaud-Walsh said some things are improving. But so much damage had already been done, she said.
“These women already suffered tremendously in Burundi and during their flight to Tanzania. They are supposed to feel safe in a refugee camp,” she said. “But the response was never designed in a way that took their needs into account. The Nyarugusu camp conditions increased their risk of gender-based violence.”
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La polémique autour des allégations de soutien de Kigali à un embryon de rébellion burundaise resurgit. En cause, un rapport de l'ONG « Refugees International » publié lundi 14 décembre et qui dénonce l'enrôlement de civils burundais par des groupes armés dans le camp de réfugiés de Mahama, dans le sud-est du Rwanda. L’organisation, qui milite pour la protection des personnes déplacées, demande à la communauté internationale de sanctionner les responsables de ce recrutement. Près de 70 000 Burundais ont fui au Rwanda depuis le début de la crise dans le pays.
Refugees International se dit « profondément préoccupée par la mise en péril du caractère civil et humanitaire de l'asile au Rwanda ». En septembre et octobre derniers, l'ONG américaine s'est rendue au Rwanda où elle dit avoir recueilli des témoignages faisant état de recrutements de réfugiés burundais, dont des mineurs par « des groupes armés ». Des activités qui « constituent potentiellement de graves violations du droit international », dénonce l'organisation, et qui pourraient déstabiliser la région.
Selon l'ONG, les réfugiés interrogés assurent que ceux refusant cet enrôlement font l'objet de « menaces » voire d'agressions physiques. Des témoignages feraient aussi état d'entraînements au Rwanda par « des personnes parlant le kinyarwanda », la langue locale.
L'ONG appelle Kigali à s'assurer que « tout recrutement de réfugiés cesse immédiatement » et réclame des sanctions pour les responsables de ces actions. Des accusations « sans fondement », a réagi Séraphine Mukantabana. La ministre rwandaise en charge des Réfugiés a répété que les Burundais quittant le Rwanda rentraient chez eux dans le « respect des procédures légales ».
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By Cara E. Jones
Beginning late Thursday night, an armed insurgency attacked three Burundian army bases – one in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, and two rural outposts. As a result of these attacks, 87 people are reported dead and some estimate the casualty count is even higher.
This was the worst spate of violence since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a controversial third term, sparking protests, a failed coup and ongoing violence. The current political impasse has claimed over 600 lives since the beginning of the year, and forced over 220,000 Burundians to flee their homes.
For Burundi specialists and those interested in the causes of political violence and civil war, the violence has led to debate over its nature: is it ethnic, and thus potentially genocide? This label matters mostly because it will influence how the international community responds.
Determining whether violence is ethnic is not a straightforward process: there is both a definitional issue, of what constitutes “ethnicity,” and a practical one: what is the relationship between different forms of conflict and ethnicity? In Burundi, ethnic differences between Hutu and Tutsi, much as in the case of neighboring Rwanda, existed prior to colonial rule but were solidified by colonial and post-colonial politics. The fight for control of the Burundian state has long been a place where conflict becomes ethnic.
A primer on ethnicity in Burundi
Approximately 80 percent of Burundians are Hutu, 19 percent are Tutsi, and 1 percent are Twa. Among Burundians, ethnicity is not a taboo subject. People discuss their identities openly and freely, many even joking and laughing about stereotypes, such as the common refrain that Hutu are better at football than Tutsi, and that Tutsi are better at math.
In Bujumbura especially, ethnicity and opportunities often move together and manifest in political competition. The advantages accorded Tutsi during the previous Tutsi-led regime (1965-2001) remain, even after more than a decade of Hutu control of government. Many businesses are owned by Tutsi and high positions in foreign companies are held by Tutsi. These advantages bring a higher quality of life, including greater education opportunities and travel abroad. Acting as one of the few checks on the current, predominantly Hutu government is Burundi’s civil society, whose most prominent voices tend to be Tutsi.
The Burundian constitution divides government according to ethnic identity groups using a quota system that protects representation of minority groups with an aim to sharing power. But can post-conflict institutions provide enough stability to keep ethnic conflict from resurfacing? In the case of Burundi, the ethnic integration of the armed forces is intended to be the bulwark against a new civil war breaking out.
Burundi’s history of ethnic violence precedes its civil war (1993-2005), which began after elements of the Tutsi-dominated army assassinated the Hutu president, kicking off ethnic massacres by both groups. One haunting example is the 1972 genocide committed against Hutu elites, schoolboys, army personnel and politicians.
Historically, Burundi’s army chose sides under the old Tutsi-dominated government, but now is regulated by ethnic quotas that prevent domination by one group or the other. At least on its face, ethnic integration and redesign has kept the army from picking sides, although cracks in this facade are beginning to show with the latest attack, suspected of having support from elements of the army sympathetic to the anti-Nkurunziza crowd.
The current context
Since the outbreak of protests against Nkurunziza’s third term, both government and opposition have used ethnicized rhetoric. For example, the government and pro-government forces claim that the protests are a purely ‘urban’ phenomenon, with ‘urban’ used as an implicit cue indicating Tutsi ethnicity. Increases in ethnically charged speech prompted U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others to call for an immediate cessation of inflammatory dialogue in November.
Why would the government and opposition engage in ethnicized rhetoric? The government uses ethnic rhetoric presumably to signal to the opposition the potential violence that could come their way and incite citizens to participate in violence. The opposition uses ethnicized rhetoric to push for international intervention, which has the potential of changing the makeup of government.
