The world appears away as blood flowings in Burundi

The world appears away as blood flowings in Burundi

More than a quarter of a million people have fled in terror as opposition militias plot their return. Without international assistance a humanitarian disaster looms

Thierry wants to talk, but chokes on memories of jolts and stabs punctuated by the sound of his father pleading for their own lives before masked men hacked him to demise. He shrinks into himself, cold and small on a damp wooden bench simply inside Tanzania. Hell is just a couple of kilometres and a river intersecting away, in the country he called home until two hours ago.

Blood flows everywhere in Burundi, thats how things are, said the young farmer, rolling up his trouser legs and a shirt sleeve to present cuts and bruises almost as raw as his anguish. He asked that his name be changed to protect household still inside Burundi. A refugee at 27, he is just one victim of a crisis that has pushed more than a quarter of a million people into exile, and now threatens the tenuous stability of a region with a grim history of genocide. Torment, assault, abduction and slaying fill the stories of those who have fled.

I want to forget everything about Burundi, even our names, said another young man, who has collapsed at a refugee enrollment post after carrying his 16 -year-old sister, pregnant after rape, across a river to security. They left behind the grave of another sister, killed last year by a government bullet.

Survivors warn that, as the violence spirals and gossips grow of opponent militias training programs in neighbouring countries, a government fearful of losing its grip has resorted to the poisonous ethnic propaganda that fuelled the countrys past wars and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Yet the world doesnt seem to have noticed. There is little sense of international importance about halting Burundis disintegration, and aid groups say there is even less interest in funding food and shelter for victims.

Our country is on the brink of war, and we feel forgotten, said Genevieve Kanyange, a senior defector from the ruling party who expended weeks in hiding before fleeing into exile. If we dont get help soon, it may be too late.

Violence first flared last year when the flamboyant chairwoman, Pierre Nkurunziza, a former PE teacher, militia commander and devout born-again Christian, informed the committee that he was casting aside the constitution to run for a third term.

That triggered a failed coup endeavor, mass protests and a crackdown that has become a permanent state of violence. On median, more than a hundred people a day have staggered across the Tanzanian border in 2016, figures from aid agencies working in the region show.

They join the 250,000 or so who were already spread across Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of last year, in camps that are desperately overcrowded and short of food. An appeal for funds has raised merely 1 in every 10 needed, a United Nations spokesman said.

Men carry away a dead body in the Nyakabiga neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi in December. Photo: STR/ AP

Most refugees have travelled at night, through scrub and forest, to avoid militias hunting down would-be defectors, who they brand traitors. Some of the people they intercept are sent back with a warn, but many are assaulted and murdered.

They took our money, beat us and asked, Dont you support the president? said Kigeme Kabibi, a 30 -year-old mother of five who first tried to escape after her husband was shot and, like almost all ordinary Burundian refugees, asked to be known by a pseudonym for anxiety of reprisal assaults for talking to foreign media. On a second attempt she stayed away from roads and stimulated it over to Tanzania.

The government apparently hopes that, if it can stem the status of refugees crisis, an already confused international community will find it easier to ignore problems within Burundis tight perimeters. The controls are so tight that tens of thousands of vulnerable people have gone into hiding inside the country, sheltering in forests or the homes of friends, rather than risk a crossing.

For those who do make it across, Tanzania offers merely the most basic protection. The famine of financial resources and flood of new arrivals mean that refugee camps are packed, that food rations rarely stretch to more than one meal a day, and that women and children report high levels of sexual assault.

Fabian Simbila is a health employee who fulfilled Thierry and his family at a tiny perimeter outpost for enrollment. He can call in providing assistance to medical emergencies and offers blankets to ward off the cold, but has no food for households who have walked, sometimes for days, on empty stomachs. They arrive during the evening and have nothing to eat until they get taken to the official refugee camps the next day. Its difficult, you feel sorry for them. But what can I do? he said. With dozens of people arriving each day, his own modest salary would not stretch to rations for them all.

Women at the IRC womens centre at Nyarugusu. Photograph: Griff Tapper/ IRC

Hunger in Tanzania is still a welcome change from snacks feed in terror at home for some. Tonight maybe I can even sleep again, said Jacques, a 21 -year-old farmer who fled with his parents from a village in the border province of Ruyigi. He had not feed for more than 24 hours, but said the family did not mind.

