A Lot to Pray For

Burundi rebels inspire fear in lakeside village

An army soldier looks down from a ridge just south of Bujumbura in 1999. In the background, Lake Tanganyika and the mountains of eastern Congo. Photo by Todd Pitman.

February 12, 1998

By Todd Pitman

MINAGO, Burundi, Feb 12 (Reuters) - When Father Athanase Nibizi bolted the doors shut and crouched down in his church in southern Burundi one night this week, he had a lot to pray for.

Just minutes before, hundreds of Hutu rebels armed with rifles, machetes, hoes, hammers, clubs and knives had descended from hills surrounding the sleepy, lakeside town of Minago, 50 km (30 miles) south of the capital Bujumbura.

As gunfire rattled through his tiny village, Nibizi, a Hutu, said he could hear the attackers outside singing in Kirundi, the country's native tongue: "We will shoot you! We will burn you! We will defeat you!"

"I locked the doors and stayed there all night," the 40-year-old priest told Reuters on Wednesday.

When he finally came out the next morning, Nibizi found the corpses of two dozen civilians -- men, women and children -- scattered through the village.

Most of the dead had been hacked to death as the attackers went from house to house, singing, shooting and looting whatever they could find, including chickens, goats and beer.

"I saw a young child...hacked in the neck, head and hand. Many others were killed in the same way," said 55-year-old Zacharie Kamwenubusa.

"After killing the people, they looted everything. Everybody tried to hide," Kamwenubusa said.

Hutu rebels stepped up their campaign against Burundi's Tutsi-dominated army and government last month, with a New Year's Day offensive on Bujumbura airport and its environs in which at least 284 people were killed.

The fighting has continued in hills around the capital almost every day, with rebels targeting both ethnic groups.

Fighting in Burundi has claimed at least 150,000 lives, mostly civilians, since Tutsi troops murdered the country's first elected Hutu president in an attempted coup in 1993.

A few hundred metres behind Minago's church, Father Nibizi walked between 16 freshly dug graves covered with dirt, sand, red flowers and stick crosses.

He said eight other bodies were buried nearby.

At the town clinic, soldiers waved away a reporter asking about casualties, but a senior army officer said 46 civilians had been wounded during the three-hour raid.

Most casualties had been evacuated to hospitals in Bujumbura and Rumonge, farther south along Lake Tanganyika.

Down the street a military commander sat sipping warm beer with a few troops under a makeshift hut.

He said his soldiers had chased away the rebels and killed several. When asked how many, he said when the rebels had retreated they carried their dead and wounded with them.

Asked about security in the region following the attack, the commander, speaking French and declining to be quoted by name, described the area as "calm". But as he spoke, the sound of automatic gunfire echoed over green hills in the distance.

The noise was enough for the soldiers to put down their beers, pick up their guns and step out of the hut to listen.
The commander ordered his troops on alert.

Five minutes later and a few hundred metres down the road, young Germaine Nteziyorirwa sat on a stump in front of a row of houses clutching her wounds.

Nteziyorirwa described how, on Tuesday night, a group of men broke down her door, beat her to the ground and slashed her with machetes five times on her head, neck, arm and hands.

"They thought I was dead," she said weakly. "That's how I survived."

As she finished the sentence, a loud explosion followed by a quick burst of nearby gunfire sent her and hundreds of others ducking and sprinting across the road.

As a car moved abruptly through the only street out of town, hundreds of peasants could be seen running out of the dense overgrowth and the tumble-down houses at the base of the hills.

(c) Reuters Limited 1998.