Burundi is in chaos again. An unnecessary and avoidable political blunder has catapulted this landlocked country of roughly 10 million people into messy turmoil. The country was in the process of returning to normal, of healing old wounds and of reconciling ethnic groups that have long fueled its previous conflicts and wars. These conflicts led to massacres that claimed over 300,000 lives two decades ago.
But now the ghosts are back. And like similar episodes before, violence and murder are becoming daily staples for the people of Burundi. The normalcy that returned in 2003, when then-President Ndayizeye and Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza signed a peace agreement that ended the civil war, has quickly faded. Fear is now pervasive and uncertainties loom large over Burundi's future.
How could this happen again?
It is not that difficult a question, it turns out. Consider the country's political class. To say it is ineffective and incompetent is an understatement. It also includes murderous elements, like Agathon Rwasa, who once boasted of killing refugees in a United Nations camp.
Yes, President Nkurunziza manufactured the crisis by his resolve to seek a controversial third term in order to stay in power, despite lacking legitimacy from the people of Burundi. His quest to stay in power possesses neither the legitimacy on the basis of stellar performance nor any democratic credentials. His was a presidency devoid of substance. His economic performance was terrible, as Burundi remains an economic basketcase in East Africa. Burundi's economy is, to use a term by Uganda's journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, an economy of mandazis. Burundi is the third poorest country on earth, on per capita basis, according to The Global Finance Magazine, only after D.R Congo and Zimbabwe.
But still Mr. Nkurunziza looks like a saint compared to some of his country's "political leaders." Consider the main "opposition leader", Mr. Agathon Rwasa, who came in second with 18.99% of the votes during recent presidential elections. He is now the elected deputy speaker of the parliament. It's hard to describe this man without turning to diatribes. But let's try....
Eleven years ago, on the night of August 13, 2004, Mr. Rwasa led his extremist militia, The Forces for National Liberation (FNL), in a killing spree; attacking a refugee camp full of women and children, and killing a total of 166 refugees in a United Nations camp. Mothers were mutilated as they tried to shield their children. Children were hacked to death. Bodies were burned beyond recognition. Those not killed still walk with charred faces and missing legs, as 116 refugees were gravely wounded.
After the attack, world leaders condemned it. The U.N Security Council was "deeply troubled by the fact that Mr. Agathon Rwasa's Forces nationales de liberation (Palipehutu-FNL) have claimed responsibility for the Gatumba massacre".
At an African summit in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, a week after the attack, African heads of states labelled Mr. Rwasa's militia a "terrorist group" and vowed "to take action provided for by protocols governing terrorism both nationally and internationally and act decisively against the group". The U.S government condemned "in the strongest possible terms the attack that took place on Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi" and accused Mr. Rwasa's militia for participating "in this vicious attackon an already vulnerable population of refugees, many of them women and children"
Investigations were launched. Reports were produced, and all made it clear; Mr. Agathon Rwasa ordered his militia to carry out the attack.
But there was actually no need for investigations and reports, except to pretend to do something. Why Mr. Rwasa attacked and killed refugees in a camp wasn't shrouded in any kind of secrecy. As absurd as it sounds, Mr. Rwasa, through his spokesman Pasteur Sibomana, went on local and international press to claim responsibility, proudly admitting the attack as widely reported by the BBC and Radio France International. For them, it was a feast to kill Banyamulenge refugees. Because they were Tutsis.
What happened after all this condemnation and evidence?
Nothing. The world went silent. The massacre made global headlines the following day, but interest quickly faded. And then was forgotten.
But those whose lives were shattered that night are agonized and disgusted to see that someone like Mr. Rwasa, who so publicly boasted his murderous acts, is walking free and actually in a position of leadership of a country. Today the survivors are largely wrestling with it themselves. Justice in Burundi is bending towards chaos. Now known as the Gatumba Massacre, it's one of the darkest moments in Burundi's recent history to have been successfully trivialized.
One survivor of this massacre - who lost a younger sister, many childhood friends and whose three immediate family members (mother and two siblings) were wounded in that one evening - told me that "to see Mr. Rwasa in Burundi's political leadership is immeasurably painful." She tries to avoid thinking about it, but that has proven to be unattainable, especially during this period of the 11th commemoration of the massacre. Thoughts about it cross her mind every day, she said, whether she likes it or not. Memory is resistant to mental control, she concludes. The ghosts of that night are still present, haunting the survivors every day. The presence of Mr. Rwasa on Burundi's political scene worsens their precarious situation of this traumatic event.
Mr. Rwasa's militiamen created a sick diversion before attacking the refugee camp. His men came in singing gospel songs, a survivor told me. God had given them easy prey, they said. In Kirundi, they sang that they were "the army of God", not much dissimilar from what the Islamic State is doing in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Rwasa has a long history of other murders. In 2000, his militia ambushed a bus and killed 20 civilians, separating passengers along ethnic lines and targeting one group. In 2003, he is accused of killing the Vatican Ambassador to Burundi in 2003, Monsignor Michael Courtney, who was trying to broker peace accords between his rebel group and the government. But all of this does not to deter him from seeking high office. He has since run twice for President of Burundi. It says as much about Mr. Rwasa as about the state of his country.
And yet, Mr. Rwasa is still considered one of the prominent political leaders of Burundi and the media still refers to him as an "opposition leader." He has come closest to becoming the world's first genocidaire President.
As Burundi slides into chaos once more, this time it is not complicated to see why. With this kind of leadership class, it would be abnormal if things were normal.
(Header Image Credit: starfm online)
This article was first published in The Huffington Post.