I didnt want to live through the things I find as a child again, he said, referring to a long-running civil war that ended in 2005. They are catching young men and stab and beat them, and rape women. We are sick of people dying like goats. Also my father is old and prayed us to leave now, because he would not be able to run if a crisis came fast.

The testimony of rural refugees like Jacques is important because Burundis rural areas are so poor and severely connected that activists often have only a flimsy comprehend on the violence playing out there. In the capital, Bujumbura, and other major towns, a network of sympathisers use smartphones to smuggle out information about killings and disappearances at great risk to themselves, said lawyer and activist Lambert Nigarura.

There are few telephones, internet connects or connections to activist networks in the villages of one of the poorest countries in the world, entailing those intended to publicise violence have to rely on more old-fashioned and riskier techniques. Up country its much harder to get things out; they are happening away from the camera, said Nigarura, remembering one series of abuses flagged up by letter. We have observers merely in some areas, so when something happens where the objective is, we know. If its somewhere else, we dont.

Rural residents are also cut off from news about the scale of assessments of the national crisis. Televisions are increasingly rare outside towns and the government shut down all the countrys independent radio stations last May. The most popular station, Radio Publique Africaine, was even hit by a rocket to underline the message. The country stations that survive pump out propaganda rather than information.

In the village, people were killed, but you didnt hear anything about it on the radio, said Fabrice, a 54 -year-old who decided to leave with his wife and 12 infants after his brother-in-law was abducted in the night. They do not expect to see him again, after they called the local incarcerate and officials said he wasnt there.

The family had delayed leaving even as villages slowly emptied, because like most people in the camps they feel it is a one-way journey. As soon as they know we are here, they will have automatically taken our land, adds Fabrice. We can never go back.

His fears are echoed by aid agencies that say they expect to be supporting Burundian refugees for many years to come, even if the violence is halted within months. I find no prospect or desire to return to Burundi. This is a serious and likely long-term displacement, said International Rescue Committee head David Miliband. I think we have got to prepare for the worst, which is a multi-year crisis, with people still coming.

He was speaking after a visit to Nyarugusu camp , now the third-biggest refugee centre in the world, a sprawling shanty town of the dispossessed and home to more than 150,000 people.

Burundian refugees listen to Tanzanian PM Kassim Majaliwa speak at Nduta camp in Kigoma, Tanzania. Photo: STR/ AP

The luckier exiles, with money or relatives to take them in, have mostly ended up in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where journalists, activists and politicians gather information smuggled out of Burundi and argue about how to raise the profile of the crisis and end the violence.

Most are wary of a military escalation and say that foreign peacekeepers are the countrys best hope of avoiding war. But amongst the camps of refugees and scattered exiles are a growing number of angry, mourning survivors who want to return with a gun in their hands. I wish I could go back and oppose, but I dont know where to sign up, says one exile scarred from torture in a government prison, who asked to be known as Billy Ndiyo to protect relatives left behind when he fled Burundi.

Ndiyo had been a driver until the crisis. The economic commotion it precipitated left him unemployed. He was rounded up by militiamen in the street when he went out to buy bread last summer. He had not is engaged in politics, and thinks he was seized simply because he was a young man in an area known as an opposition stronghold.

Driven to a villa at the back of a military compound that activists say they know has been used as a prison, Ndiyo was handcuffed, beatens and stabbed in the face with a bayonet. He picked it up and stabbed me only above the eye, hollering, Dont you dare look at me. I put up my hand to try and stop the bleed, and he jabbed at it, then assaulted my head and other hand with the knife. There was blood everywhere and the last injury induced me pass out.

He came to in a tiny cell where eight other weary captives, some acquaintances from his neighborhood, told him he was unlikely to leave alive. He soon watched why. They came in the night for two of the prisoners. They told them, Come, we have found a suitable place for you and no one has seen them since. When they came to take another the next night, he was crying and tried to defy, so they started stabbing him in front of our eyes.

Fortunately for Ndiyo, a rich and well-connected relative managed to buy his freedom and send him straight-out to a nearby perimeter. His cellmates are almost certainly all dead, he thinks.

It is difficult to verify the stories of many refugees, because of the unrest inside Burundi and a clampdown on visas. But the narratives told by people from different parts of the country feature common patterns of violence, torturing techniques and perpetrators.

