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Burundi - A knife or a steel bar? How would you prefer to be killed?

04 September 2017

Most of them are young. They even include minors. Some participated in demonstrations against President Nkurunziza's new mandate in the spring of 2015 or were members of opposition parties. Many others say they never took part in the protests or engaged in any political activity. But all of them have seen their lives descend into horror.

Alphonse* was 22 years old when he was arrested in his neighbourhood, along with many others. "Soldiers tied our elbows together. They kicked us and beat us with electrical cables, steel bars and the butts of their guns. Members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, joined in." 

Arrested at home or in the street, these victims of torture are among around 500 people who agreed to talk to the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2016.

They describe ill-treatment, insults, sexual violence and summary executions. They show their scars, burn marks, fractures or disabilities resulting from the torture. Their testimonies illustrate the extreme cruelty and brutality of the perpetrators, most often members of the Burundian national intelligence services (SNR), police, military and Imbonerakure.

Jean, Marie Claudette and others

Some of these young people thought it was all over for them. "A policeman put his gun in my mouth and loaded it", one of them recalls.

Another states: "They made us lie on the ground, tied us up and asked us to choose how we wanted to die: with a knife or a steel bar."
Some people have disappeared without a trace. Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with the independent media Iwacu, has not been seen since 22 July 2016. Marie Claudette Kwizera, treasurer of the Burundian human rights organisation Ligue Iteka, was taken away in an SNR vehicle on 10 December 2015 and never seen again. Many other families are also desperately waiting for their loved ones to return.

Then there are those who will not return and will never be able to testify. "They lined us up and started to shoot. The first man got a bullet in the head. His brain exploded onto the person next to him", continues Alphonse, who saw two of his friends die in this way.

Hope for justice

Many still live in terror, even if they have been released or are living in exile as refugees.  "I used to be very dynamic and sociable. Now, I am withdrawn and I hardly ever leave the house.  I am in constant pain, despite the medication", explains Alphonse. Despite the fear, the threats against them and their families and the physical and psychological consequences, he and hundreds of others have chosen to speak out. 

In a country where impunity is the rule, where human rights defenders and the media are muzzled or forced into exile, testifying to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi provides hope that one day, justice will be done and the perpetrators of these crimes will appear in court. "Even if it takes years," says the young man, "I will speak about what they did to me."

4 September 2017

* Not his real name.