By Judi Rever
Rwanda stands accused of fueling a brutal insurgency in neighboring Burundi that could morph into a regional war, an international refugee organization warned Sunday.
“These allegations suggest that we may be heading toward the worst case scenario for Burundi, namely a regional conflict drawing in Burundi’s neighbors,” Michael Boyce, an advocate from Refugees International, told Digital Journal.
Boyce is co-author of the report Asylum Betrayed: Recruitment of Burundian Refugees in Rwanda, which describes sustained attempts by Rwanda to forcefully enlist and train refugees for an armed rebellion. The evidence is based on statements made by 80 Burundian refugees to international officials and aid groups.
Boyce, who conducted research in Burundi and Rwanda earlier this year, predicted the conflict could move from “relatively small scale violence to something that resembles conventional warfare.”
“That would be absolutely devastating. The people of Burundi are well and truly tired of this sort of violence, ” he noted.
On Friday, nearly 90 people -- many of them insurgents -- were killed after armed gunmen attacked three military installations in Bujumbura.
The latest report by Refugees International is the clearest, most compelling evidence to date that Rwanda is destabilizing Burundi, a country wracked by political unrest since April, when President Pierre Nkurinziza decided to pursue a third term in office.
The Burundian government, its security forces and ruling party militia have been widely condemned for using excessive force against protesters and suspected opponents. More than 300 people have been killed so far and an estimated 220,000 have fled to neighboring countries.
But the actions of Rwanda in stoking the conflict have received little if any scrutiny in mainstream media.
The Refugees International report provides detailed evidence that Rwandan police officers were present during recruitment meetings at refugee reception centres and the Mahama camp inside the Rwandan border where 46,000 refugees are housed. The meetings were held at night and refugees were transported in Rwandan military vehicles to training sites. One of the training sites is located in Nyungwe Forest in southwestern Rwanda where hundreds of Burundian adult and child recruits were being housed, refugees told international officials.
Some of the trainers spoke Kinyarwanda- the language of Rwanda – and wore military uniforms bearing Rwandan flag patches, the refugees claimed.
Refugees said those who chose not to enlist in the rebel force were intimidated and subjected to threats by recruiters at the Mahama camp. Three senior recruiters were registered Burundian refugees.
A refugee who resisted joining the rebels was warned that “medicine (was) on the stove – meaning that he would be dealt with imminently.” Another refugee who refused enrollment was told he would “disappear in the Akagera River.”
“Two refugees said they were physically assaulted after refusing recruitment,” the report said.
Meanwhile, in a speech delivered at Mahama camp, Rwanda’s Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, Seraphine Mukantabana, accused refugees of making false statements to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and warned them they would be considered ‘traitors.”
“We know that there are people who tell stories to obtain protection. I wanted to tell you that although these international NGOS operate in confidentiality we have the means to know everything you tell them,” Mukantabana said.
“For public interest reasons we will convoke these people and ask them about their false statements. That’s why I ask all those who have lied to go back to the NGOs and change their statements.”
“If we visit the camp during the evening and we find you in a tent with these officials, we will treat you and them as traitors,” the minister warned the refugees.
A recording of the speech was obtained by Refugees International.
Evidence of Rwanda's military meddling in Burundi emerged in June but international aid workers have been reluctant to speak out until now. In late November, Jeff Drumtra, a former UN official with extensive experience in the region, called Rwanda a ‘dangerous neighbor’. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Drumtra said he saw first hand the “intimidating power of the military recruitment effort by the Rwandan government.”
Drumtra spent five months working at Mahama camp after tens of thousands of Burundians fled violence in April. In a recent interview with journalist Ann Garrison, Drumtra said “it gradually became clearer and clearer to us that this was not just a few refugees who were trying to recruit a rebel force, but that there was the hand of the Rwandan government involved. Police officers, intelligence officers.”
Many refugees received death threats and were told they had no choice but to join the insurgency. He said refugees took a risk in talking to UN workers because his team was under constant surveillance by Rwandan government officials.
Drumtra said UN and US officials have been aware of Rwanda’s enlistment of refugees for a rebel force for months now. He said that Washington’s policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ toward Rwanda on the matter was not stopping the recruitment.
Refugees International called the recruitment a grave violation of international law and urged the UN Security Council, the African Union and donors to impose sanctions against individuals or entities that violate the ‘civilian and humanitarian character of asylum.