‘They Want Complete Control’: How Burundi Hunts Dissidents at Home and Abroad
NAIROBI, Kenya—Epitace Nimbona spent 17 years in the Burundian army, climbing to the rank of captain. As an infantry soldier, he fought against rebels during the country’s civil war. He then advanced to a military university and underwent logistics training in the capital, Bujumbura, and in nearby Kenya. Later, he trained with American soldiers and deployed with two separate peacekeeping missions elsewhere in Africa.
His career, however, ran aground following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in 2015—a bid that many people inside and outside the country deemed to be unconstitutional. Protests against it, and Nkurunziza’s ensuing crackdown, sparked a political crisis and the worst violence Burundi had seen since the civil war ended in 2003. Amid that unrest, Nimbona increasingly clashed with political and security officials. Fearing for his safety, he defected last year.
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He currently lives in an East African capital city that he does not want named out of fear for his safety. Staying in an unmarked house made of corrugated iron, he struggles to support himself with a stipend from the U.N. refugee agency while doing his best to keep a low profile.
But he has reason to believe that Burundi’s notorious intelligence agents have tracked him down. This past December, a note was slipped under his door bearing threats in Kirundi, Burundi’s most widely spoken language. “We will find you. We know you’re here,” it read. “We will hunt you like the dog that you are.” Though Nimbona has no way of proving who left the note for him, the threat is consistent with methods Burundi’s intelligence and security apparatus has used to terrorize dissidents even after they’ve left Burundian soil.
Along with undermining Nimbona’s sense of security, the note affirmed his belief that he cannot go back to Burundi as long as Nkurunziza remains in power. Given how things are looking back home, that means he could be in exile for a very long time.
After Nkurunziza launched his re-election campaign in 2015, protesters took to the streets of Bujumbura to denounce what they saw as an unlawful power grab. Nkurunziza, who assumed office in 2005, had already served the two terms allowed under the constitution. But the president argued that his first term didn’t count because the 2005 election was decided by lawmakers rather than ordinary voters.
Those who protested the president’s third term bid encountered stiff resistance from the security forces, whose response became even more forceful after a failed military coup in May 2015. The election went ahead in July 2015, and Nkurunziza won 69.4 percent of the vote after the opposition decided to boycott.
In the three years since then, surrounded by an ever-narrowing cast of regime loyalists and intelligence chiefs, Nkurunziza has consolidated power and sought to strengthen the rule of his party, whose unwieldy formal name is the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy, or CNDD-FDD. He has done so with a steady campaign of enforced disappearances, torture and killings targeting those deemed to be enemies of the state. According to estimates from the United Nations and human rights groups, more than 1,200 Burundians have been killed to date, and thousands have been detained. Nkurunziza has also taken the unprecedented step of withdrawing Burundi from the International Criminal Court, which could have held perpetrators of grave crimes accountable.
Nkurunziza is hailing this week’s referendum as a milestone signaling a return to normalcy. But his critics see it as another power grab.
Burundi’s formerly vibrant media scene has been effectively shuttered, with radio stations and newspapers closed and individual journalists arrested, detained, tortured and, in some cases, killed. The country’s domestic network of civil society organizations no longer exists. The business community and much of Burundi’s middle class have fled. International aid has also dried up—a devastating blow in one of the world’s poorest countries and the poorest in Africa after the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nevertheless, Nkurunziza maintains that he is the best person to lead Burundi forward, and that he has the interests of its citizens at heart.
To his opponents’ dismay, his hold on power is about to get even stronger. On Thursday, Burundians will head to the polls to vote on a referendum that will, assuming it passes, establish new presidential term limits. Instead of two five-year stints in office, presidents will be granted two terms of seven years. Additionally, the restriction will not apply retroactively, meaning Nkurunziza will be able to run twice more after his current term expires in 2020—and potentially stay in office until 2034.
