As chilling new details emerged about the gruesome massacre of some 150 Congolese civilians at a refugee camp in Burundi on Friday, the United Nations refugee agency today reported that the country's Government has agreed to authorize a secure camp away from the border for newly arrived refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The agreement followed an urgent appeal from UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers, who called the slaughter of the sleeping refugees “an appalling massacre of innocent civilians." The deputy director of UNHCR's Geneva-based Africa bureau was flying to Burundi today to call on the government to take immediate measures to get the refugees, who have fled ethnic fighting in the DRC, out of harm's way.
The UN Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday strongly condemned the massacre of the Banyamulenge (ethnic Tutsi) refugees for which Burundi's ethnic Hutu rebel Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), the only group which has not joined the country's peace process, has claimed responsibility.
“Some of the corpses were mutilated and headless. Others were burned beyond recognition. Some heads were bashed in. Mothers were killed obviously while trying to protect their children with their bodies,” UNHCR said of the massacre at the Gatumba transit centre midway on the 30-kilometre route between the Burundi capital of Bujumbura and the DRC border town of Uvira.
“Men armed with machetes, automatic weapons, grenades and torches swept into the camp amid the beating of drums and chants of 'Hallelujah',” it added. Some 100 refugees were also wounded. A nearby Burundi army base also came under attack, but a facility for 300 Burundi returnees from the DRC was left untouched.
UNHCR has moved 500 survivors to a nearby school and another 100 went on their own to find accommodation in Bujumbura. "We did everything we can to protect the refugees," said one agency staff member.
“But everything the agency did was not enough in a region where governments have little control over forces that are constantly conjuring the most surreal and outrageous form of evil against the innocent to pursue their objectives,” UNHCR added in a news release.
Gatumba is one of three transit centres in Burundi's western frontier area sheltering 20,000 Congolese fleeing the DRC's South Kivu province where disgruntled commanders protesting the alleged mistreatment of the Banyamulenge rebelled in June.
Some relief workers said the attack was reminiscent of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda a decade ago that left more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of Hutu extremists.
Burundi itself is trying to resolve a decade of deadly warfare between Hutus and Tutsis and a UN peacekeeping mission (ONUB) was established there in June to help the process along.