Covering events from January - December 2003

Conflict raged throughout the country for most of the year. Over 100 civilians were extrajudicially executed by the armed forces. Scores of others were unlawfully killed by armed political groups. All parties to the conflict looted and destroyed property and the livelihoods of the civilian population in reprisal for perceived support of the enemy. Rape by most of the forces involved was widespread. Armed robbery by criminal gangs, sometimes with the complicity of government forces and often accompanied by rape, increased dramatically. Humanitarian organizations were increasingly targeted. In response to the rise in insecurity, the government stepped up its policy of arming the population. Politically motivated or arbitrary arrests occurred, often followed by ill-treatment or torture. A number of "disappearances" were reported. At least 5,000 people remained in detention without trial. Two soldiers were given only brief prison terms for their involvement in the killing of over 170 civilians in 2002. Freedom of expression came under attack. At least 14 death sentences were passed. About 500,000 people remained internally displaced, often without humanitarian assistance. Up to 90,000 refugees returned from Tanzania despite insecurity in Burundi. At least two people were forcibly returned to Rwanda where they "disappeared".


In April President Buyoya transferred power to Domitien Ndayizeye, of the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU), Front for Democracy in Burundi political party, thus beginning the second half of the political transition set out in the August 2000 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi. In October a power-sharing agreement was signed between the main armed political group, the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy) and the Transitional Government of Burundi. A new inclusive government came to power in late November 2003.

One armed political group vowed to continue fighting – PALIPEHUTU-FNL (Rwasa) (Parti pour la libération du peuple Hutu-Forces nationales de libération, Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People-National Liberation Forces) – known as the FNL. An African Union force to monitor the cease-fire agreement deployed gradually throughout the year.

All parties to the conflict committed grave violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity and war crimes. These included deliberate killings of unarmed civilians and other noncombatants, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers under the age of 15.

Both government and opposition forces appeared to have obtained substantial new military equipment. Before the October agreement was signed, conflict between the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) and government forces had escalated. Preparations to demobilize two marginal armed political groups paradoxically led to further recruitment, including of child soldiers under the age of 15, as the leaders struggled to prove they had fighting forces. In late 2003 fighting between the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) and the FNL broke out around the capital, Bujumbura. A number of summary executions and unlawful killings took place.

In July the FNL attacked Bujumbura, occupying several districts for a week and displacing some 30,000 people. Up to 200 people died, including an unknown number of civilians. As the FNL withdrew, the government armed forces looted property, including emergency aid for the displaced. Both sides initially allowed civilians to leave but also carried out unlawful killings, the armed forces reportedly shooting dead 11 civilians in one house. The FNL shelled several districts, apparently aiming for but missing military targets, and killing at least two civilians. On the last day of the attack, a large number of child soldiers were killed, at least two as they tried to surrender. They were reported to be new FNL recruits, although the FNL denied having child soldiers in their ranks. In late 2003, the FNL extended its operations to southern Burundi for the first time.

Proliferation of small arms

The proliferation of small arms led to a dramatic increase in armed criminality. Small arms, including weapons rented by government soldiers to armed criminal gangs, were used in robberies and rapes against the civilian population. Armed criminal gangs multiplied, some formed by combatants or serving members of the government armed forces or Gardiens de la paix (an unpaid and untrained government militia responsible for numerous human rights abuses); former combatants or army deserters; or armed civilians with the complicity of the security forces. International humanitarian organizations were repeatedly attacked. In some provinces, the authorities responded by distributing more arms to civilians.

The rise in insecurity destroyed the health, livelihoods and foodstocks of the population. Many people slept outdoors to escape killing or rape. The government's policy of requiring an impoverished and largely displaced population to contribute to the costs of their healthcare further reduced access to medical treatment, despite international humanitarian interventions.

Violations by government forces

At least 100 unarmed civilians were deliberately and unlawfully killed by government forces in 2003, often in reprisal for the military activities of armed political groups. Other reprisals included the systematic destruction of property and crops. In Rural Bujumbura province, the sick, the elderly and the young were sometimes bayoneted and killed after military operations. Government forces shelled indiscriminately. Following the July attack, there was heavy fighting in Rural Bujumbura, and at least 24 civilians were reportedly killed in bombing and shelling by the armed forces.

  • On 20 January at least 30 unarmed civilians were extrajudicially executed by government forces in Muvumu sector, Gisuru commune, in reprisal for the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) killing of 10 soldiers in an ambush two days earlier.
  • At least nine unarmed civilians were killed in Ruziba district, Bujumbura, in October when soldiers called residents to a meeting then opened fire on them and looted their homes.

Abuses by armed political groups

Armed political groups unlawfully killed scores of unarmed civilians, suspected collaborators and several low-level government officials. Both the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) and the FNL "taxed" the impoverished population, robbed scores of people and held some hostage for ransom. Both groups shelled military targets in civilian areas without taking steps to protect the civilian population, causing some civilian casualties.

