Is Burundi on the verge of a "humanitarian catastrophe" as violence mounts in the African state?

Killings and arrests soared in December, and a peaceful solution may be some way off

Is Burundi on the verge of a "humanitarian catastrophe" as violence mounts in the African state?

A man looks across at spent bullet casings lying on a street in the Nyakabiga neighborhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 (AP Photo)

After months of unrest and violence that have left hundreds dead and forced 230,000 to flee the country, the UN Security Council is to visit Burundi later this week.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned of a "humanitarian catastrophe" on Thursday, and called on the President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government to free prisoners of conscience and lift restrictions imposed on citizens.

The eastern African state is a pressing concern for the UN, as reports of mass killings and gang-rapes by government forces in the capital Bujumbura mark a significant increase in the violence sparked by Nkurunziza's controversial decision to run for re-election last April.

So how did the current situation develop and what precautions are being taken to prevent further escalation?

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza walks to a polling station to cast his vote for the presidential election in his hometown of Ngozi, Burundi, Tuesday, July 21, 2015 (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza, File)

Nkurunziza claims a controversial third term

The current political and humanitarian crisis in Burundi began last April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel who came to power at the end of the country's civil war in 2005, announced he would be standing for a third presidential term.

Though Burundi's constitution allows a maximum of two terms in office, Nkurunziza argued that because he was appointed by parliament to his first term, this does not count towards the limit.

The decision was met with widespread outrage across Burundi. Protests on the streets of Bujumbura lasted several weeks, prompting a crackdown by the government in which six people were killed and hundreds arrested.

Security Minister General Gabriel Nizigama warned protestors in May they would be considered "criminals, terrorists and even enemies of the country".

Amid allegations of pressure and threats, Nkurunziza's right to run for a third term was approved by Burundi's constitutional court. Shortly before the decision, the Vice-President of the court fled the country, citing fears for his safety.

On May 13th, senior army figures led by Major General Godefroid Niyombare declared a coup d'état, announcing on radio that Nkurunziza, who was attending a crisis meeting in Tanzania, was dismissed.

However loyal soldiers quickly suppressed the rebels and retook control of a number of radio stations that had broadcast Niyombare's message. By May 15th, the rebel leaders had handed themselves over to government forces.

The presidential election was held on July 21st without opposition participation, and Nkurunziza was sworn in on August 20th.

Since then, violence from government forces and armed opposition groups has increased, leading to a near complete breakdown in Burundi's security.

Demonstrators opposed to a third term for President Nkurunziza march before army soldiers shot in the air to disperse the protest, in the rural area of Mugongomanga, east of the capital Bujumbura, in Burundi, Wednesday, June 10, 2015 (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

Rising violence

On Friday, a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned of worrying trends in the violence in Burundi, citing cases of sexual assault by security forces as well as disappearances and torture.

Zeid said 13 cases of sexual violence against women have so far been documented. These began during search and arrest operations that followed attacks on three military camps on December 11th.

"The pattern was similar in all cases: security forces allegedly entered the victims’ houses, separated the women from their families, and raped – in some cases gang-raped – them,” Zeid said.

During the initial search operation of December 11-12th, police and army forces arrested considerable numbers of young men, "many of whom were later tortured, killed or taken to unknown destinations”.

Members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, were reportedly involved in these incidents. In 2014, the UN described the group as acting "above the police, the army and the judiciary".

“The increasing number of enforced disappearances, coupled with allegations of secret detention facilities and mass graves is extremely alarming,” added Zeid.

Witnesses have reported at least nine mass graves in the capital containing over 100 people killed on December 11th alone. The UN is examining satellite imagery to verify these claims.

In all, December saw at least 130 killings, 29 documented cases of torture, and 42 of ill treatment. It marks a serious escalation of the violence in Burundi, which has seen at least 400 people killed since the conflict began in April of 2015, though there are fears the true number may be far higher.

