Burundi youth militia’s ‘grotesque rape chants’ part of ‘campaign of fear and terror’

Imbonerakure youth miltia march. Credit: Teddy Mazina/YouTube

The U.N.’s human rights chief condemned a Burundian pro-government youth militia after a video surfaced showing rape chants by members.

“The grotesque rape chants by the young men of the Imbonerakure across several provinces in various parts of Burundi are deeply alarming – particularly because they confirm what we have been hearing from those who have fled Burundi about a campaign of fear and terror by this organized militia,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

Burundian human rights groups published a video in early April featuring members of the Imbonerakure youth group in the northeastern town of Ntega. In it, more than 100 young men clap and sing about impregnating and killing their opponents. They are heard saying, “make opponents pregnant so that they can give birth to Imbonerakure” and “he or she should die,” according to the U.N.

The ruling CNDD-FDD party condemned the chants in a statement shortly after the videos were published. Zeid remained critical because similar pro-government rallies were held by party officials in the weeks since the video was published.

“[The] condemnation is meaningless if, instead of a putting a stop to such events, senior government officials continue to take part in such rallies,” he said. “The government needs to stop pretending that the Imbonerakure are nothing but a community development group. Such blatant and brazen hate speech and incitement to violence must not be tolerated, nor encouraged.”

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It is a worrying sign as the country continues to deal with the fallout of President Pierre Nkurunziza bid for a third term in office, two years ago. The leader cracked down on opposition protests and enacted harsher measures after a failed military coup. More than 400,000 people have fled the country, according to the U.N.

Academics and human rights groups warned that Burundi could spiral into a violent civil war. While the systematic attacks that many feared have yet to happen, sporadic attacks continue. The chants in the videos are evidence of a continuing effort by the ruling party to recruit and train militia groups. Members of the Imbonerakure have killed, beaten and tortured across the country, Human Rights Watch warned in January.

The organization said attacks increased during the last three months of 2016. Witnesses said that militia members acted with impunity. The few who were arrested were later let free without charges. In one case, Imbonerakure were sent to beat up a man when he filed a complaint with the police after two officers raped his wife.

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“Burundians live in fear of the next attack, afraid to speak out to denounce the killings, torture, and other abuses,” Ida Sawyer, central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The killers and torturers who carry out violence so freely and the Burundian officials who support them need to know that there are consequences for their actions.”

Several hundred people were killed in 2016 as a result of the ongoing turmoil. There is evidence that the same pattern of attacks continues into this year. The number of enforced disappearances increased between November 2016 and March 2017, Zeid said. Once flourishing independent media and nongovernmental organizations are all but gone in the wake of the post-coup crackdown.

Zeid called on Burundian leaders to stop inciting racial hatred and condemn acts of violence. The fact that rape chants by another Imbonerakure group less than a week after the video emerged shows that the statements by officials are not effective.

“There needs to be an acknowledgment that the Ntega rally was not an isolated incident, but rather the tip of the iceberg, brought to light only because it was captured on camera,” he said.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.