Zygène Mbonimpa and her husband Pascal Nshimirimana, before his killing in October. Courtesy of Zygène Mbonimpa.
Burundian human rights activist Zygène Mbonimpa was at home in Bujumbura on the evening of October 9 when she heard gunshots outside. Assailants had followed her husband Pascal Nshimirimana home from work, shooting him before he could enter the house.
“I saw the people running away” Mbonimpa tells Okayafrica. “I sent the houseboy to see what happened. When he returned home he told me, ‘It’s my boss. I saw his body in the car.’” At that point, the police had already sealed off the area.
Mbonimpa has likely lost more than anyone in the recent wave of violence in Burundi. In the last three months, both her brother and husband have been killed in separate incidents by regime death squads. She also narrowly missed losing her father, civil society leader Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, to motorcycle-riding assassins.
Since April, 250 people have been killed in Burundi and more than 200,000 more have fled to neighboring countries. The violence follows protests that broke out in response to the ruling party’s announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term in office, a move the opposition calls unconstitutional. Following an attempted coup d’état in May, President Nkurunziza began purging the government and launching deadly attacks against opponents. This has led to fears that the political violence could escalate out of control, leading to mass killings.
“You tell those who want to execute the mission: on this issue, you have to pulverize, you have to exterminate—these people are only good for dying. I give you this order, go!” These were the words of Révérien Ndikuriyo, President of the Burundian Senate during his meeting with the local leaders of Bujumbura City on Sunday November 1.
Burundians fought a violent civil war between 1993 and 2005 that killed 300,000 people and shared some of the Hutu versus Tutsi characteristics of Rwanda’s conflict. The conflict ended with a peace process that brought in a new constitution providing guaranteed representation for Hutus and Tutsis. The subsequent parliamentary elections led to Pierre Nkurunziza from the Hutu FDD party being elected President. Today, the violent methods and the divisive language used by the Nkurunziza government have prompted many observers to draw parallels between Burundi now and the events leading up to the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
According to Antoine Kaburahe the managing director of the newspaper Iwacu Les voix du Burundi, reached in Bujumbura, this heated talk is meant to mobilize supporters to escalate the violence. “We remember that kind of divisive speech 20 years ago being used by other government officials who orchestrated genocide in our neighboring country of Rwanda,” says Kaburahe.
On November 2, President Nkurunziza told security forces they could use all means at their disposal to search for weapons among people demonstrating against his 3rd term. Anyone who failed to hand over weapons by November 7, he said, would be “punished in accordance with the anti-terrorist law and fought like enemies of the nation.
In response, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Samantha Power made a statement saying that the United States is alarmed by the escalating violence in Burundi and dangerous, irresponsible rhetoric on the part of the government, loyalist militias and violent anti-government forces alike.
“The continued sowing of a climate of fear and tension,” wrote Ambassador Power, “through such language and the use of such measures only prolongs and deepens Burundi’s political and security crisis.”.
The Mbonimpa family under attack
The day of her father’s shooting in August, Zygène Mbonimpa was working at her family’s organization, the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detainees or APRODH. Her father, a well-known critic of the President, had left in a car driven by an associate. He was gone only 20 minutes when his driver called the office in a panic.
“He’s been hit,” the driver shouted over the phone. “I can’t bring him to the hospital because of traffic and I am worried that we are still being followed.” Her father, who had been shot through the neck and cheek, was eventually taken to a hospital in Belgium where he’s being treated.
On November 9, while she was in Belgium looking after her father, Mbonimpa received the call about her brother’s arrest. “I immediately called my father’s organization and some friends in Bujumbura,” she says. “They spread the word and started searching around the city. After an hour, I received a message saying that his body was found nearby.”
The regime’s take
But the government has fought the claim that they are unleashing violence against their opponents, claiming that their efforts are an attempt to maintain security against the backdrop of armed plotters. Speaking on BBC Great Lakes, Burundian government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe, accused Samantha Power of playing a partisan role, saying:
“You know well that Samantha Power is backing the demonstrations of the opponent groups… [she] is playing a big role in this entire situation that Burundi is facing now, she is not qualified for helping us to find a solution of what Burundi is facing now.”
An Amnesty International report released this month announced that, “Treating largely peaceful demonstrators and entire residential areas as part of an insurrection was counter-productive and escalated rather than defused protests.” Demonstrators have said that with no peaceful means of expressing themselves they were forced to turn to violence.
In response to the violence the European Union has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on four officials close to Nkurunziza who are accused of using excessive force during clashes in the run-up to his re-election in July. Former colonial powers Belgium and Germany have suspended some forms of financial aid.
According to the World Bank, over 60 percent of Burundians do not have enough food, the country’s government does not have enough money to fund needed programs and the economy is reliant on coffee exports whose price has fluctuated radically in recent years and made long term financial planning nearly impossible.
With the suspension of aid, many are worried that the economic situation will deteriorate. According to Kaburahe, ”Since the conflict has started the economic situation is getting worse and the people are getting more poor. Their businesses have been clearly affected because they are terrified of the situation.”
Currently Mbonimpa is still in Belgium watching over her father in the hospital. Many of her family members are in exile, dispersed across the region. She insists that despite the attacks on her family, their organization has always been politically neutral. “We are not politicians” she says breaking into sobs. “The only mission of my father’s organization is to speak out advocating for the voiceless communities. The government wants to discourage him but we won’t get discouraged. Denouncing these crimes against humanity is the only way that Burundi will overcome this tragedy that we are going through. We will keep my father’s efforts for human rights advocacy alive.”
Placide Magambo is a multimedia journalist and researcher with experience working for large international organizations and various New York and African media outlets. His special passion is covering topics related to sustainable development, human rights and socio-economic issues.