Nkurunziza’s government has hailed the referendum as a milestone signaling a return to calm and normalcy. But to civil society activists, it represents something else entirely: the near-completion of the country’s fall from a fledgling democracy to an authoritarian regime.
vote in the upcoming constitutional referendum, Bugendana, Burundi, May 2, 2018 (AP photo).
Meanwhile, the plight of Nimbona and other Burundians living in exile across East Africa highlights how the consequences of the conflict have spread far beyond Burundi’s borders. The U.N. refugee agency says 431,632 Burundians have fled the country, many of them seeking refuge elsewhere in the region.
But just because they’re gone doesn’t mean the government has forgotten about them. In many cases, they’ve been hunted down by the national intelligence service and the militarized youth wing of the CNDD-FDD. Members of this youth wing are known as the Imbonerakure, which in Kirundi means “those who see far.”
Human rights groups such as the International Federation for Human Rights and Refugees International have documented attacks by suspected Imbonerakure on Burundian refugees at camps in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. I have interviewed refugees in both Rwanda and Uganda who describe being targeted by Burundian security forces, including the police, and the Imbonerakure.
Like Nimbona, these refugees have reported surveillance and threatening messages. There have also been violent attacks and forced disappearances.
Boaz Ntaconayigize, a well-known former journalist with Radio Bonesha in Bujumbura, fled to Kampala, Uganda, in early 2016. Several months later, he was attacked by four people who stabbed him multiple times, including in the chest. “Before the attack I received a lot of calls, people asking me where I live,” he says. He is convinced the violence was orchestrated by Burundi’s intelligence service.
Ntaconayigize refuses to register as a refugee, fearing he’ll be attacked again. He also avoids associating with other Burundians in Uganda. “I have a lot of fear,” he says. “I would have gone somewhere else because I do not feel safe here, but I have nowhere to go.”
From Soldier to Fugitive
Today, Nimbona has no words when asked about what’s happening back home; he can only shake his head. The fact that the army he proudly served for so long—a force that was once known in the region for being relatively well-trained and disciplined—has devolved into a tool of terror for Nkurunziza is especially devastating.
When the crisis began in 2015, Nimbona had finished a rotation as a peacekeeper with the African Union Mission in Somalia and was awaiting deployment to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic. Stationed in Bujumbura, he was charged with securing two neighborhoods, Jabe and Nyakabiga, where protests against Nkurunziza’s third-term bid were picking up.
Nimbona remembers that he felt responsible for orchestrating a calm response to protests that were heated, but nonviolent. The ability to maintain order was what distinguished the army from other elements of the Burundian security apparatus, including the police, which had a reputation for being less disciplined.
Just because dissidents leave Burundian soil doesn’t mean the government has forgotten about them.
One day in late April 2015, police and intelligence officers came to where Nimbona was stationed with the intention of killing peaceful demonstrators. Nimbona, however, stood his ground. “I told them, ‘I cannot be held responsible for this because these people are under my responsibility,’” he says.
The police backed down, but Nimbona was soon hauled into the headquarters of the intelligence service for questioning. “They told me, ‘You must allow police and intelligence to do their work,’” he remembers. “And I told them, ‘If you want to shoot on them, you have to wait until I am out of the area.’ They proposed some money and I refused that, too.”
After that, he had the feeling that his personal security had become jeopardized. As he continued to patrol parts of the city that police officers and government officials had deemed “opposition neighborhoods,” he was followed by intelligence officers. He began to travel with six heavily armed men at all times. Two weeks later, he was deployed to a different part of Bujumbura, a transfer he says was ordered so he would be forced “to cede the ground to police and intelligence.”
As protests against Nkurunziza’s third term continued, the interior minister declared them illegal and the police ramped up their tactics to disperse demonstrators. Within weeks, two protesters had been killed and the police were arbitrarily rounding up residents of neighborhoods where they’d been organized. Before long, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights was reporting that at least 400 protesters had been arrested, and that detainees were being subjected to abuse and torture in jails in Bujumbura.
