RUKOKO, 24 September 2010 (IRIN) - Several mysterious killings in Burundi, where memories of civil war are still fresh, have spread fear and disrupted livelihoods, while authorities have sought to play down talk of renewed armed insurrection, blaming some of the deaths on bandits.
Tension has been mounting in Burundi since several elections were held earlier this year. The presidential poll was boycotted by most of the opposition amid claims of fraud in the local polls.
Since the elections, three opposition leaders, including former rebel leader Agathon Rwasa, have fled the country.
Earlier this week, 14 bodies were discovered in marshes near the Rusizi river, about 10km northwest of the capital, Bujumbura.
“It is difficult to identify them or say where they came from or even whether they are the bodies of Burundians,” Police Director-General Fabien Ndayishimiye told a news conference.
He pointed out that the east of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo “is home to the bases of various rebel groups, with skirmishes reported almost daily. Even yesterday we heard gunshots. So far no Burundian has told us about any missing family members. We see bodies but they are not identified.”
The following day, however, the head of a fishermen’s association told reporters four new bodies had been discovered in the river with Burundian identity papers in their pockets.
“One of them was a senior policeman originating from Bujumbura Rural [a province which surrounds the capital]. The three others were from Nyamurenza commune in the northern province of Ngozi. Two of them were in military uniforms,” he said.
“We want the government to investigate and tell us why these people are being killed, or if there is a war,” he added.
On 15 September, men in uniform killed seven workers at a sugar plantation in Rukoko, not far from the Rusizi river. Eleven other workers were wounded.
One plantation worker told IRIN that soldiers now walked ahead of any groups venturing deep into the plantation but most workers still feared to stray far from the main road.
However, he said, work continued. “We have no other option. It is our only means of livelihood,” he said.
Suzanne Ndayishimiye (no relation to the police director-general), who sells fritters by the roadside, said she no longer allowed her young child to stray beyond arm’s reach lest she be left behind in the event of another attack.
“Last week we heard gunshots and left everything behind. I am now afraid and keep her by me,” she said.
There is a nature reserve in Rukoko, where some cultivation and firewood collection is tolerated so as to provide a living to local residents.
Recently, leaflets were distributed warning people they would be killed if they entered the reserve.
“They told us it is their home and want nobody there,” a taxi-cyclist waiting for trade told IRIN.
“We had some rice plantations there,” said the fritter seller. “Others go to fetch firewood they can sell or use for building materials. But now we cannot even go to harvest our sweet potatoes.”
The director-general of police said some 22 people had been detained in connection with various violent incidents, including two for their alleged role in the Rukoko killings.
Through its spokesman and secretary-general, Philippe Nzobonariba, Burundi’s government has pledged “track down those criminals so that a relevant punishment to their crime is applied”.
Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who chairs the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and the Rights of Detainees, said he had been unable to find out where those recently arrested were being held.
"People are arrested here and there, even from market places. Their families do not know their whereabouts, we even asked at the national intelligence services, because we know they were once there. They told us they are not there [now]. Where did they go?” he asked.