– The massacre of 41 people in a bar near Bujumbura on 18 September was one of the most deadly incidents in Burundi in recent years but it took place in a climate of constant low-level violence and political instability.
Violent deaths are reported on an almost daily basis in the central African country’s media yet government promises of investigations rarely, if ever, lead to the prosecution of perpetrators.
The bar shooting took place in Gatumba, 13km west of the capital and close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Witnesses said some of the attackers wore military uniforms.
No evidence has emerged to support suggestions that the attack was carried out by the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL), a political party and former rebel group, which, according to a December 2010 UN report, was in the process of remobilizing in eastern DRC.
Visiting Gatumba after the massacre, President Pierre Nkurunziza said his security forces already knew the names of some of the attackers.
“I give a month to the police, the judiciary and the population to join their efforts and identify those behind the killing, wherever they are, in Burundi or outside,” he said.
The government has repeatedly dismissed the idea that the FNL presents a security threat, insisting “bandits” are to blame for previous killings in the country.
A commission of inquiry set up to investigate the deaths of dozens of people found floating in the Ruzizi River last year has led to no arrests so far.
“We have had many Gatumbas in this country,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, chairman of Forum de Renforcement de la Societé Civile, a grouping of civil society organizations.
Calling for investigations into “killings that have targeted FNL supporters with the intent to exterminate them”, he added that some 60 people across the country had been killed in the month of May 2011 alone.
According to human rights activist Claver Mbonimpa, that figure rose to 97 by the end of June.
“In some places bodies are discovered and hastily buried without investigations into the circumstances of their deaths,” said Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, who chairs the National Independent Human Rights Commission.
He also called on the government to “bring to trial the perpetrators of the Gatumba massacre and all preceding crimes, whatever their origin, position, political membership”.
While the opposition accuses the government and particularly its youth wing, Imbonerakure, and the national intelligence services of arresting and killing opposition and especially FNL supporters, the government, for its part, blames the opposition for the climate of insecurity.
“Instead of accusing one another, the government and opposition should sit together and find an adequate framework for dialogue,” said François Bizimana, spokesman for the Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD) opposition party.
In a statement released on 20 September, Human Rights Watch noted tension in Burundi had risen over recent weeks.
“Whereas most of the victims of killings in previous months were low-level rank-and-file members – or former members – of the FNL, those targeted recently have included more prominent individuals. They include demobilized FNL commander Audace Vianney Habonarugira, shot dead in July 2011; Dédithe Niyirera, FNL representative in Kayanza province, killed in Kayanza in late August 2011; and former FNL commander Edouard Ruvayanga, killed in Bujumbura on September 5,” HRW said.
“The political violence has been characterized by a pattern of reprisals, with killings by one side typically followed by killings by the other. In the majority of cases, the perpetrators have enjoyed complete impunity,” the statement added.