Nimbona deployed to the Central African Republic before the election in July 2015. His wife and two children stayed behind in Bujumbura. Weeks after his deployment began, they were visited several times a week by intelligence officers. The officers searched the house, claiming they had a warrant for Nimbona’s arrest.
Toward the end of his rotation in the Central African Republic, Nimbona heard from multiple sources in Bujumbura that his name had appeared on a list of “enemies of the state.” Like others on the list, he viewed this as a death warrant. In January 2017, no longer convinced he was safe on his deployment, he fled his military contingent and went into hiding in the capital, Bangui, before eventually leaving the country.
(photo by Adriane Ohanesian).
Nimbona’s family has also fled Burundi, but he does not think it is safe for them to be near him. He moves often to maintain a low profile. When not looking for work, he spends his days listening to radio reports and other dispatches from home.
He says his concerns for the future have only mounted ahead of this week’s referendum. “They are terrorizing civilians to register to vote, and we are hearing reports that the Imbonerakure is trying to disarm members of the military,” he says. “It’s terrible, really terrible. I have nothing else I can say.”
The “Torture House”
One day in June 2016, about a year after Nkurunziza’s re-election, a police officer and two intelligence agents showed up at the office of Evaliste Nduwimgoma, a businessman and well-known supporter of the National Liberation Forces, Burundi’s leading opposition party. His son Ronald watched as Evaliste was forced out of the building and into the bed of a police pickup truck.
The reasons for the abduction were not explained, but it was the last time Ronald would see his father. Two weeks later, a well-connected friend in the military told Ronald his father had been killed after three days in the custody of Burundian intelligence officers.
Ronald feared he could also be targeted. An unemployed engineer, he had helped out at the wholesale company his father owned and was an active member of LAFEALDE INEZA, a now-defunct civil society organization that campaigned against Nkurunziza’s third term.
Sure enough, two weeks after his father’s disappearance, the same car pulled alongside Ronald as he was walking down a street in Bujumbura. They forced him, too, into the back of the truck and drove him two hours outside the capital to a building he refers to today as the “torture house.”
For seven days, Ronald endured brutal torture along with aggressive questioning about his disloyalty to Nkurunziza’s regime. “They kept on asking me, ‘Why are you opposing the CNDD-FDD?’ and ‘Who was your dad working with?’” he recalls. “I kept on saying, ‘I don’t know anything.’”
He believes his interrogators were Imbonerakure. They denied him food, used ropes to hoist him to the ceiling and electrocuted him as they shouted for him to admit his opposition to the president. Ronald lost consciousness twice. After the second time, he remembers waking on the side of a road with a knife wound in his chest, presumably having been left for dead.
After a two-week stay in a hospital back in Bujumbura, Ronald returned home to continue recuperating. But his trouble with pro-regime forces wasn’t over. One day, three policemen and 12 members of the Imbonerakure arrived at his house. This time, Ronald managed to escape through the back and flee to the border with Rwanda, where he entered the Mahama refugee camp, which is home to more than 50,000 Burundian refugees.
Testimony compiled by Human Rights Watch and other organizations is similar to Ronald’s and that of other men I’ve interviewed, all of whom were taken into custody on suspicion of being opposition sympathizers. Torture by suspected Imbonerakure has involved beating detainees with hammers and metal bars, driving sharpened steel rods into their legs, dripping burned plastic onto their skin and jolting them with electric shocks after tying cords around their genitals.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented 651 cases of torture in Burundi between April 2015 and April 2016, and local activists say the practices have continued unabated. A 2016 report from Human Rights Watch detailed politically motivated torture that the group said had “reached new levels” and “become increasingly vicious.”
