Late last year, during a visit to Bujumbura, Burundi, I found myself in a large public park, where throngs of men and women were all looking in the same direction. When clouds gathered, threatening a thundering African rain, their gazes remained fixed on the city courthouse. There was nothing to see, but a loud speaker broadcast the ongoing proceedings of a trial that shook the nation to its core. No one in the crowd that day—or any day they gathered over the several-week-long proceeding—spoke to one another.
The attraction that day was the trial of more than a dozen assailants accused of an attack on September 18, in which armed men burst into a bar in the small city of Gatumba and killed 39 people indiscriminately. It is the most serious incident in recent memory in a country that not long ago suffered civil war and genocide. It isn’t just the scale of the violence that has drawn attention, however.
The Gatumba trial was a rare peek into what is essentially a cold war between an entrenched government and a volatile opposition. Over the last year, assassinated bodies have started showing up in neighborhoods and villages. In other cases, young men simply disappear and are never found again. A group of civil society organizations, the Government Action Observatory, said in late November that it had found 300 cases of opposition assassinations. Other observers—including the Catholic Church and the country’s former president—say that the killing goes both ways. Human Rights Watch released a report on May 2 documenting how “scores of people have been brutally killed in politically motivated attacks.”
After the Gatumba attack, the country’s intelligence service—in a leaked investigation document—accused members of the opposition of involvement in the attack. The primary defendant, however, told a different story: the police had approached him to carry out the massacre, he said, in a set-up to discredit the opposition.
The defendants in that trial have now all been convicted. And on Friday, the former rebel leader who was accused of planning the attack was killed in the Congo. But that measure of closure on the Gatumba case leaves an open book on Burundi. The government is in no mood for conciliation with the opposition. The opposition—fragmented, distrustful, and increasingly militant—is really in no position to dialogue. In a country just a decade out of civil war, where unemployment and conflicts over land are commonplace, analysts fear it wouldn’t take much for Burundi to fall apart.
But even if it doesn’t, Burundi has already slipped back into a sinister cycle of political violence and counter-violence reminiscent of many a post-conflict country. Long after the blockbuster fighting has ended, the peacekeepers have gone home, and a new government is in place, this silent battle, fought in the poorest neighborhoods and darkest corners of the political fold, is keeping the population perpetually on edge and each day exacerbating the mistrust that lingered from the war.
Burundi is not a place most people could probably point to on a map. It’s tiny; it’s nestled into the heart of Central Africa; and its geopolitical importance is, in the scheme of things, pretty minor. But in its quiet way, Burundi’s worrying regression begs questions about how to address the fallout at the end of brutal war—questions that may now be asked in places as diverse as Libya, Syria, and Cote d’Ivoire. After the fires of war are squelched, the coals still burn in a way that prevents progress—and keeps a country from truly moving on. Burundi’s government has promised a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and created an independent Human Rights body to investigate abuses. But neither seem likely to stem the low-level tensions that are simmering in communities.
In Burundi, that’s clearly the greatest risk of all: not moving on from a civil war that landed this country at the bottom of the world’s economic and social totem pole. The country routinely ranks among the five lowest on the UN’s Human Development Index. Its economy is essentially non-existent, and a significant chunk of the government’s budget is paid by foreign donors.
Violence has only frozen that stagnation. “These [violent] acts have the unfortunate consequences in our country of generating distrust among the people,” the Catholic Church warned in a sermon that its priests gave in pulpits across the country on Sunday, December 11, while I was in Burundi. “In this way, the voice of peace is compromised and fails to progress, at a moment when we have no time to waste addressing the questions that worry the people…the poverty in the country, the fight against corruption and division of benefits, and good governance, among many others.”