Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Cry for World's Help, Refugees Tell of Broad Political Violence in Burundi

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Cry for World's Help, Refugees Tell of Broad Political Violence in Burundi

Article excerpt

There appears to be no logic governing who falls victim to the men with the machetes and the guns in Burundi today. They might be opponents or supporters of the ruling party, young men or old women, landowners or the penniless, the well-schooled or the uneducated.

"What happened to my family has no real reason," says one refugee who escaped recently, giving his name only as Ernest. His parents and three young sisters all died when somebody threw a grenade into their house. Men had come knocking again and again, asking for money that his father did not have in order to pay "membership dues" for the ruling party.

Ernest thinks it was likely a matter of simple extortion, not politics. "It is only injustice. Injustice is all that thrives in my country today," he laments.

A year ago this week, Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi's president, declared that he would run for a third term of office despite a constitutional two-term limit. His announcement, later approved by the courts, sparked street protests, which were followed by deadly security crackdowns.

A ruling party militia, the Imbonerakure, swept the country, hunting down opponents. Anti-presidential armed gangs sprang up. Hundreds died and more than a quarter-million Burundians fled to neighboring countries. Half of them have come to Tanzania.

The flow has slowed since the height of the crisis last May, and reports from Burundi have dried up; independent domestic media have been shuttered and foreign journalists have been denied visas.

To the outside world, it appeared that the situation was stabilizing. But the trickle of refugees who are still managing to escape tell horrifying stories that belie that impression. Their accounts are among the first to emerge from Burundi in recent months.

Narrow escapeWhy the thugs came for Nolasque Nduwimana, a history teacher at a girls' Catholic boarding school, was obvious. "Yes, I supported the opposition," he said. "Why should that mean I should be killed?"

His name was on a hit list drawn up by local ruling party officials, Mr. Nduwimana learned. He made up his mind to flee, but wanted to complete marking his students' exams first.

Just before Easter, close to midnight, five men broke into his room, forced him to the floor, pointed machine guns at his head, and were told, "shoot him." At that moment, another teacher distracted them. Nduwimana seized his chance, fleeing barefoot into the night disguised as a priest - "the church is all the militia respect any more," he says - and slipped into Tanzania.

For several days he refused to leave his tent in the refugee camp here, 30 miles from the Burundian border, run by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR,) and Nduwimana is still visibly frightened. This camp is too close to Burundi, he says. He wants to be moved farther away. "People can find me here," he says. …

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