Burundi's Exiles Call World's Attention to Deadly Crisis
Burundi-born Eric Ndayisenga and his friends in exile religiously listen to a radio station that urges liberation from the deadly political violence back home. One day the report brought grief instead.
His sister Zainabu and a friend had been found dead, stabbed and their throats slit, in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.
Ndayisenga believes his sister's fate would have been unknown if not reported by the station linked to the Forebu rebel group, supported by exiles who press the international community to act on Burundi's crisis.
Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled the small East African nation in the two years since President Pierre Nkurunziza set off protests by declaring he would seek another term. After the armed forces put down an attempted coup, he won election amid alleged revenge killings and the unrest has continued.
The country returned to the spotlight this month when six Burundian teenagers disappeared after an international robotics competition in Washington. It remains unclear why they acted, but the director of a school that sent two of the teens said it's likely because life is hard at home.
Other Burundian exiles are trying to build opposition to Nkurunziza, highlighting crimes they say are committed by the security forces and armed groups loyal to the government. In the rebel-backed radio known as MbohozaGihugu, which means "liberate the country," some exiles say they have found a voice.
In Kigali, the capital of neighboring Rwanda where the exiles feel safe, scores of Burundians set up a bar in whose dark corners they meet regularly to follow broadcasts. Though it appears that a once-serious threat to oust Nkurunziza has fizzled, they hope to isolate the president by rallying international opinion.
"Every struggle has its risks and this is the right time to pay that price and chase away Nkurunziza," Ndayisenga said.
The online activist group iBurundi, with over 18,000 followers on Twitter, says the focus is on "showing government abuses." Though the shootings and bomb blasts that once characterized life in Bujumbura are fewer now, "repression continues in a stealth way," the group told The Associated Press.
Many non-governmental organizations that once monitored government activities have been suspended or have seen leadership flee into exile, said Yolande Bouka, an independent analyst now based in the United States.
The international community recently expressed alarm about videos showing pro-government youth militia members singing about impregnating the regime's opponents and comparing the opposition to lice.
Burundi's government vehemently denies allegations it tortures and kills its critics, and says it is the victim of propaganda by its opponents in exile.
Nkurunziza rose to power in 2005 following the signing of the Arusha accords ending a 13-year civil war that killed about 300,000 people, then was re-elected unopposed in 2010 after the opposition boycotted the vote. He said he was eligible for a third term in 2015 because lawmakers, not the general population, had chosen him for his first term, while critics called the move unconstitutional.
His decision to run again plunged Burundi, a poor country that exports mostly coffee and depends heavily on foreign aid, into fresh turmoil.
The European Union and former colonizer Belgium have since cut some aid. But there is a sense that the international community has accepted Nkurunziza's extended stay in power, Bouka said.
The president has largely retreated from public view in the capital and spends many days touring rural provinces. A visit to Tanzania this week was his first trip outside Burundi since the failed coup attempt of May 2015.
The country's unrest has come with warnings of a return to the government-backed ethnic violence that once led to civil war.
Many Burundians abroad believe Nkrurunziza, an ethnic Hutu, is purging some army officers, mostly ethnic Tutsis, allegations repeated in a report this month by the International Federation for Human Rights. The Paris-based group collaborated with local groups to report alleged detentions, killings and disappearances of hundreds of Tutsi army officers.
Tutsis make up 14 percent of Burundi's 11 million people; most of the rest are Hutus. According to the Arusha accords, Tutsis should hold 40 percent of posts in the government and the national assembly, as well as 50 percent of all seats in the Senate and the military. Observers say that is not the case.
"Soldiers are being tortured or killed because many are against the violation of the Arusha (accords),"said Maj. Lambert Nyongera, a former army officer who says he disobeyed an order in 2015 to shoot into a crowd of protesters.
Nyongera, an ethnic Tutsi now exiled in Congo, joined the Forebu rebel group and is one of the architects of MbohozaGihugu, which says it receives information from sympathizers still serving in Nkurunziza's government.
Its broadcasts —distributed via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp — include teachings on the Arusha accords, seen as a blueprint for sharing power between Tutsis and Hutus.
On the streets of Bujumbura many people remain anxious, with some noting more police patrols and others describing a climate of fear.
"We cannot say there is security in our country while people disappear or are kidnapped," said resident Diomede Bukuru. "Two months ago a relative of mine was taken by unknown persons. We've searched in police and intelligence custody but we did not find him. Our relative Augustin till now is missing. So for me there is no security."