Men carry away a dead body in the Nyakabiga neighborhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, a day after the government said an unidentified group carried out coordinated attacks on three military installations. (AP Photo)
More concerning than the rhetoric, however, are the ethnic patterns of violence that appear to be emerging. There are reports, for example, that security forces have targeted protesters in Tutsi minority-heavy districts of Bujumbura. These individuals have been arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of violence. Weekend violence resulted in at least 87 deaths, and witness statements and information on victims’ ethnicity strongly suggest that many of the victims were disproportionately Tutsi. The body count has not yet been verified, as victims have yet to be returned to their families, but Human Rights Watch and others have called for an official, independent inquiry.
Burundi’s ethnic quotas designed to protect against a return to violence have fallen short. The police and the intelligence services are exempt from ethnic quotas, are dominated by the ruling party, and they are believed to be the perpetrators of much of the extrajudicial violence that has plagued the country since protests began.
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Why labeling conflict “ethnic violence” matters
The politics of calling what is currently happening in Burundi “ethnic violence” are complicated. Doing so could slow or stop meaningful progress from the international community as well as Burundi’s government. International intervention and potential peacekeeping operations could be stymied by actors on all sides using loaded terms like ‘genocide’ to push political agendas. Labeling a conflict as “ethnic” could harden government positions and prevent further mediation.
There would also be regional consequences – as ethnic kinship spills over colonial borders. Burundi’s neighbors, including Uganda and Rwanda, have voiced willingness to intervene militarily should genocidal violence break out. The porousness of borders and ease of moving weapons across them could mean that ethnic kin separated by colonial boundaries might turn into supporters if civil war breaks out, as happened previously in wars in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (1996-2006).
A new report from Refugees International suggests that regional entanglements are already happening. If Rwanda is actively encouraging and supporting insurgency against the Burundian state, it is very likely to engulf Eastern Congo in more violence. It will also harden regional fault lines — Uganda and its support of Nkurunziza on one side, and Rwanda and the anti-Nkurunziza faction on the other. Furthermore, if Rwanda is supporting a nascent Burundian rebellion, it adds fuel to the ethnic argument pushed by the Burundian regime: that the government of Rwanda (assumed by Bujumbura to be Tutsi-dominated) is seeking a return to pre-2005, Tutsi-dominated politics in Burundi.
Labeling a conflict “non-ethnic” may also miss important dynamics at play and ignore the “stickiness” of ethnic identities in Burundi. Although Burundians may joke about which ethnic group is better at football, they could also use ethnicity as a political shortcut. Elites on both sides may be using ethnic cues for political goals, but without the everyday reinforcement of ethnicity in Burundian culture, society, and by its people, mobilizing people along ethnic lines would be impossible.
The events over this past weekend should raise concern. All signs point to Burundi heading toward a civil war, with a real insurgency that increasingly appears to be drawn along ethnopolitical lines.
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Burundi accused neighbouring Rwanda on Monday of supporting a rebel group that was recruiting Burundian refugees on Rwandan soil, allegations Kigali denied.
The comments were prompted by a report published by the charity Refugees International, which said it was "deeply concerned" by claims of Burundian refugees in Rwanda that they were being recruited by "non-state armed groups".
It is the latest sign of tension between the African neighbours, which each have an ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. Both have also been torn apart by ethnic conflict in the past and experts fear months of violence during a political crisis in Burundi may reopen old ethnic wounds.
More than 220,000 have fled Burundi since the crisis erupted in April, sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term. He was re-elected in a disputed July vote. Rwanda says more than 73,000 Burundians are now on its soil.
"We have been emphasising the fact that Burundi refugees are recruited into a rebel group, trained and armed by Rwanda. Burundi continues to condemn and denounce it," Burundi's presidential media adviser, Willy Nyamitwe, told Reuters.
He said armed insurgents, led by officers who launched a failed coup, had attacked Burundi in July and "found refuge in Rwanda." He said the group "continued to perpetrate terrorist attacks in Burundi," he wrote in a message via social media.
A trial began in Burundi on Monday of some of those behind the failed coup in May.
No explanations were offered as to why Rwanda, scene of a genocide in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis as well moderate Hutus were massacred, would want to support a rebel group against Burundi.
Rwanda's minister of disaster management and refugee affairs, Seraphine Mukantabana, dismissed the allegations when asked about the report by Refugees International.
"These are continuing baseless allegations," she said, dismissing the idea of any refugees going missing because of any recruitment. "Even some few refugees who return home respect all legal requirements," she said.
The minister could not immediately be reached to respond specifically to Nyamitwe's remarks, but the Rwandan government has dismissed similar accusations in the past.
Refugees International, which cited interviews with groups refugees for its recruitment claim, called on Rwanda and Burundi to respect the "humanitarian character of asylum" and protect refugees from being recruited by "non-state armed actors".
Rwanda has enjoyed international praise for rebuilding its economy after the 1994 genocide. Burundi, which is far poorer, has been in turmoil for months after a decade of relative calm since a 12-year civil war ended in 2005.
Refugees International is deeply concerned that the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum in Rwanda is being undermined. Specifically, refugees from Burundi claim they are being recruited into non-state armed groups as part of a systematic campaign involving both Burundian and Rwandan nationals. The activities they describe potentially amount to grave violations of international law, and could destabilize the region. Therefore as a matter of urgency, the parties to the conflict in Burundi, the Rwandan government, and the international community must all strongly reject and comprehensively prevent the recruitment of Burundian refugees.
The political struggle underway in Burundi has thrust that tiny Central African nation into the global spotlight. Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is seeking a third term despite being limited to two by Burundi’s constitution, and by the terms of a peace deal signed in 2000. Nkurunziza’s supporters maintain that his first term did not count because he was appointed by parliament rather than elected. His political opponents disagree.