The location of mass graves in Burundi was revealed Friday by the human rights group Amnesty International (AI), a non-governmental organization with over 7 million members. At least five sites were named, thought to contain dozens of bodies of those executed by Burundian security forces in a deadly December sweep of individuals suspected of opposing the republic. Police said the attack was reprisal for protests and rebel assaults on government compounds.
In a report released on Jan. 28 by AI, the group wrote that “compelling new satellite images,” including before and after photos of “disturbed earth,” as well as video footage and witness accounts “analyzed by Amnesty International, strongly indicate that dozens of people killed by Burundian security forces in December were later buried in mass graves.”
According to witnesses, the graves were dug on December 11, shortly after one of the bloodiest days Burundi’s recent escalating crisis. The landlocked country in East Africa, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been plagued by a history of ethnic cleansings, civil wars and genocides.
“These images suggest a deliberate effort by the authorities to cover up the extent of the killings by their security forces and to prevent the full truth from coming out,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa.
Residents interviewed by AI officials said gunmen stormed their villages, going door-to-door and yanking out so-called dissenters. Men and boys from their villages, their hands tied behind their backs, were executed and left on the streets or tossed into ditches. Hours later, police came back through and rounded the bodies up into trucks, hauling them away to undisclosed locations and refusing to communicate with grief-stricken family members.
Adds the AI report: “The mother of a 15-year-old boy who was shot in the head as he ran to take refuge in an outhouse in the Musaga neighborhood, told Amnesty International that a pickup truck from the mayor’s office retrieved her son’s body. The men that took him refused to tell her where the body was being taken. ‘I don’t know where he is or if he’s been buried,’ she said.”
The Associated Press reports that AI’s release of the mass graves “came as unrest in Burundi escalated with the arrest of 17 people in a security sweep, including two foreign journalists who were released later Friday.” The journalists, on assignment for the French newspaper Le Monde, were later released.
The news of the executions and mass graves comes just days before African leaders are due to discuss the rising violence in Burundi at the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa.
“African leaders gathering at the AU summit must call on the Burundian government to grant international investigators access to all suspected grave sites and launch an immediate, independent and impartial investigation into the killings and why most families were given no opportunity to retrieve and bury their dead,” said Wanyeki. “Families need to know what happened to their loved ones and to be able to bury them in dignity. These suspected grave sites must be secured until proper investigations can be carried out, and any bodies found in them should be exhumed to assess the causes of death.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the reports of mass graves “underscore the futility of trying to cover up such crimes. Perpetrators of atrocities in Burundi must realize that the international community is watching and those responsible for such horrors will be brought to account.”
The government of Burundi has rejected allegations of killings and mass graves, stating that the information was fabricated by the regime’s opponents in order to foment opposition.