Burundi mental scars deepen as fear rules

She’s watching the road just outside her house, sitting on a tree trunk used as a barricade during anti-government protests last year against President Pierre Nkurunziza. And she’s talking to herself.

“This person walks like Benny. Even his shirt looks like Benny’s,” she says, her grief heavy, as a man walks past the house.

Janet Bizimana’s* son disappeared on 19 January, 2016. Her neighbour says that on the 19th of each month she stays up crying through the night.

Burundi has been through many dark days of brutal violence: its two civil wars and repeated bouts of ethnic cleansing have all left scars in this small, densely populated country.

And the violence is far from over. For almost two years now, Burundi has been torn by renewed political conflict in which hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands detained and tortured – all creating fresh layers of trauma.

Opposition to Nkurunziza flared over his decision to run for a third presidential term, which many viewed as unconstitutional. He won the controversial elections in July last year after surviving an attempted coup, and Burundi has teetered on the brink of civil war ever since.

The conflict, which is in danger of re-opening the ethnic-based fault lines of the past, has forced 327,400 Burundians to flee into neighbouring countries. Burundi has a total population of just 10 million.

Two narratives

While Burundian human rights activists say 1,000 people have been killed and more than 9,000 detained since April 2015, the government insists the situation is improving, and was backed recently by the president of the National Independent Human Rights Commission, Jean-Baptiste Baribonekeza.

"The country is calm; we no longer hear gun shots in the capital,” Baribonekeza was quoted as saying by IWACU English News. “If we visit places of detention, we notice that the number of arrested people has significantly decreased from more than 9,000 in 2015 to about 6,000 today. In general, there has been an improvement compared to last year.”

President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. For generic use
World Economic Forum/Eric Miller
President Pierre Nkurunziza won elections in July after an attempted coup

Mutakura is a low-income district of junior civil servants and small-scale company workers outside the capital, Bujumbura.

It’s also the home of Bizimana*, the 70-year-old mother of Benny Runyaga*, who was a well-known member of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy**, a party linked to the rebel RED-Tabara group.

Related: Who's who in Burundi's armed opposition

“When the phone rings at home, she’s the first to run to pick it up. She thinks her son will be on the line,” explains a family friend. “It’s the same thing when someone knocks on the door. She tries to be the first to open the door, believing her son will come home.”

Benny Runyaga was the father of two children. The youngest was born only a month before he disappeared, presumably picked up by the police.

“The oldest child takes his father’s clothes, lays them out, and calls his mother and says, ‘mum, here is dad’,” explains a neighbour.

Not knowing whether Runyaga is alive or dead is torturing the family, especially Janet. The neighbour is worried she might need institutional care.

“Feeding on blood”

Jane* is also a victim. Her husband, an army officer, died in an attack on their home in Bujumbura. Their four children still ask when he will come back to them.

“Only the oldest child, who is almost nine, seems to understand what happened to us. Every day, he asks why the world is so mean to refuse him the right to hold his father’s hand,” Jane tells IRIN.

“Every time we visit his grave he tells me that he’s scared that those who killed my husband can see us.

“He tells me: ‘They are here, mum; they are following us; they don’t want us to come here. They are animals, mum: beasts feeding on blood.” Her voice is shaking.

Apart from the emotional impact, the loss of Jane’s husband has had a devastating economic effect on the family.

“I’ve had to leave the house we lived in before the attack for another, cheaper one. I am not paying the rent because I don’t have a job. Friends, acquaintances, and some old colleagues of my husband are paying for me and the children,” she explains.

“They are doing it secretly because they are afraid too. We never got the results from the investigation [into her husband’s death].

“Even old friends of my husband, although members of the security forces, or in defence, are asking about the investigation into his death, like I am.”

Jane doesn’t want to talk about whether he had any political affiliations.

Disorders

Jean-Pierre Ntamatungiro* is a psychologist with a private office in Bujumbura’s city centre.

“Before the crisis, I was seeing at least three patients with signs of trauma,” he tells IRIN. “Today, I receive nine or 10 every day. Do the maths and you’ll see the number of people we receive every month. It’s a big number for a small country like Burundi.”

The people who come for counselling are only those who can afford it. Others are left on the streets, and many young people are taking to drugs, the psychologist says.

“[This crisis] affects young people from all political parties in Burundi: opposition and pro-government alike,” says Ntamatungiro*. “Some of them have developed suicidal tendencies, following what they have seen. There are others who have lost the ability to speak, following what they went through or witnessed.”

The future

Last month, IRIN watched three boys playing on the streets of Bujumbura’s southern Musaga district. It’s an area known for opposition to the government, and therefore also for crackdowns by the security forces.

One of the boys was imitating a policeman. “Get out of your house or I’ll shoot the door,” he commanded.

Musaga is known for opposition against the government
Phil Moore/IRIN
Musaga district is known for opposition to the government

Another had a small round stone, which he pretended was a grenade; the third was singing a popular song from last year against the re-election of Nkurunziza.

They were scattered back to their families by an older man – made uncomfortable by what he was witnessing and the presence of a journalist.

“They are only repeating what they saw here,” explained a passer-by. “But I have doubts for the future of these children in such a country.”

* Names have been changed to protect identities for security reasons

** An earlier version of this story incorrectly labelled the opposition party the Movement for Solidarity and Justice

(TOP PHOTO:  Relatives of a student killed in the Jabe neighbourhood of Bujumbura mourn at home in the Burundian capital on June 28, 2015. Phil Moore/IRIN)