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Brother against brother: Burundi crisis divides kin

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map_of_burundiWhen the attackers came, Japhet’s older brother was among them. A group of 15 climbed to a hilltop neighbourhood in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura and went house to house looking for opponents of the country’s president.

“When they attacked, my brother did not defend me and went to attack another house,” said Japhet, a victim of the night raid by the Imbonerakure, the youth league of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party.

Divided by politics, the sad family history encapsulates current tensions in Burundi, where weeks of violent street protests opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in power escalated into a failed coup bid last week by top generals.

The coup was crushed, but protesters have defied government orders to end demonstrations.

Tensions are high, and the night attacks hark back to the dark days of the 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and left hundreds of thousands dead.

Despite government denials, there are fears Burundi could slide into a cycle of vicious reprisals against anyone linked to the coup, after witnesses and security sources said troops loyal to the president have been hunting down rival soldiers, even the wounded in hospital.

Opposition and rights groups insist that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term is against the constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to the country’s civil war in 2006.

But Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead the country, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

– ‘They have declared war’ –

Japhet’s brother Felix, a priest, is a die-heard supporter of Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD, an ex-rebel Hutu party.

But Japhet, a 35-year old salesman, is a member of the National Liberation Front (FNL), another ex-rebel Hutu party, now in opposition, and a former CNDD-FDD civil war rival.

He described how he was attacked in Bujumbura’s Musaga district this week by 15 members of the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, a fearsome group whose name means “The Watchmen” or, literally, “Those Who See Far”.

The UN call them a militia force, and rights groups accuse them of a string of killings.

“I was surrounded by the group, they pounced on me without saying anything and started to beat me,” said Japhet.

Another resident of the suburb described how the gang went door to door, singling out those they wanted to attack.

“They were targeting those who have demonstrated against the third term, or are FNL members,” said Dieudonne, another resident, who hurt his ankle when he fled from the gang.

On the hillside district, everyone knows everyone.

“They are our neighbours, we lived in harmony, but now they have declared war,” Dieudonne added.

Then FNL supporters carried out reprisal raids on the homes of suspected Imbonerakure.

Some managed to flee — including Felix, the brother of Japhet — but others were caught.

“They searched my home and found pictures of me in uniform with a gun, photographs dating back from the time when I was still a soldier,” said Antoine, who said that while he would vote CNDD-FDD, he was not an Imbonerakure member.

“They did not believe me and started beating me,” he said, showing wounds to his head and face, adding that his ribs were broken.

“Fortunately the police arrived quickly, because otherwise they would have killed me,” he said, claiming the attackers had gone to get a tyre and petrol to burn him alive.

FNL loyalists claim they found machetes, grenades and military uniforms in their raids against Imbonerakure suspects.

The photo of Felix is widely shown in the district, if he would dare set foot there again.

And at night, some leave their homes to sleep elsewhere, as militants say they will “clean up” the district of the “last CNDD-FDD” supporter.


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