Putting names and faces to the victims of Burundi’s crisis
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It was almost exactly one year ago, on April 26, 2015, that Burundi saw the first casualty in its deadly demonstrations against the country's ruling party, when a protester was killed by a stray bullet. Since then, at least 700 people have died and 800 have disappeared, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). One group of activists have tried to move beyond the statistics by creating a website that tells the stories of victims of the conflict.
On April 25, 2015, Burundi’s ruling party announced that incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza would run for a third term in office. The announcement, which flew in the face of the two-term limit in the constitution, sparked massive protests.
The government cracked down on protesters immediately, referring to them as terrorists and often firing at crowds. On May 13, military officers attempted a coup d’état. When that failed, repression of protesters intensified.
In July, Nkurunziza was elected to a third term. Since then, violence and repression have only continued. In the year since the conflict broke out, an estimated 259,132 people have fled from Burundi to neighbouring countries, according to the UNHCR.
Within the country, there are widespread reports of torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, intimidation, extortion, killings and forced recruitment by militia.
“Each story is important, but some really stick with me”Hippolyte (not his real name), a Burundian who has fled the country, didn’t want these victims to remain nameless or be forgotten. He is one of the founding members of Enfants du Pays, a website memorializing those who have died in the recent crisis.
After the failed coup d’état on May 13 of last year, the repression of protesters intensified. By June 2015, it had become extremely difficult to protest, so we had to look for new ways to express our anger about what was happening. (Editor’s note: Hippolyte was still in Burundi at the time).
By that point, about 65 people had been killed in the crisis and we came up with the idea of memorializing the victims. We started by contacting the activists who knew those who died in during protests. They then put us in touch with the victim's family. This project is very sensitive and we are putting ourselves at risk by doing it. So we never cold call a family, we always go through a friend or family member who we can trust. Sometimes, we see a name of a victim in the newspaper. If we know someone who knows the family of the deceased, we reach out. When we write the profiles, we always try to speak to a close friend, as well as someone who was present when the person was killed.
Nepo was executed on April 26, 2015, the first day of the protests in Burundi. The teenager wanted to be a doctor. On the day he died, he had decided to go and watch the protests. He was mistaken for a protestor and shot while proclaiming his innocence.
Each story is important, but some really stick with me. One of the people we wrote about was a teenager named Jean Népomucène Komezamahoro. Komezamahoro means “strengthen peace” and his parents named him that because he was born in 1998, when the Arusha peace negotiations started. He was killed by people who are breaching those very accords (Editor’s note: The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, signed in 2000, is a political framework that many believe helped bring Burundi out of violence and civil war in the 1990s. The accords served as the basis for the 2005 constitution, which limit a president’s term.)
Justin, a 17-year-old who dreamed of going into the army, was strangled during a protest on May 27, 2015.
Other names stick with me because of how they died. I was shocked when I heard about Justin, a teenager who was strangled.
Theogène was a university student who was killed on June 5, 2015. He wasn't part of a political organisation or party, but he dreamed of a better Burundi.
Theogène is another victim who I think about a lot. I think he reminds me of myself because we have similar backgrounds. If you believe government propaganda, then you’d think that the protestors are all unemployed drug users, but Theogène was the opposite of that. He had a rough start in life – he was an orphan. But he continued his studies and was attending university on a scholarship when he died. He was also very entrepreneurial. He had started a prosperous business selling eggs and peanuts and he provided for his siblings. Theogène wasn’t part of any political party or civil society group, he was just fighting injustice. For me, he represents this generation of young people dreaming of a better Burundi.
“When you are from Burundi, you carry the weight of a violent past on your shoulders”
We decided to present the photos in this stylized way because we wanted to eliminate the differences between the victims. Some of those killed had smartphones and so they had lots of good quality photos of themselves. Other people didn’t have any photos besides the one on their identity card. We didn’t want people to be able to tell who was rich and who was poor.
Since we started the project, the number of deaths has risen exponentially. I fear they will continue. All of us working on this project are young, but when you are from Burundi, you carry the weight of a violent past on your shoulders. The country has been locked in a cycle of violence for decades and, during this time, people have been dying without anyone knowing their story. Justice was never served for the crimes of the past and I believe that has largely contributed to today’s problems.
There’s been so much bloodshed that many people here think that non-violent actions are pointless. But we remain determined. Even though this project is draining, it means a lot to see how important it is for the families. Most of them are so happy that someone wants to know about their loved one.
We want to keep this project going but it is more difficult now. All of us have now left Burundi. We still have volunteers in Bujumbura who continue to interview the families of victims. We’ve started a GoFundMe page to support our project.
Enfants du Pays is currently collaborating with art students at the Ecole Supérieure d'Arts et de Design Marseille-Méditerranée to organise a traveling exhibit inspired by the pictures and stories of victims. The first show launched on April 28 in New York City at the Chinatown Soup gallery to commemorate one year since the start of the crisis. The activists hope to bring the exhibit to 10 other cities.
These images were inspired by the stories of victims. You can see them (and more) in exhibits organised by Enfants du Pays.