  • Four FRODEBU members of parliament and seven other civilians were abducted by the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) in June in Ruyigi province, apparently in response to reports of FRODEBU campaigning. They were released unharmed between seven and 30 days later.
  • In July, the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) reportedly abducted three employees of international humanitarian organizations in Makamba province.

The FNL in Rural Bujumbura deliberately and unlawfully killed several local government officials, as well as people suspected of belonging to rival opposition factions. Scores of civilians suspected of passing information to the local administration or armed forces were killed or ill-treated. The FNL continued to subject civilians to "trials" for offences including collaboration, theft, adultery and drunkenness, and summarily executed an unknown number. At least eight people were summarily executed in the immediate aftermath of the July attack, suspected of collaborating with the armed forces. They included three children aged between 11 and 14.

Violence against women

The scale of rape by government and opposition forces, in particular the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza), strongly suggested that it was being used as a deliberate strategy and weapon of war. Civilians reported scores of cases of rape and sexual violence by armed criminal gangs; the victims included young girls.

  • In Ruyigi province alone, between May and August, the hospital treated 60 cases of rape. The victims were aged between nine and 77.


Several "disappearances" were reported.

  • In November, three men reportedly suspected of links with an anti-Rwandese armed political movement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo "disappeared" after being held in gendarmerie custody in Rumonge, southern Burundi. Two of them, both Rwandese nationals, at least one of whom was a registered refugee in Uganda, were reportedly handed over to Rwandese security forces in Bujumbura. Their subsequent fate could not be confirmed. Members of the security forces variously claimed that the third man, a Congolese national, had been handed over to the Congolese Embassy in Bujumbura or had been released.


Detainees continued to be ill-treated and tortured. Detainees were frequently tied in excruciating positions with their arms and legs behind their backs, or beaten or stabbed.

  • Désiré, aged 18, was detained without charge for nine days in July in central Bujumbura. He was reportedly held at a military post, where his legs and arms were tied together behind his back and he was beaten. Soldiers reportedly threatened to blow him up with a grenade or bayonet him if he did not confess to participating in the FNL July attack.

Administration of justice

In September legislation was passed to devolve jurisdiction in capital cases and cases punishable by life imprisonment to the High Courts, effectively introducing the right of appeal. The Appeal Courts had tried such cases since the reopening of the courts in 1996.

More than 5,000 prisoners out of a prison population of approximately 8,000 were awaiting trial, many on suspicion of involvement in the 1993 massacres that followed the assassination of Burundi's only democratically elected president.

The trial began in February, before the Bujumbura Court of Appeal, of five people charged with involvement in the 2001 murder of Dr Kassi Manlan, the head of the World Health Organization in Burundi, but it was repeatedly postponed. In October, four senior police or intelligence officials and a civilian were arrested in connection with the case.

Few improvements were seen in the administration of juvenile justice and children continued to be illtreated, isolated and abused within the justice system. Under Burundian law, no child under the age of 13 may be detained. Alexandre Nzeyimana, reportedly aged 12 at the time of his arrest in April 2002, was finally released in February.

The population resorted increasingly to mob justice and lynching, and relied on armed political groups to administer "justice".

Verdict in the Itaba trial

The authorities failed to bring to justice armed forces officers responsible for the killing of between 173 and 267 unarmed civilians, many of them women and children, in Itaba commune in September 2002. In February, two officers were convicted by a military court of failing to follow orders, sentenced to four months' imprisonment – already served while awaiting trial – and immediately released. The civilian state public prosecutor ordered the case reopened, but no further investigations were known to have taken place.

International justice

The bill authorizing ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted in June by the National Assembly. However, it was withdrawn from the Senate after the government announced its intention to make a declaration under Article 124 of the Rome Statute providing that for a period of seven years Burundi would not recognize the Court's jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Burundi or by its nationals. The Constitutional Court upheld a challenge by the National Assembly to the government's intervention and the bill was submitted to the President for signature. The bill had not been adopted by the end of the year.

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression again came under repeated attack, although in December a less restrictive media bill was passed. In March, following the breakdown of negotiations with the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza), President Buyoya ordered radio stations not to mention or broadcast statements by the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza) or the FNL. In September, two independent radio stations were suspended for several days after they broadcast an interview with the FNL spokesperson.

The internally displaced and refugees

An estimated 500,000 people remained internally displaced. Tens of thousands were made vulnerable to disease by having to sleep outside on a regular basis to escape attack. Insecurity or obstruction by military commanders for long periods prevented access to some displaced populations, particularly in Ruyigi province, by humanitarian organizations.

Up to 90,000 refugees returned from Tanzania despite insecurity in Burundi, most because of poor conditions in the camps but also for fear of losing their land. Scores of others were forcibly returned after being arrested outside the camps.

Death penalty

At least 14 death sentences were passed and over 450 people were under sentence of death. No executions took place.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Burundi in July and September to undertake research. Delegates also met government authorities and visited a number of prisons.

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