Residents look at the slain bodies of people killed at the Cibitoke district in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, December 9, 2015.
At the Nyarugusu refugee camp on Tanzania’s western border, Faith Umukunzi sits on a stone with her baby safe and comfortable in her arms and talks on her cellphone with her husband. She hasn’t seen him for five months. “My husband says his life is in danger,” says the mother of five after ending the call. “They want to kill him for supporting the opposition party. He has been hiding since the coup, and he can’t travel to this camp. I know they will kill him.”
Umukunzi and her children are among around 110,000 Burundian refugees who have fled to neighboring Tanzania since April, when Burundi descended into violence after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term. After a failed coup in May, Nkurunziza was re-elected in July, but tensions have remained high.
Umukunzi, who lived in Rumonge province in southwest Burundi on the shores of the massive Lake Tanganyika, says she fled her home after pro-government militias asked her to surrender her two sons to help them fight rebels opposed to Nkurunziza. Her husband remained behind to join the struggle against the president. “It was a risky journey,” she says. “I had to travel for four days to save my children from being murdered by members of the ruling party. My family was the next target after our close neighbors were shot by men in police uniform. I saw very many people being killed.”
The violence stems from a controversy over whether Nkurunziza was eligible to stand for a third five-year term. The constitution states that the president of Burundi cannot run for office more than twice. But Nkurunziza claims the parliament, rather than voters, elected him to his first term in 2005—he was the first president under the new constitution—so, he argued, he had campaigned to the electorate only once before.
His decision sparked fury. Many Burundians were deeply unhappy about the president’s track record. His power grab was an excuse to vent their frustrations, says Devon Curtis, a political scientist and Africa expert at Cambridge University in Britain. While Burundi’s gross domestic product is slated to grow by 5 percent next year, the average citizen can expect to see a decline in wages due to inflation, according to African Economic Outlook.
“His opponents really rallied around this question of the third term, [but] the issues run much deeper,” says Curtis. “It was about corruption of the government. It was about dissatisfaction with standards of living and the fact that the economy wasn’t growing quickly enough and that the benefits were going to a relatively small number of people.”
In May, General Godefroid Niyombare launched a failed coup against Nkurunziza, after which the president intensified his persecution of opponents, and they stepped up their resistance in turn. Nkurunziza won the election in July and then led a crackdown on opponents that resulted in numerous deaths.
In December, 79 opposition fighters and eight government soldiers died during coordinated rebel attacks on three Burundian military bases, an army spokesman said. The week before, scores of people died in clashes at military installations. Police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye condemned what he called “several armed criminal attacks.”
International alarm has been mounting over rhetoric from Nkurunziza’s supporters that has grown increasingly poisonous—drawing comparisons to the hate speech that whipped up the genocidal violence in Rwanda in the 1990s. That’s worrying because Burundi has experience of genocide too. A civil war between 1993 and 2005 pitted rebels from the Hutu majority against an army dominated by minority Tutsis. At least 300,000 people died in the conflict, which started a year before the genocide of mainly Tutsi people in neighboring Rwanda.
Fears of new mass killings are motivating people to flee Burundi, but so far the violence hasn’t risen to a level that would obligate the international community to intervene, says Curtis. “At the moment, it isn’t fair to describe events as genocide,” she says. “It’s political violence, and it’s violence concentrated in particular neighborhoods. I think it would be a mistake to call this genocide, in that people are not being targeted for their ethnic affiliation at the moment.”
After the December attacks on military bases, U.N. high commissioner for human rights (UNHCR) spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said government security forces conducted intensive house searches in response, arresting hundreds of young men and allegedly summarily executing some of them. According to The New York Times, government forces retaliated by conducting attacks that mostly targeted Tutsis, raising fears that the violence was becoming increasingly sectarian.
The U.N. has said an estimated 340 people have been killed since April, including about 100 in mid-December. Thousands more have been imprisoned, and more than 200,000 have fled the country. In late December, the African Union announced it would send 5,000 peacekeeping troops into Burundi. The AU is now waiting for the U.N. Security Council to approve the force. Nkurunziza opposes the move, but the AU has said it will dispatch troops with or without his approval.
A week after the AU made its announcement, Nkurunziza and a coalition of opposition groups launched talks in neighboring Uganda to end hostilities. While Nkurunziza has said the talks are going well, there’s little sign that they will succeed anytime soon.
When I visited Bujumbura in mid-December, the atmosphere was tense but mostly quiet. Soldiers were patrolling the streets of the capital, and barricades were blocking intersections and government offices. But the central business district was coming back to life, and people were shopping for their weekly groceries and other goods.
In the Musanga district, a neighborhood considered a stronghold of the opposition, people gathered in small crowds at dawn amid the sounds of chirping birds. They said many residents were afraid to come out. “We have been the target since the failed coup against the president,” said Antoine Ndayikeza, an activist who had been leading protests. “We have lost more than 100 people in this neighborhood alone through live bullets. The government soldiers have made life very difficult for us. We can’t go to work or gather in groups. Goods are getting scarce, as people hoard stock.”
Ndayikeza said he was determined to continue, however. “We won’t be intimidated,” he said. “We will continue to pressurize the president to give up the power to the people and respect the constitution. The president has no support of the people, that’s why he is using the military to cling on to power.”
In November, the United States imposed sanctions on four current and former officials in Burundi in connection with the violence, including asset freezes and visa restrictions. The White House cited reports of targeted killings, arbitrary arrests, torture and political repression by security forces.
The unrest in the small, landlocked nation has led to an influx of refugees into camps in Tanzania. That in turn has led to a rise in cases of cholera, diarrhea, tuberculosis and HIV, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Around 5,000 refugees are staying in one cramped football stadium, a prime breeding ground for diseases.
Caleb Nzeyimana and his sister Selina Niyotenze escaped from Bururi province in southwest Burundi to the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania after fighters from a pro- Nkurunziza youth militia called the Imbonerakure tried to force them to join their ranks. “Members of Imbonerakure are very dangerous,” says Nzeyimana, asking for a cup of water to quench his thirst after alighting from a bus. “They are very well-armed, and they kill any person opposing the president. We decided to run and save our lives.”
But Nzeyimana and other refugees are worried about their safety here too. “We can either decide to stay here and face cholera or go back to Burundi and face Imbonerakure,” says Nzeyimana. According to the WHO, already more than 31 people have died from cholera in Tanzania, and more than 3,000 acute diarrhea cases have been reported.
Fatima Mohammed, a representative from the UNHCR’s office, says more than 35,000 refugees may need to leave the Nyarugusu shelters if and when floods come during the rainy season. Tanzania is reopening more refugee camps along its border, and tens of thousands of Burundians are being moved from the overcrowded Nyarugusu camp to former settlements that were used during the previous Burundi crisis.
Alex Nibigira has been a refugee in Nyarugusu twice. He fled here in the 2000s, then returned to Burundi in early 2006 after peace was restored. Now he’s here again. “I don’t want to die in Burundi. That’s why I came here,” says Nibigira. “Twenty years ago, I lost three people in my family during the unrest. This time, I had to save my life.”