By Millicent Zighe in Nairobi
Murder, torture, forceful disappearances and arbitrary arrests – these are the tools of trade for the Imbonerakure, the youth militia allied to Burundi’s ruling
National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD).
Mention of Imbonerakure, Kirundi for those who see far, strikes fear in many hearts: its members have been accused of attacking opposition supporters during expeditions in different localities. Violence associated with the group, estimated to number over 50,000, has peaked since the beginning of 2019, but it has been active throughout Burundi’s low-intensity conflict.
The Imbonerakure allegedly beheaded two women using machetes in Makamba Province on April 14, 2019. Wazo Bunyonyi and Basirisa were having a drink when the militia’s members descended upon them. No one has been brought to book in respect to the killings, according to the human rights group SOS Torture, which monitors violations.
Earlier, on March 24, 2019, Aimable Ndaziyeye – a resident of the Busoni region – got into an argument an Imbonerakure member known as Toyi over his bistro and was stabbed to death. Although the perpetrator was arrested, he is yet to be charged in a court of law, and the fate of the case remains unknown.
The crisis of trust in state organs has thrust human rights groups into the unlikely role receiving victims’ complaints about their tribulations. SOS Torture/Burundi receives anonymous messages and emails from victims and highlights their cases as part of its efforts to draw the attention of the international community to violations in the country. Nonetheless, its work has been greatly hampered by threats from intelligence officers who intimidate some of the victims and warn them against making reports to the human right group.
Those lucky to escape death at the hands of the militia have incurred serious injuries. One such person is Pierre Nzoyisaba, a resident of Rugombo commune, who escaped with stab wounds on 1 January 2019 and lost his property. On the same day, another resident in the area, Alphonse Nibigira, narrowly escaped death after the group assaulted him in Rugombo commune.
The Burundi government continues to wage war against the opposition parties in the country using the Imbonerakure. Various members of the main opposition party — National Congress for Freedom (CNL) –– have been physically assaulted and tortured by the Imbonearkure for holding meetings. CNL members Marc Rwasa, Salvator Sinzobatorana and Samuel Mugisha were beaten at Rukore hill, Ntega commune. Witnesses said the assailants were acting on the orders of the Rukore leader, Damascene Karuhura.
The following day, the youth provincial representative of CNL was beaten in Mutaho Commune. The victim identified Imbonerakure leader Emmanuel Ndayikengurukiye as the perpetrator. Despite the report, police have made no arrests.
On Butezi Hill in Giharo commune, the militia group tortured Nicaise Kabura on the evening of February 17. The group poured water on him before beating him up. In addition, the militia group took his phone. Police detained the victim and let his aggressors go scot-free.
Such is the impunity of the Imbonerakure that its members extort money from the residents of the communes in which they operate. In Rumonge, shop owners were ordered to pay 5,000 Burundi francs for the construction of the regional office. Teachers had to pay 12,500 Burundi francs – or supply a bag of cement. People throughout the country have been ordered to contribute towards the 2020 General Election.
However, in some instances, the Imbonerakure’s reputation for violence has proven has come back to bite its members. In February 2019, the 12-year-old son of one of the group’s members died in Bubanza province after he exploded a grenade in their home. It was alleged that the father had stored a cache of weapons that the son stumbled upon.
Imbonerakure rose to prominence in 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunzinza was controversially elected for a third term in June 26 2015 – an action that plunged the country into a deep political crisis. Human rights watch groups have called for sanctions against the group.