800 000 held in Burundian concentration camps

Originally published
Johannesburg, South Africa. December 17 1999
Hutu detainees are fighting disease and hunger in concentration camps, while the Burundi army blocks attacks on the capital, writes CHRIS MCGREAL

Josephine Ntahuga fears her son is dead. He was among 350 000 Hutus herded by Burundi's army into dozens of camps beyond the capital, Bujumbura. Then he vanished.

The army said he must have joined the rebels who have been waging a war against the government since Tutsi soldiers assassinated Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993.

Ntahuga does not believe them. "I am not the only mother who is looking for her son. Where are they? We know it is easy to say they are rebels and kill them. They say those camps are for our own protection, so where are they?" she asked.

In recent weeks almost the entire Hutu population of Bujumbura Rural -- the province that surrounds Burundi's capital -- has been driven into about 50 camps spread out on hilltops. Altogether, about 800 000 Hutus -- one in 10 of Burundi's population -- are held in camps across the country.

The government says its "regroupment camps" are vital to combat an upsurge in attacks on Bujumbura, by depriving Hutu rebels of food and shelter in surrounding villages.

The rebels have called the sites concentration camps. The Catholic Church has gone further, saying they are death camps and calling for them to be closed down immediately.

Conditions in the camps are deteriorating and there are accusations that the Burundi army is targeting young Hutu men it suspects are sympathetic to the rebel cause.

"At the beginning we saw a lot of young men, particularly in the camps around the city, because they worked in Bujumbura," said an aid worker who fears to talk openly. "We have noticed that some of them are gone. I don't know what happened to them but the young men you still see are really angry. You can see they want to fight this. I've seen a lot of displaced camps. Usually people in them are resigned, but not here."

Kabezi is among the largest of the camps. It holds about 35 000 people crowded on two hillsides south of Bujumbura. It is not a prison camp in the strict sense. There is no fence. But Hutus have been told that anyone caught beyond the camp's boundaries without permission will be treated as a rebel -- a fate which amounts to a death sentence.

Food is scarce. Water is increasingly precious even though the rains have come. Medicines are in short supply and malnutrition is evident.

Many of Kabezi's residents can see their homes from the camp but are powerless to stop soldiers looting them. Some detainees have plastic sheeting, but many rely on shelters of branches and leaves.

"There was no preparation at the camps," said an aid worker. "People were just rounded up in the middle of the night. There was lots of shooting. They were herded to the camps without time to collect their things. Families were split up. It was very harsh."

Cholera has struck some of the camps in recent days. About 40 people have died of the disease in Ruziba. More than 100 cases have been reported in Kabezi, but foreign aid workers have managed to keep the death toll down to just two. In about half of the camps, however, residents are struggling on without aid. Little is known about conditions in these camps, and there is no record of the numbers of dead.

The army says its prisoners are allowed home to harvest their crops, but the villagers say they are only allowed to leave the camps in groups so most get back to their fields just once or twice a week. It is enough time to harvest some vegetables but not to plant new crops, so in a few months they will be hit by an additional food crisis.

The government calls criticism of its "regroupment" policy "untrue and defamatory propaganda". It claims it had no other choice but to take the "extreme and painful measure" of forcing people into camps to stop the "noose" of rebellion from tightening around the capital.

The camps were prompted by a growing numbers of rebel assaults on Bujumbura. On independence day, July 1, rebels sealed off the city. Then came attacks on mostly Tutsi suburbs. In early September, about 30 people were burned alive in their homes. Extremist Tutsi militias then re-emerged to take their revenge on Hutus.

Many diplomats believe that Burundi's military leader and President, Pierre Buyoya, reluctantly bowed to pressure from within his own army to force the Hutu population into the camps.

A similar policy proved relatively successful in separating the general population from rebels in the north and east of the country three years ago. But there was a price to pay. Thousands died from disease and hunger in the camps. No one knows the real death toll, just as the number of young Hutu men disappearing from the latest camps stays hidden.

But accounts of killings are emerging. Human rights groups accuse the army of murdering about 35 people at the Kibembe camp. The army admits a soldier in Ruyaga shot 11 people in one night and says he was arrested. Some of the camps are sealed off for several days for "military operations".

The camps have also come under attack by Hutu rebels. Ten people were killed during an assault on Mubimbi. The army implicitly admitted problems in some areas after shutting off Kavumu because its 16 000 detainees "do not want to listen to the authorities" amid an apparent revolt.

Large parts of Bujumbura were ethnically cleansed of Hutus by the mostly Tutsi army three years ago. It has left the city's Tutsi population in a majority. One businessman, Nicodemus Kimenzi, said the city's residents lived in fear of extermination, particularly after the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

"There is nothing wrong with the camps. It is good for Bujumbura because now the rebels cannot hide among the people in the hills and attack. It was very bad here. People were dying. The people in the camps are well looked after and being protected from the rebels. We have no choice if we are to defend ourselves," he said.

The camps pose a dilemma for aid agencies, with workers risking being accused of collaborating with the detention of Hutus if they help look after the detainees. One agency, Médecins sans Frontières has pulled out, and the United Nations left after two of its foreign officials were killed, probably by rebels. Other organisations, notably Catholic Relief and various medical charities, have stayed on.

The government has poured scorn on aid agencies that either hesitate to work in the camps or complain that many are inaccessible. Cabinet ministers were shown on television making the long climb to remote camps before denying that they were inaccessible. But the agencies say climbing a hill is one thing. Delivering water and food is another.