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Burundi: Covering the mouth with the gun

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Burundian soldiers patrol near Bujumbura in this file picture. Burundi is a country full of weapons and many areas, especially upcountry, have little police surveillance. 

By JOSH KRON

Posted  Monday, June 1   2009 at  00:00
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Across the street from the Obama Phone Store in downtown Bujumbura, a disarmament billboard advertises a young Burundian woman with her hands over her mouth, an AK47 to her head, eyes wide open.

The image is prominent in spots around town, but it tastes uncunningly sarcastic for guns is what’s going around here these days.

Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, home to a one-month old peace, forgotten about as a Rwanda without a genocide, is having its most outspoken saviours, a league of few in this tiny vibrant capital on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, silenced; mouths covered like in the poster.

While officialdom glorifies the laying down of arms by the National Liberation Front as a 16-year civil war comes to an end, federal court judges have been kidnapped, civil society members stabbed to death and political-party members shot in the head.

The plasma of the country’s political parties, former rebels used as grassroots organisers, are switching sides with fatal consequences.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the circumstances surrounding the murder of anti-corruption activist and civil society pioneer Ernest Manirumva in early April.

Meanwhile, Alexi Sinduhije, a former journalist and poster-child of a new resistance to the government that transcends ethnicity in a land ruined by ethnicity, is accusing the government of pushing false charges on him to put him back in prison before the elections.

The numbers are tiny — five murders since January that local and international watchdogs say are without a doubt politically-motivated.

As for the others, Burundi’s Association for Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) says there are over 300 murders that the government must explain.

Ligue Iteka, another human-rights organisation that believes over 100,000 grenades and mines lace the countryside, say the number of mysterious deaths is worrying.

“The threats are being translated into reality,” one officer says under anonymity. “They are telling us to shut up.”

Who is “us?” A small and loose confederation of opposition groups, civil society and even factions within the party that are all equally in different ways a threat to the status quo here.

Ernest’s death has brought us closer together,” says Gabriel Rufyiri, the president of corruption-watchdog Olucome, that Mr Manirumva worked for at times.

Manirumva’s case is shrouded in mystery. The door to his office was forced open, files and flash-disks went missing from his home, and a young servant who claims to have witnessed his death has been missing — neighbours say he is with the police — since the day Manirumva died.

The claims are difficult to prove. Burundi is a country bristling with weapons and many areas, especially upcountry, have little police surveillance.

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