Goma — Victims of an armed attack on a refugee camp in Burundi and their families are still waiting for justice and compensation 15 years later. The attack on the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi killed more than 150 Congolese civilians and wounded another 106.
A criminal case was opened in 2013 but stalled in 2014 and has not resumed since. The Burundian authorities should guarantee that the judiciary remains independent from political interference and ensure that justice is delivered in accordance with Burundian and international law.
"The government has a responsibility to deliver justice to survivors and victims' families," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Ending impunity for this benchmark case would help bring closure after years of suffering for those affected by the attack and would demonstrate that accountability is taken seriously in Burundi."
On August 13, 2004, members of the National Forces of Liberation (Forces nationales de libération, FNL) targeted mostly Banyamulenge refugees - Congolese Tutsi from the province of South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo - based on their ethnicity. The FNL, a predominantly Hutu Burundian rebel movement, shot and burned them to death, while sparing refugees from other ethnic groups and Burundians living in another part of the camp.
Human Rights Watch research at the time found that soldiers and police of the Burundian armed forces failed to intervene, even though the slaughter took place within a few hundred meters of their camps. Soldiers of a United Nations peacekeeping force were unable to save the civilians because they were told of the attack only when it was over. The victims had fled armed conflict in Congo and were living in the refugee camp, which was close to the Congolese border.
One survivor of the 2004 Gatumba massacre recently told Human Rights Watch: "Fifteen years later, we remember vividly what happened. I was 11 years old at the time, but the pain of someone burning to death is unbearable. It's not something you forget."
Soon after the massacre, the FNL claimed responsibility for the attack. Several years later though, its spokesperson at the time, Pasteur Habimana, denied making that statement. The FNL, the armed wing of the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People-National Forces of Liberation (Palipehutu-FNL), disarmed and became a political party in 2009, marking the end of the civil war.
But in the same way that the attack was used by various armed groups and contenders for power within Congo and Burundi for their own political ends, justice in this case appears to have been politicized.
One of two FNL leaders against whom Burundian authorities issued arrest warrants in 2004 concerning the killings was Agathon Rwasa, who remains a prominent opposition figure. Rwasa was never arrested under the warrant and judicial authorities announced in September 2013 that a case was opened to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Gatumba. Rwasa asserted that as a former leader of the Palipehutu-FNL, he benefits from the "provisional immunity" awarded under the 2006 ceasefire agreement that helped end the civil war. The spokesperson of the prosecution service at the time told the media that "this immunity does not cover crimes against humanity and war crimes."
The Burundian law adopted to implement the 2006 ceasefire agreement clearly excludes crimes against humanity and war crimes from the immunity granted to parties to the conflict. Blanket amnesties for serious crimes under international law are in violation of a state's international legal obligations.
This decision to open the case coincided with Rwasa's return to the country to run for president in the 2015 election under the FNL. His only scheduled court appearance in December 2014 was delayed indefinitely, and since then there has been no meaningful progress toward achieving justice.
Since the end of the civil war in Burundi in 2009, in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed in largely ethnically motivated attacks, political violence has persisted. Scores of people died in politically motivated killings between 2010 and 2012, in the aftermath of the 2010 elections. Many victims were FNL members or former members perceived to be close to Rwasa, killed by state security agents or people linked to the ruling party. Suspected members of the FNL and other armed groups also targeted members of the ruling party in reprisal attacks. The majority of these crimes have gone unpunished.
Hundreds more have died in politically motivated killings since the outbreak of a crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in April 2015. Political tensions continue to rise ahead of Burundi's 2020 presidential elections. In 2019, Rwasa registered a new party, the National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL). Since then, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and beatings targeting its real or suspected members, mostly carried out with almost total impunity by state security agents or people linked to the ruling party.
"Burundian authorities should take the necessary steps to ensure that those responsible for the Gatumba massacre are tried credibly and impartially," Mudge said. "The absence of criminal prosecutions for killing on one side often provides pretexts for those who wish to carry out killing on the other, and justice is key to preventing further atrocities."