Burundi: Could the discovery of mass graves spur the world to intervene?

Ambassadors from the United Nations Security Council are in Burundi to seek a path out of a violent political crisis that has drawn warnings of possible genocide.

Young men hold a banner on the road that the convoy of the United Nations Security Council delegation took, in Bujumbura, Burundi Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. A delegation of the U.N. Security Council arrived in Burundi Thursday to try to help end political unrest that has sparked deadly violence.

Yvette Habonimana remembers what it was like watching the police carry away dead bodies of young men after what locals call the 12/12 massacre in December.

“They threw them into the back of a pickup truck,” says Ms. Habonimana, an active civil society member in her neighborhood, whose name has been changed for her safety. “There were some with their heads cut off. They put the heads in sacks and put those in the truck too. Then they drove off. ”

The 12/12 massacre, a deadly government crackdown prompted by the attack of military sites by opposition gunmen, was the  worst outbreak of violence in Burundi since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid launched a political crisis last spring. 

Then days after, eyewitness reports of mass graves began to emerge. Indeed, the location of these young men's bodies will be high on the agenda when a United Nations Security Council delegation meets with President Nkurunziza and the opposition Friday, in what many see as a last ditch diplomatic effort to push for dialogue after failed peace talks.

Last week the UN acknowledged reports of mass graves and expressed alarm over a surge in reported human rights violations by Burundian security forces. The US State Department also released a memo this week raising similar concerns.

For many here, this visit by the Security Council — its second to the Central African nation in less than a year — could be a step closer by the the international community towards intervening in Burundi over fears that the crisis could devolve into an ethnically fueled civil war similar to one that ended a decade ago here. The African Union has already said it is set to send 5,000 peacekeepers to protect Burundian civilians, but the government has vowed to fight foreign intervention, stressing state sovereignty.

And though skepticism remains high among Burundians and regional experts, the belief is that investigations into these mass graves could be a turning point that prompts more decisive international action.

“Whenever you have a number of sources that seem to confirm the presence of human rights violations, it’s the kind of red flag where the international community in theory should move fast,” says Yolande Bouka, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.

“But if mass graves and the use of rape by security agents is not enough…it’s puzzling what’s still necessary [to prompt intervention].”

Starting investigations

So far, no official investigation has been launched by the UN and diplomatic missions, though both the US and UN have called for a thorough investigation. And in a memo last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said his office is “analyzing satellite images in an effort to shed more light on these extremely serious allegations” over the existence of mass graves.

“All of the alarm signals are flashing red,” he said.

International NGOs also cannot launch independent investigations unless authorized to do so by the Burundian government, says Shahin Ammane of International Committee of the Red Cross in Burundi.

“We have all the capacity and expertise to help. We’ve never been asked to do it,” she adds.

Another international NGO source, wishing to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of their relationship with the government, acknowledges that “the government has so far refused help. Why? Because they are behind it.”

Locals step in

That has not stopped locals from doing their own investigating, often at their own peril. Habonimana visited a site where she says over 30 men from her neighborhood killed during the 12/12 massacre were buried. 

“When we went there that day, we found other graves already ready – they were already dug out,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor, describing soft mounds of fresh dirt at the site. Her companion on the trip was killed soon after because of this, she speculates.

The Monitor also visited the site of an alleged mass grave near Bujumbura and spoke to several witnesses who described mass burials at three locations within miles of the capital. Diplomatic sources who preferred to remain anonymous because they have not launched official inquiries into the allegations also confirmed they are also aware of these reported locations.

“We need the UN to intervene very soon,” says Jean-Baptiste Sinzoyiheb , a well-known member of the armed opposition in Bujumbura, whose name has been changed for his protection.

 “The army and police in Burundi are supposed to protect but they are killing innocent who need UN protection,’” says. Mr. Sinzoyiheba. “The population can stand up for themselves only if the UN is here.”

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