Activists remember Burundi's Gatumba massacre

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Human rights groups around the world are marking the first anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, in which more than 150 Congolese "Banyamulenge" Tutsis were killed, at a refugee camp in western Burundi.

"On this first anniversary of this unspeakable atrocity, we have the moral obligation to honour the memory of these people who were killed just because of their Tutsi ethnic origins", said Emmanuel Nkurunziza of the Burundian campaign group "Action Contre Genocide".

"The search for those responsible for the massacre continues", said the UN's mission to Burundi (ONUB), in a statement.

In the immediate aftermath of the Gatumba attack, the hardlined Hutu-extremist rebel group Palipehutu-FNL (FNL) claimed responsibility, saying that they had no fear of being held to account because they had become "untouchable". UN investigators suggest that Rwandan and Congolese milita groups may also have been involved in the attack. The FNL later claimed that the refugee camp was a military base. The UN has found no evidence for this claim, and human rights groups pointed out that nearly half of the dead were children.

2,000 people, including survivors and relatives of the dead, today attended a memorial service in Burundi, Reuters has reported.

"What happened on August 13 was a genocide... One year after the massacre nothing has been done... We demand that justice be done", Banyamulenge spokesman Binagana Amon is quoted as saying. Amon also criticised the United Nations for its "silence" over the attack.

The London-based "International Action Network on Small Arms" (IANSA) today paid tribute to the 156 victims of Gatumba, who included a local member of the organisation, Pastor Jaques Rutekereza.

"His deep faith gave him the courage to face his awful death, and the death of those he loved, with dignity and courage", IANSA said last year, in a statement honouring Rutekereza. "The world has lost a great man. It has lost a man of peace."

Rutekereza died with six of his children, according to IANSA.

Members of the Congolese diaspora have been active in the commemorations. The community in Portland, Maine has organised a weekend of events, including public testimonies from those who lost loved ones in the attack, and a talk by John B. Robinson, who helped produce the film "Hotel Rwanda."

"We can't forget them", Georges Budagu told the Portland Press Herald.

"We want to make sure the United Nations and the United States use their influence to bring those people... to justice". Three of Budagu's cousins died in the massacre.

The UN, in turn, asked the Burundian authorities to do more to pursue the perpetrators:

"In the name of the victims, and as part of the effort to end impunity for the killings and massacres that have plagued this region for too many years, we urge the Government of Burundi to complete its investigation, issue the report of its findings and bring those responsible to justice."

The UN also repeated its call for Burundi to involve the International Criminal Court in the investigation. Previous efforts had stalled due to opposition to the Court within the UN Security Council.

Following the FNL's admission of responsibility for Gatumba, the Burundian government produced international arrest warrants for the group's leaders Agathon Rwasa and Pasteur Habimana. Regional heads condemned the group as a terrorist organisation, with South African's President Thabo Mbeki likening the FNL's ideology to that of the Nazis. Yet when Rwasa held a press conference in Tanzania in May, no attempt was made to arrest him. A ceasefire deal signed soon afterwards broke down within days.

Burundi's refugee minister Francoise Ngendahayo today said that her government is committed to seeing justice for the victims of Gatumba.

"Those responsible will be arrested but Burundi cannot do this work alone, we need the collaboration of the DR Congo and the UN", she told Reuters.

Burundi's President-elect recently suggested that the FNL could be allowed to join his government. Some analysts believe that offering the group an amnesty might help bring peace to Burundi. Others argue that this could make the situation worse.

"For reasons of diplomacy, people are sitting at the exact same table as war criminals, and in some cases granting them immunity. If the atrocities are to end there must be at least some indications that justice will be done", Human Rights Watch spokesman Stephan Van Praet told Reuters, in the aftermath of Gatumba.

Action Contre Genocide's Emmanuel Nkurunziza today criticised the UN for what he called a "paradoxical" response to the massacre. Despite widespread international condemnation of the attack, the UN representative in Burundi Carolyn McAskie held face-to-face meetings with the FNL in Nairobi earlier this year.

"There was no repentance from these killers prior to the meeting; nonetheless, she went on to relay their so-called demands", he said.

Local media recently reported 300 civilian deaths at the hands of the FNL during June and July. An estimated 300,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Burundi since civil war broke out in 1993.