"Every day there are fresh reports of bodies found on the streets of the capital," says Carina Tertsakian, a Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that it is not always clear who is responsible; government forces, police and armed opposition have all been implicated.

In some cases, people have been abducted and their bodies dumped in other neighbourhoods, leaving residents unable to identify the victims or perpetrators.

Burundian people complete their ballot papers while others wait to vote in parliamentary elections in Ngozi, Burundi, Monday, June 29, 2015 (AP Photo/Gildas Ngingo)

Reports of ethnic tensions cause concern

The UN statement also suggests some violence has been ethnically targeted. One sexually abused woman was told she was paying the price for being a Tutsi, while reports suggest that arrests and killings in some neighbourhoods of Bujumbura targeted Tutsis and not Hutus.

Burundi has a similar ethic mix to its neighbour Rwanda - about 15% Tutsi and 85% Hutu. Its civil war, which lasted from 1993 to 2005 and claimed 300,000 lives, was fought largely along ethnic lines.

“There is rampant impunity for all the human rights violations being committed by security forces and the Imbonerakure, despite ample evidence that they are responsible for more and more serious crimes,” said Zaid, who warned of inevitable disaster "if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues”.

However, Tertsakian believes that the situation in Burundi remains primarily political, "a conflict between a President and ruling party who are clinging on at any cost, and those who oppose them - ordinary people, armed groups... a mish-mash of people".

Oppositon to Nkurunziza's government comes from Hutus and Tutsi, and the government’s targeting has not been along ethnic lines, she says. Though some hard-liners have attempted to stoke the flames, Tertsakian does not believe they represent the prevailing opinion.

"The last few months have seen some worrying rhetoric and inflammatory language [but] the nasty ethnic rhetoric doesn't correspond with the opinions of ordinary Burundians," she said.

A man looks across at spent bullet casings lying on a street in the Nyakabiga neighborhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 (AP Photo)

UN "ill-prepared" for genocide

The UN's statement follows a leaked memo earlier this week in which its peacekeeping office admits it is not prepared for increased bloodshed, or in a worst-case scenario, genocide.

The memo, signed by Herve Ladsous, head of the UN's Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO), admits "a truly worst-case scenario will result in a scale of violence beyond the United Nations' capacity to protect."

The document, obtained by VICE News, considers a number of possibilities in Burundi, from continued low-level violence to acts amounting to genocide.

Should violence remain sporadic, the UN will continue to support the phased deployment of the African Union’s (AU) planned peacekeeping mission MAPROBU, first introducing observers, and later, should Burundi’s government consent, to soldiers and police.

In the case of worsening violence, plans include adopting the MAPROBU units under a UN mission or diverting troops from another mission in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Both options remain theoretical, and a UN peacekeeping force would require up to six months of planning, leaving Burundi highly vulnerable if conditions continue to deteriorate.

The memo offers an uncomfortable reminder of the UN Security Council’s failure to support its mission in Rwanda during the country's genocide in 1994. Despite many warnings from peacekeeping mission chief Romeo Dallaire, the UN's peacekeeping force was not granted sufficient resources or powers for a full-scale intervention. With little separating the extremist Hutu regime and its victims, between 800,000 and one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in just 100 days.

In this Sunday, May 24, 2015 file photo, men carry the coffin of opposition UPD-Zigamibanga party leader Zedi Feruzi during his funeral in Bujumbura, Burundi (AP Photo/Gildas Ngingo, file)

Diplomacy stalls

In December, the AU announced its plan to deploy 5,000 peacekeeping troops under the MAPROBU mission in Burundi, giving the government an ultimatum of 96 hours to accept.

Government figures reacted aggressively, demanding the AU respect its borders. Nkurunziza said in a TV address that “every Burundian will stand up and fight against” any troops who enter the country.

Article 4(h) of the AU constitution grants it the right to intervene in a member state in cases of "war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." However, a mission could not be sent without the approval of the AU General Assembly and possibly the UN Security council, neither of which are guaranteed.