Burundian refugees return from an hours-long trip outside the Nyarugusu refugee camp to collect firewood. Photograph: Griff Tapper

Many of those held or killed in government prison say they were grabbed off the street by security forces and militia claiming to be hunting for rebels. These raids became so common that in some areas young men would stay inside their homes for weeks at a time.

The other common form of public violence has played out in raids on homes, usually on the pretence of go looking for illegal weapons. They just come into your house thinking you are in a different political party and say they are searching for firearms. Even if they dont find any, they take people away and no one knows where they go, said Fabrice.

Those who killed Thierrys father accused him of belonging to a rebel group, even though the old person had lived through years of violence without taking up limbs. My parent was praying them, I dont have a gun. Even if you gave me yours, I wouldnt know how to use it.

Other forms of torture range from the security forces employ of bayonets to slash and stab to the gruesomely obscure. Several recounted militias tying tub of water to humen penis with a short string and forcing them to stand up and down, their genitals strained by the weight.

A member of Burundis military on patrol as police try weapons in Bujumbura. Photograph: Griff Tapper/ IRC

The perpetrators of many atrocities are masked, anonymous men. But a group repeatedly named in tales of detention and harassment is the feared youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure. Their name entails those who consider far in the local Kirundi language, and they grew out of the same disbanded militia as the ruling party. Critics say they have never fully shaken off the mentality of war, although the government insists they are just a political group.

They also appear to be involved in reported efforts to turn the conflict into an ethnic one. Burundi neighbours Rwanda and has a similar ethnic make-up to the country whose genocide in 1994 still casts long shadows of dishonor and dread. Like Rwanda, Burundi has also considered bitter, genocidal wars between Hutu and Tutsi.

A carefully structured peace agreements that objective the most recent war in 2005 had defused many of those tensions, creating an ethnic balance across the military, government and even state-owned firms. Groups such as the Imbonerakure are outside those formal power structures and undermine them.

The army is already divided. Last month a senior army policeman seen as close to Nkurunziza was shot dead while reading a noticeboard inside military headquarters.

Dissident and loyalist members of the army are killing each other. What can that point to but a very high risk? said Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa analyst at the International Crisis group. If we have a look at Burundis history, we can see there is a extremely serious danger of mass atrocity violence.

With the government preaching hatred, there is a risk that Burundi could fracture further along ethnic lines, and an army at war with itself could drag the country back into full-blown civil war.

We think the regime is trying to turn this into an ethnic dispute. Our term is ethnicisation from above, said Moncrieff. This is a government using propaganda towards its population, and its difficult to see it resulting anywhere run A distressed history A Burundian kingdom emerged as early as the 1500 s. It was afterwards colonised by Germany and then Belgium.

1960s Burundi declares independence, under King Mwanbutsa IV. When Hutus win a majority in parliamentary elections 3 years later, he refuses to appoint a Hutu prime minister. In 1966 army chief Michel Micombero seizes power.

1970s Government troops massacre more than 100,000 people in the south after a Hutu-led uprising in 1972. Micombero is deposed in a military coup.

1980s Another military coup brings Pierre Buyoya to power in 1987. A year later thousands of Hutus are massacred by Tutsis. Many more flee to Rwanda.

1993 A pro-Hutu government is installed in June after multi-party polls. In October, Tutsi soldiers assassinate the president, triggering revenge killings of Tutsis and then army reprisals. It is the start of an ethnic conflict that will assert more than 300,000 lives.

1994 A Hutu chairwoman, Cyprien Ntaryamira, is appointed in February but dies two months later when the plane carrying him and his Rwandan counterpart, Juvnal Habyarimana, is shot down, defining off Rwandas genocide.

2000 Arusha peace deal is agreed, which lays the basis for a power-sharing rule in Burundi, though the war rages on for several years.

2005 Pierre Nkurunziza is elected president. He wins a nationwide poll in 2010 after opposition parties boycott it, and in 2015 argues that his unusual road to office allowed him to elude the constitution and stand for one more term.

2015 After a failed takeover attempt, Nkurunziza wins a third term with 70% of the vote. A campaign of violence, slaying and intimidation triggers a regional refugee crisis, destroys the economy and isolates Burundi.

2016 International efforts to halt the crisis are stepped up, but to little consequence. UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon visits Burundi, the EU haltings aid payments, and UK, European and US governments impose sanctions on several senior figures. The African Union considers sending in peacekeeping troops.

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