A protester opposed to the Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term is snatched by members of the 'Imbonerakure', the youth wing of the ruling party, in Bujumbura on May 25, 2015 (AFP Photo/Carl De Souza)
(Nairobi) – Members of Burundi ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, have repeatedly gang-raped women since a wave of political protests began in 2015. Many of the rapes appear to have been aimed at family members of perceived government opponents. Policemen or men wearing police uniforms have also committed rape.
In a pattern of abuse in many locations and in several provinces, men armed with guns, sticks, or knives have raped women during attacks on their homes, most often at night. Male family members, some of them members of opposition parties, were also targeted and some killed or abducted. Survivors reported both immediate injuries and longer-term consequences, including sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, anxiety, and depression. Women have not been safe from rape in refugee camps, and services to assist them are inadequate and need to be better funded. Tanzanian police working in the camp should ensure they fully investigate all rape cases.
“Attackers from Burundi’s ruling party youth league tied up, brutally beat, and gang-raped women, often with their children nearby,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Many of the women have suffered long-term physical and psychological consequences.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 70 rape victims in May 2016, in the Nduta refugee camp in western Tanzania. Nduta is one of three Tanzanian camps sheltering 140,000 Burundian refugees.
Dozens of women said they were raped in or close to their homes. Fourteen said they recognized at least one of the attackers as an Imbonerakure. In some other cases, they said the rapists wore police uniforms. In other cases, they could not determine who the attackers were.
A 36-year-old woman said she was raped in the Mutakura neighborhood of Bujumbura, the capital, in October 2015: “I was held by the arms and legs. [An attacker] said: ‘Let’s kill her, she is an [opposition National Liberation Forces] FNL wife’ as they raped me.”
Three Imbonerakure raped her, she said, one of whom she said she recognized from his patrols in the neighborhood. Imbonerakurehad verbally harassed her husband, an FNL member, during visits to their home on several occasions before the attack during which the men took him away. His body was found in a nearby ditch the following day. Like many others Human Rights Watch interviewed, the victim said she still has trouble sleeping and has flashbacks of the attack.
In some cases, rape appeared to be used to try to deter people from fleeing Burundi. Six women said they were raped on the Burundian side of the Tanzanian border by people they believed to be Imbonerakure or knew to be Burundian police, between mid-2015 and early 2016. The attackers ordered the victims to return home, or verbally harassed them for attempting to leave. Sixteen others who tried to leave reported extortion, beatings, verbal harassment, or detention by Imbonerakure or police. Other rapes may have been opportunistic.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the president of the ruling party, Pascal Nyabenda, on July 12, 2016, seeking his response to allegations of rape by Imbonerakure, but did not receive a reply.
Many women fled Burundi immediately after they were raped, before they were able to get emergency medical services. Human Rights Watch found that in many cases women were not identified as rape victims when they arrived at humanitarian transit camps on the Tanzanian side of the border and so did not get emergency care for HIV exposure or emergency contraception, which are among World Health Organization minimum standards for post-rape care.
One woman who did not receive such emergency care became pregnant from the rape. Another found out later she was HIV positive. Both said there was no obvious way to report the rapes at the transit camps. Humanitarians told Human Rights Watch that they were continuing to train staff at the border points, had stockpiled drugs at the border, and were trying to increase the number of female staff there, to encourage women to report sexual violence.
People who fled to Tanzania are not safe from sexual violence in refugee camps, where the numbers of rapes are alarmingly high, including of children. Women and girls have been raped both inside the camps and in areas outside where they collect firewood or goods for market, often as many as three or four cases a week. Women said the attackers included both other Burundian refugees and Tanzanians. Humanitarians told Human Rights Watch they are concerned about high numbers of rapes of children.
Victims said that aid groups providing services in the camps do not provide adequate psychological services and trauma care. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that donor countries have provided less than 40 percent of funds requested in aid to Burundi refugees in Tanzania.
From May through September 2015, 323 (264 women and 59 girls) reported cases of rape or sexual assault that occurred in Burundi, including as they were trying to flee, to humanitarians in Nyaragusu, the first and biggest refugee Tanzanian camp hosting Burundians, according to UNHCR. UNHCR said that of all incidents reported from June to October 2015, according to the women, 16 were allegedly perpetrated by the police and 177 were allegedly perpetrated by other members of the security forces or Imbonerakure.
Over 170 people have reported rapes in Burundi or during their flight to humanitarians in the two newest Tanzanian camps, Nduta and Mtendeli, since they opened late last year, according to UNHCR. It is possible that some women may have reported rapes twice if they moved from Nyaragusu to the newer camps. Reported rape cases may only represent a percentage of the total. Medical staff of aid organizations told Human Rights Watch they believe many women do not report rape unless they seek treatment for continuing medical problems.
Some women interviewed described tense relations between Tutsis and Hutus in the camp and often between or within families. Some said they feared possible attacks from Imbonerakure whom they claimed were in Nduta to target and harass people. Human Rights Watch did not verify these claims.
UNHCR funds Tanzanian police in the refugee camps. The police station in Nduta camp is staffed by least three female police who work at a “gender desk” that encourages women to report abuse. Several interviewees said they appreciated efforts by Tanzanian police, including detaining alleged perpetrators, although sometimes only for short periods.
In other cases, however, women said the Tanzanian police did not seem interested in finding those responsible if the women had been attacked outside Nduta camp, or had not seriously tried to arrest attackers in the camp. A legal assistance organization, the Women’s Legal Aid Center (WILAC), which works in Nduta, said that five people have been officially charged with rape since Nduta opened in October. Four were found not guilty, and one case was ongoing in late May. There have been two convictions for domestic violence.
In 2015 and 2016, Human Rights Watch documented how the Burundian police and intelligence services, along with Imbonerakure, targeted perceived opponents with killings, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests. President Pierre Nkurunziza should publicly denounce security force and Imbonerakure abuses and ensure that rapists and other abusers are held to account.
The UN Security Council should authorize a strong international police force for Burundi, including women officers, to deter abuses, including rape. The UN and countries that provide police should ensure that they have training and expertise in investigating these crimes, and that providing security and support to survivors of sexual violence is among their priorities.
The UN Security Council should urgently set up an independent, international commission of inquiry with judicial, forensic, and medical expertise, as well as expertise in investigating torture and sexual violence.
Rape by Imbonerakure
Burundi has a long history of rape, including during periods of conflict or political crisis. There are indications there may be high rates of this crime even in times of relative stability. In June 2015, for example, Centre Seruka, a Burundian organization that helps victims of sexual violence, said that between 120 and 130 victims of sexual violence sought help at their facilities each month. The majority were children.
The survivors interviewed said that in some cases, they had been raped by men they knew to be Imbonerakure, who sometimes worked with the police. Many could not identify their rapist by name, but believed they were raped because of a family member’s link to an opposition party or a grievance against their husband. The Imbonerakure, who are the members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), are organized across Burundi, down to the local level, and have long been used to target government opponents. Their role in the repression has increased since April 2015.
A group of Imbonerakure raped O.P.’s 8-year-old daughter after they attacked her family home, in Karusi province, in late April 2015. O.P. saw a local Imbonerakure leader enter the house with other men before she ran away, leaving her daughter behind. She returned to find her daughter sitting in bloody sheets. O.P.’s daughter told her that four men had raped her. O.P.’s husband left the country the following day because he feared the attack was directed at him. He had already been arrested twice and detained for short periods by localImbonerakure for not joining the ruling party, O.P. said.
Several rapes reported to Human Rights Watch took place at the end of 2015, when human rights abuses escalated in Burundi, especially in Bujumbura.