Burundi is a small, landlocked east-central African country. One of the five poorest nations in the world, it is densely populated, with between eight and nine million inhabitants. Languages spoken include Kirundi, French and Swahili. Life expectancy is 43 years; only 52% of the population is literate, and GDP per capita is about $500. Agriculture employs 90% of Burundi’s people, with most farming for their own subsistence.
According to the DHL Global Connectedness Index, Burundi is the least globalized of 140 surveyed countries. In percentage terms, it is listed in the Global Hunger Index as the hungriest nation in the world. Communal conflict, particularly between the Hutu and the Tutsi has been a factor in Burundi politics since the country secured independence from Belgium in 1962. Fatalities in the 1972 and 1994 genocides (recognized as such by the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi in 2002) numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A ceasefire in 2003 ended the most recent bout of communal violence, though sporadic outbreaks have continued.
There is no conclusive figure concerning the number of missing or unaccounted victims of the two genocides and the civil war even though there were no apparent attempts at the time to conceal the truth by burying victims in clandestine mass graves.
There have been reports of mass graves in the suburbs of Bujumbura, the capital, which are believed to be linked to more recent fighting. In 2013 the International Committee of the Red Cross (link to: http://www.icrc.org/eng/) conducted site assessments of mass graves which were found in Kivyuka, but the local authorities eventually decided to carry out the exhumations of the three mass graves themselves. Impunity Watch (link to: http://www.impunitywatch.org), a 2004 offshoot of a Dutch development organization, monitored the exhumations and noted that they had been carried out without police supervision or the assistance of exhumation experts or the participation of families of the victims or civil society groups, setting what the organization described as “a dangerous precedent” when it comes to dealing with the past in general and dealing with the exhumation of mass graves in particular.
The Working for Forensic and Stabilization Group (WSFG) was established in 2008 and became operational in 2011. It is a domestic organization with three full-time staff and eight volunteers; its stated mission is to cooperate with civil society and government to monitor and investigate human rights violations. The group has helped to identify missing persons from landslides and floods that occurred this year, and plans to play a key role in the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. According to Insight on Conflict (link to: http://www.insightonconflict.org) WFSG lists three ongoing projects:
- Investigation of human rights violations and crimes, which includes leading surveys on human rights violations and identifying the sites of mass graves;
- Investigation of disappearances after flooding and landslides that occurred in mid-February 2014; and
- A capacity building and advocacy project, which includes building capacity for criminal lawyers, conducting human rights monitoring and advocating for the most affected provinces.
In an effort that has taken many years, Burundi announced in 2014 that it has created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which, under a 2000 ceasefire agreement, is supposed to establish the truth about the conflicts that have afflicted the country since independence and identify perpetrators. Opposition parties boycotted the vote that led to the creation of the TRC, complaining that it will shield the ruling party from accountability for past crimes because its members were to be selected by the sitting president.
The search for the missing is an indispensable element in the broad effort to foster Burundi’s recovery from an extended period of chronic violence and particularly the genocide of the 1990s.