In the lead-up to this week’s referendum, Nkurunziza loyalists are believed to have ramped up their use of these tactics to sow fear and head off anti-government protests. “Burundian officials and the Imbonerakure are carrying out violence with near-total impunity to allow Nkurunziza to entrench his hold on power,” Ida Sawyer, Human Rights Watch’s Central Africa director, said last month. The organization has documented 19 cases of abuse since December, including the beating to death of one person who was unable to provide a receipt showing he had registered to vote in the referendum. Most victims were members of the National Liberation Forces, or FLN, whose leaders insist the number of victims is much higher. They’ve compiled a list of 42 party members they say have been arrested and held without charge between December and March.
Once he reached Rwanda, Ronald hoped his days of being hunted might be over. But in Mahama, the refugee camp near the border, he faced threats similar to those he’d encountered in Bujumbura. Like many in the camp, he says he has been threatened by Imbonerakure and agents of Burundi’s national intelligence service. In an official complaint he sent to the U.N. refugee agency, Ronald describes encountering the same intelligence agent who arrested his father, a man known as Leon, on the outskirts of the camp.
Despite evidence of atrocities in Burundi and against Burundians abroad, there has been little international outcry as the crisis has deepened.
In March, Ronald returned to his temporary housing in Mahama to find that the door to his tent had been covered in animal blood. Someone had used the blood to write his father’s name and the word mujeri, which means “thin dog” in Kirundi. The ruling party is known to have used the word to refer to those marked for death.
Destroying the Opposition
Those familiar with the history and tactics of Nkurunziza’s party aren’t surprised that it is seeking vengeance against everyone who opposes it, from military officers like Nimbona to unemployed young men like Ronald.
The CNDD-FDD emerged out of the ethnically Hutu rebel movement that fought in Burundi’s civil war, which began in 1993 following the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu. The ethnic violence of 1993 claimed 300,000 lives, and spasms of violence that played out largely along Hutu-Tutsi lines flared again from 1995 through 1997. The conflict was thought to have ended with the signing of a cease-fire in 2000 and the installation of a transitional government in 2001. The CNDD-FDD, however, did not sign the cease-fire and continued to wage a military campaign against the transitional government before finally agreeing to a power-sharing deal in 2003.
Academics and former party members often say that while the current crisis is political rather than ethnic in nature, Nkurunziza and other high-ranking CNDD-FDD officials have continued to rule with the same so-called bush-fighting mentality that governed their wartime conduct. Even in 2010, when Nkurunziza easily won a second term after the opposition boycotted the vote because of complaints that earlier local elections were rigged, opponents were tracked down and killed, says Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “This really solidified the notion that for many people in the ruling party, it’s a zero-sum game,” Mudge says. “They want complete control. They want to destroy any notion of viable opposition.”
With this track record, Mudge says he would not be surprised if the party had, via the intelligence service and Imbonerakure, established a system for targeting dissidents who had fled the country. “I wouldn’t put it past them to create a loose infrastructure where informants are going to refugee camps to ascertain who was there and what they are talking about,” he says.
Despite the documentation of atrocities in Burundi and against Burundians abroad, there has been little international outcry as the crisis has deepened. Other governments in East Africa, including Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, have been accused of paralysis by observers who suggest that few of Burundi’s neighbors are genuinely invested in a resolution to the crisis, despite the strain of hosting refugees and the potential economic consequences for the region.
As the lack of outside pressure emboldens Nkurunziza, young men like Ronald remain on the run, without any idea of when they might be able to return home. “By God’s mercy I am somehow still alive, but it is like torture being a refugee abroad,” he says. “I get panic attacks from nowhere—I can always feel my heart. I was just looking for peace.”
For Onesime Nduwimana, a former fighter with the CNDD-FDD who previously served as a government spokesman under Nkurunziza, it’s clear where the blame lies. The president and his allies, he says, have “embarked on a path without return,” and this referendum is only the latest step.
“The situation in Burundi today makes me ashamed, revolted, and I pity for my countrymen,” he says. “They deserved better.”
Julia Steers is an East Africa-based reporter covering politics and human rights. She has reported extensively on Burundi since 2015.