World

Top U.N. Rights Officer: Gang Rape And Mass Graves Point To Mounting Ethnic Conflict In Burundi

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gildas Ngingo

An opposition demonstrator gestures toward soldiers and tells them it is shameful to shoot on people who cannot defend themselves, in the Ngagara neighborhood of the capital Bujumbura, in Burundi Wednesday, June 3, 2015.

Citing reports of mass graves and gang rapes, the top human rights’ officer for the United Nations warned that Burundi is teetering on the brink of renewed ethnic conflict.

“All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said on Friday.

The central African nation has seen a wave of violence since President Pierre Nkurunziza said in April that he would run for a third term. Although opponents decried the move as illegal, he was re-elected in July in elections that were largely believed to have been unfair. Deadly crackdowns by government forces and retaliatory attacks by opposition groups have periodically shaken the country since then.

Opposition demonstrators confront army soldiers in the Mutarakura district, as security forces try to prevent people moving out of their neighborhoods, in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi Wednesday, May 27, 2015.

Opposition demonstrators confront army soldiers in the Mutarakura district, as security forces try to prevent people moving out of their neighborhoods, in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi Wednesday, May 27, 2015.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gildas Ngingo

More than 400 people have been killed and 200,000 have fled the country amid the renewed hostilities. Government forces and ruling party members have made frequent use of brutal torture tactics, according to Human Rights Watch.

Al Hussein said that witnesses reported the existence of at least nine mass graves in and around Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. One such grave located in a military camp contains more than 100 bodies of people who are believed to have been killed during an outbreak of violence in December.

He also said the United Nations has documented 13 cases of sexual violence that took place during search operations in neighborhoods believed to belong to supporters of the opposition.

“The pattern was similar in all cases: security forces allegedly entered the victims’ houses, separated the women from their families, and raped – in some cases gang-raped – them,” Al Hussein said.

Al Hussein said that United Nation officials are analyzing satellite images from around the area to “shed more light on these extremely serious allegations.”

Many of the reports of violence seem to stem from ethnic conflict, of grave concern in Burundi, which emerged in 2005 from a 12-year conflict that pitted the country’s Tutsi minority against rebel groups from its Hutu majority. Nkurunziza, the current president, is a former leader of a Hutu rebel group.

Al Hussein said that he was concerned about the ethnic nature of some of the violence, noting that one woman was told that she was paying the price for being Tutsi before she was sexually abused. Witnesses to violence in Bujumbura claimed that Tutsis have been systematically killed, while Hutus were spared.

“This is an indication that a complete breakdown in law and order is just around the corner,” Al Hussein said.

“[W]ith armed opposition groups also becoming more active, and the potentially lethal ethnic dimension starting to rear its head,” he added, “this will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues.”