Speaking to Newstalk, Paul Williams, Associate Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, says there are a number of lessons that need to be learned from previous peacekeeping efforts in the region:

"One lesson is that peace operations have a very difficult time achieving their mandated tasks if they do not have the genuine consent and support of the host state authorities.

“Another is that peace operations must never be a substitute for a political strategy to resolve the underlying conflict.”

"A third is that peace operations must be adequately resourced."

Williams believes that continuing backroom diplomatic efforts are crucial to arriving at a peaceful solution:

"The AU and UN should be working hard behind the scenes to make sure the re-launched Burundi dialogue is as inclusive as possible and [to] try and engineer a political settlement to this problem".

Their priority, he says, should be to persuade the Burundi’s government to accept MAPROBU and to continue their contingency planning in Burundi.

Attempts by the AU to mediate the conflict, led by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, have made little headway so far.

Peace talks organised by the East African Community on January 6th in Arusha, Tanzania – the scene of the agreement that ended Burundi’s 12-year civil war - fell apart as Burundi's government refused to attend.

The delegation pulled out, saying it could not meet with “criminals” and “terrorists” in the opposition umbrella group CNARED.

CNARED is a broad church of civil society members, religious figures and established opposition leaders. Its constituent groups do not necessarily have a shared vision, but they have requested international intervention.

"CNARED requires above all an immediate end to the massacres, because we cannot negotiate while people are about to be killed," the organisation's spokesman Pancrace Cimpaye said on December 28th during peace talks in Kampala, Uganda. He also called for the "immediate deployment" of the AU's MAPROBU force.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 29 2015, Burundian refugees attend a rally addressed by Tanzania Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, at Nduta refugee camp in Kigoma, Tanzania (AP Photo)

An impossible existence for ordinary Burundians

230,000 Burundians have fled the country since the political crisis began, most of them during the first half of 2015.

Most are staying in refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania, with others in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Conditions in many camps are dire, with Burundians - particularly women - finding themselves again at risk of violence.

Ugandan Minister Musa Ecweru told IRIN News his country was "overwhelmed and overstretched" by the needs of feeling Burundians as it already provides shelter of over half a million refugees.

A report by Refugees International in December highlighted claims of Burundian refugees in Rwanda being recruited into armed opposition militias, some through intimidation and death threats.

The NGO called on Rwanda to immediately cease any attempts to recruit refugees on its soil and for the UN High Commision for Refugees to deploy additional protection staff to the camps.

Burundi’s government has also accused its neighbour of arming opposition groups, but Rwanda’s Paul Kagame dismissed such allegations, calling them “childish”.

In Burundi itself, the exodus has left few to speak out against the government.

“Leading human rights activists, journalists and those in civil society are almost all gone,” says Tertsakian. “There’s no one to provide balance to government or to document”.

"Burundi had an open media but that has now been destroyed. Popular radio stations have been shut down and 10 Civil Society Organisations have been suspended."

“Police conduct very brutal searches - beating, torturing and killing. It's extremely difficult and people can't move freely”.

The case of leading human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa offers a grim example of how unsafe the country has become for those willing to speak out.

A vocal opponent of Nkurunziza, Mbonimpa was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in August. His son-in-law was killed in October and his son in Novermber, after being arrested by police.

In search of solutions

The arrival of the 15-member UN Security Council on Thursday carries with it hopes that Nkurunziza's government will eventually yield to peace negotiations.

Beyond this, the AU Peace and Security Council will meet on January 29th, where heads of state will hold a closed session on the Chairperson of the African Union Commission's report on Burundi. On January 30th and 31st the AU Assembly will meet in Addis Ababa, where Burundi is likely to feature heavily in discussions. 

Tertsakian says maintaining international pressure on Burundi is of prime importance, and though the government has proven intransigent so far, it remains the best option to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Burundi.