Thousands Grieve Following Massacre in Burundi

Following Friday’s massacre of 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees, thousands gathered for an all-faiths religious service. Many fear the tragedy may lead to further violence.
( [email protected] ) Aug 17, 2004 09:02 PM EDT

Thousands of grieving people attended a grim funeral service Monday after Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a U.N. camp in Burundi. Laymen, top politicians and Christian leaders partook in the all-faiths religious service to lay to rest the victims who were shot, burned and hacked to death in Friday’s massacre.

“We have a very dangerous virus in our body, the virus of murder, the virus of genocide… a virus that resides in all of us in the (central African) Great Lakes region,” the Anglican Archbishop of Bujumbura, Pie Ntukamazana, told the mourners.

Masses of coffins were laid side by side in a common grave measuring 20 meters wide by 25 meters deep in a field belonging to the Burundian army. The number of victims was put at “at least 165 dead” by the head of the refugee camp, Enoch Niyontezeho, and at “162 killed and 108 wounded” by the Burundian army. The majority of the victims were reportedly women and children.

“Rwanda is resolved to no longer tolerate acts of genocide in the world,” Rwanda’s Minister for Local Administration Christophe Bazivama said at the funeral. “Nobody should be unaware that Rwanda is ready to cooperate…to fight terrorists.”

Both Burundi and its northern neighbor, Rwanda, have recently threatened to send soldiers into neighboring Congo to hunt down the Hutu extremists responsible for the slaughter, drawing fears that a regional conflict in this part of Africa could re-ignite.

Already some 20,000 Tutsis from the DRC have sought refuge in Burundi since late May, as a result of clashes in eastern DRC.

In a statement made by the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), General Secretary Rev. Myume Dandela wrote, “Together with the Churches in the region, we are deeply saddened by these events.

“While expressing our solidarity with the communities affected, we reiterate that the international community must reinforce its presence in Burundi to abate any further violence and death,” statement read.

Dandela urged the President, who is the chair of the African Union, to help the people of Burundi find a lasting solution to the emerging problems of violence, especially before the November elections.

“We applaud your call on the Burundi government to investigate the massacre and bring the murderers to justice without delay,” Dandela stated. “We urge that the rebel group responsible be disarmed immediately and held accountable for this terrible crime against humanity.”

Recently, through the Fellowship of Churches and Councils in the great Lakes and Horn of Africa, the AACC sent a fact-finding mission to Burundi. According to their findings, AACC reported “the prevailing situation in Burundi requires that institutions of democracy be established with a profound sense of autonomy from the forces of ethnicity that only lead to conflict.

“The problem of influx of refugees from the DRC and how to meet their needs as a matter of humanitarian concern must [be] faced and solved immediately,” Dandela said.

The AACC in solidarity with ‘The World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence’ has called upon the international community to mobilize resources in order to pre-empt any further escalation of violence that may inhibit the transition to democracy in Burundi.

“It is evident that the people of Burundi still live with the memories of atrocities committed since the assassination of the head of state in 1993,” Dandela commented. “Therefore there is an urgent need to equip the Churches in the great Lakes region to utilize their unique role and opportunity to be actively involved in the peace process and nation building.”

Dandela suggested that the challenge is to establish a sustainable forum, i.e., The Great Lakes Ecumenical Forum (GLEF) that brings together the civil society, ecumenical partners and other stakeholders in the region.

“This will be a creative ecumenical instrument on issues pertaining to sustainability of peace initiatives in the region. With the facilitation of AACC and WCC, the churches shall work towards the establishment and sustenance of instruments of negotiation and dialogue to enhance peace with security in the whole region,” Dandela concluded.

The Great Lakes region, made up of Burundi, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, is one of the world's most volatile ethnic tinderboxes.

The DRC is struggling to emerge from a five-year war that formally ended last year, at a cost of some 2.5 million lives. Since the war ended, ethnic violence has continued, especially in the east and northeast, near the porous borders with DRC's Great Lakes neighbors.

Meanwhile, Burundi plunged into civil war in 1993, when rebel groups drawn from the Hutu majority rose up against the government and army, then dominated by the Tutsis, who make up around 15 percent of the population.

And Rwanda is still healing wounds left by the 1994 genocide in which at least 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were mowed down in an orchestrated slaughter carried out by Hutu extremists.

Currently, officials from U.N. missions in Burundi and Rwanda are investigating the massacre and U.N. troops are being sent to increase security around the four camps for Congolese refugees.