Is Burundi on the verge of return to ethnic conflict?

By Nkem Ifejika
BBC Newsday, Bujumbura

Image source, Huong Ly/BBC
Image caption,
Hospital patients are seeking help because of trauma caused by the recent violence

From the hills at Kiriri, to the east of Burundi's capital Bujumbura, there is a clear view of Lake Tanganyika. The Itombwe Mountains across the water in the Democratic Republic of Congo are harder to see as low hanging clouds always get in the way. It is a picture of tranquillity.

Traffic is light, people are on the streets, but peer closer and you will see cracks in the serenity.

Residents of the city say since "Le Crise" - or the crisis - began in April, more razor wire barriers line certain streets and soldiers are constantly on patrol throughout the city.

The United Nations is concerned, beginning plans to send in a rapid reaction force if needed.

'Tragic consequences'

African Union military observers are already on the ground assessing the situation.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
At least 240 people have been killed since April - mostly in Bujumbura

"We can observe today in Burundi a clear manipulation of ethnicity by both the government and opposition," the UN's special adviser on genocide, Adama Dieng, told the BBC.

"We know that ethnicity can be used to divide populations, and spreading hatred among them, which can have tragic consequences."

After sunset, the city becomes eerily quiet, unless it is pierced by gunfire such as we heard on Tuesday night. The following morning revealed just how bloody the night was. Police sources say eight people were killed, including a policeman.

Both opposition and governing factions accuse each other of violence.

Since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in in April, 200,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, and 240 people have been killed.

Violence affects everyone

Activists have gone into hiding, fearing attack. One opposition member who had been shot in the legs told me he could not escape north on the road to Rwanda.

"The police have my picture and they know my identity. If I try to flee, I will get caught, so I chose to stay. Even now, they can kill my family."

Image source, Huong Ly/BBC
Image caption,
Christophe (not his real name), a human rights activist, says he sleeps in different places every night
Image source, Huong Ly/BBC
Image caption,
Presidential spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe blames the opposition for stirring the unrest
Image source, Huong Ly/BBC
Image caption,
Prominent human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot and badly injured August and is now recovering in Europe

Christophe (not his real name), a human rights activist, says he sleeps in different places every night.

When I met him, he was carrying a rucksack with a change of clothes and a baseball cap, explaining: "I can change appearance at short notice."

And those who are not political activists have also been affected by the violence.

If they live in a neighbourhood which is seen as pro- or anti-government, they could be targeted.

The result is an atmosphere of worry and suspicion.

Brother Hippolyte Manirakiza runs the centre for neuropsychiatry in Kamenge. He said he has seen an increase in the number of patients attending his hospital.

"They come because they're scared and can't sleep at night. People are really afraid, they suffer from fear. And they don't know what will happen tomorrow. Death becomes a really simple thing."

Image source, BurundiPolice
Image caption,
Police in Bujumbura recently shared photos of arms and ammunition they said had been recovered from attackers

The government says the violence is restricted to certain districts in the capital, and that the rest of the country is peaceful.

Presidential spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe said the opposition was responsible for the unrest.

"They're carrying out the attacks because they want sympathy from the West."

The EU and the US have imposed sanctions on four people, including two former officials who led a failed coup in May.

Prominent human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot and badly injured in August. One bullet hit his vocal cord and another hit his spine.

Speaking from Brussels where he was recovering and just starting to gain mobility, he said: "We welcome the sanctions, but they're rather late after a lot of killings have happened in Burundi."

Bujumbura is at the heart of the political turmoil, and as such the countryside has become a refuge for those trying to get away from the violence.

In the small fishing community of Kabezi just south of the capital, it is much quieter. People routinely wake up early, fish late, return home.

One man everyone called "patron" - on account of being a boat owner - said they had not been affected by the crisis.

"We only hear about it on the radio. It's the elite in Bujumbura who're involved in this," he said.

Chantal, an abapishi - or a woman who cooks for fishermen to earn a living - said the violence slowed business.

"There's no place you can say we are 100% safe, something can happen even here. But when there are problems it's in town.

"It's difficult to get people to buy our fish. So economically, we get affected. But even here, things can happen and we have to hide ourselves. Today is okay because we are fine, there's peace."

But it is not clear how much longer that will be the case.

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