Has the World Already Forgotten Burundi?
It was hard to escape press coverage of Burundi’s political crisis during the second half of last year. Speculation the country could descend into an ethnic conflict, similar to Rwanda’s in 1994, made great headlines – for journalists and readers alike.
Things are very different in 2016, though. The Burundi coverage has gradually faded away – almost as if peace quietly returned over last few months. However, the few stories still making their way out of Burundi speak of grave human rights violations and continued ethnic conflict.
So why has media coverage on one of Africa’s most pressing political crises gone quiet?
In 2015, reports of bloodshed in the capital were a daily occurrence. Now there’s barely a mention of violence in Burundi making the press at all. Aside from the occasional report from rights groups, the tiny East African nation isn’t the stuff headlines are made of anymore.
It’s not because the government and rebels simply put aside their differences and decided to get along. Nor that the people in Burundi suddenly live without fear for their lives. It’s more to do with the press being so well smothered locals would struggle to know what’s going on in the nearest town.
Foreign journalists have a hard time getting into Burundi now, too. While the exodus of refugees fleeing is at a standstill – the country’s borders may as well be closed entirely. All this leaves Burundi inaccessible to overseas reporters and refugees with first-hand accounts of life in the country are scarce. Burundi has been silenced.
Burundi in a ‘fake calm’
In one of few recent stories to remind the world about Burundi, the Guardian’s Clár Ní Chonghaile describes the country as being in a state of ‘fake calm’. That phrase actually comes from Richard Moncrieff – project director for central Africa at the International Crisis Group – who is quoted in the article.
It’s a fitting description of Burundi’s current situation. There is a sense – at least on the international stage – that Burundi is on the path to recovery.
The initial clashes starting in April last year created a power struggle between government forces and rebels – a battle that spewed out onto the streets. Things got worse when opportunistic criminals began targeting civilians. Ethnic divides split the nation’s army and created easy targets for criminals. The tone of Burundi’s political crisis changed; suddenly everyone had enemies hanging over their shoulder – it seemed nobody was safe.
In that sense, things have changed. The government is more oppressive than ever and this at least deters much of the criminal activity. Opposition forces are on the backfoot now, too, meaning conflicts on the streets are less frequent and more one-sided.
That all sounds like good news for the people of Burundi. However, the few reporters and investigators able to enter the country say different. Refugees who manage to find a way out of Burundi come with horror stories. They reveal how much the silenced nation is still suffering.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one organisation that has managed to conduct recent reports on the Burundi crisis. Its findings reveal that, despite a drop in targeted killings in Bujumbura, they still persist.
“Unidentified people have attacked several bars in Bujumbura and other provinces with grenades since early 2016,” the report says, referring to attacks carried out by opposition forces.
Earlier this month, former Burundi minister and BBC journalist Hafsa Mossi was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. It’s the latest in a series of attacks on journalists in the country.
However, it’s the brute force of Burundi’s government that has rights groups concerned most. Anyone suspected of being an opposition supporter is a target. Even people who don’t explicitly show support for the ruling party can get caught in the government’s clean up.
If you’re not an ally to the state, you’re an enemy. And if you get caught the consequences are harrowing.
“Some of the torture techniques that we have documented are so vicious it’s unbelievable that anyone survives,” HWR’s Carina Tertsakian recently said about the organisation’s latest report.
“Intelligence agents use metal bars, hammers to smash people’s bones, to smash their jaws, pulling out their teeth with pliers, tying ropes to the genitals of male detainees and pulling them, and other acts of torture that are just horrific,” she said.
Why has the press gone quiet on Burundi?
There’s no easy answer to this question. Press censorship and a drop in refugees fleeing Burundi cut off much of the foreign press’ access to the country. There’s also the fact many forms of violence in Burundi happen out of sight now, away from public eyes.
Kidnappings are more common than targeted killings now. Torture is the latest tool of fear to suppress opposition and anyone who doesn’t publicly support the government can be a target.
There’s also a sense that the world’s press has turned its attention to South Sudan’s ongoing crisis. Western support for South Sudan goes back a long way – particularly in the US. While the nature of its conflict basically writes the headlines for journalists. That’s not the case with Burundi anymore.
Featured image: Public domain