Why were 39 Burundian refugees shot dead in the DRC?

There are various accounts of Friday’s protest, in which a 10-year-old girl was among those killed. Here’s what we know.

burundi refugees drc
Congo has opened an investigation into the killings but it is unclear if justice will be served [Al Jazeera]

On Friday, security forces in Democratic Republic of the Congo opened fire on a crowd of protesting Burundian refugees.

At least 39 people – including a 10-year-old girl – were killed and 94 others wounded in the incident in South Kivu.

Of those wounded, 37 were treated in nearby Kamanyola, while 57 were critically injured and airlifted to Goma for medical care.

Details of the incident are still unclear, with various accounts and official government statements contradicting the UN’s comments on the matter.

Here is what we know so far: 

What happened? 

On the night of September 12, the national army (FARDC) patrol arrested four Burundian refugees armed with “weapons” in the Congo town of Kamanyola in South Kivu province.

Al Jazeera has since seen a video showing the four refugees carrying sticks.

They were held for two days by the army and were then taken to the general migration directorate.

On Friday, September 15, at around 16:00 GMT, Burundian refugees and asylum seekers living in the area left their camps and went to the office of the National Intelligence Agency to protest the detainment of the four men.

The protesters, a group of a few hundred, were concerned the detainees would be repatriated and handed over to the Burundian government.

These people came to Congo for protection. Not to be killed

by Florence Marchal, spokesperson for MONUSCO

According to a witness who spoke to Al Jazeera, who will remain anonymous for security reasons, two local police officers tried to stop the refugees from approaching the office of the National Intelligence Agency.

According to reports, collaborated by a statement from an interior ministry official, troops tried to disperse the crowd by firing warning shots in the air. The refugees responded by throwing stones as it became clear that they would be physically stopped from airing their concerns.

According to the witness, one refugee grabbed a gun from a Congolese soldier and shot him dead.

It was then that the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, shooting wildly and indiscriminately.


How many people were killed? 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that death toll had risen to 39, including 15 women and a 10-year-old girl.

Around 114 others were injured, of whom 57 were airlifted by UN helicopters to the towns of Bukavu and Goma. The UN confirmed that one soldier was killed.

According to the Congolese government, five soldiers were killed.

There are currently more than 2,000 refugees in the Kamanyola area, close to the Burundi border.

Following the incident, around half of the refugees moved into the vicinity around the MONUSCO base, for safety.  

How has the Congolese government responded?

The Congolese government claims that the army was attacked by armed persons and not refugees.

Lambert Mende, the country’s minister of media and communication, told Al Jazeera there had been an exchange of fire and described the encounter “as an attack on the army”.

“The [Congolese army] suffered an attack by armed persons. They are not refugees. Who identified them as refugees? An inquiry is opened to identify them,” he said.

The government has opened an inquiry into the incident, he said.

The Congolese army is expected to release a statement once the investigation is complete.

How has the UN responded? 

The UN says that those protesting outside the Congolese office were refugees and asylum seekers who had applied for international protection.

Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman based in Geneva, said that the agency has multiple accounts indicating the protest was peaceful but “took an ugly turn and the security forces fired live fire indiscriminately into the crowd”.

MONUSCO, the UN mission in Congo, condemned the incident and called for an immediate investigation into the matter.

Florence Marchal, MONUSCO spokesperson, described the response of Congolese forces as “disproportionate”.

“These people came to Congo for protection. Not to be killed,” she said.

Maman Sidikou, head of MONUSCO, also said in a statement that he was “shocked with the large number of civilian deaths” and called on authorities to “swiftly open legal actions to establish truth and do justice to victims”.

How many Burundian refugees live in the DRC?

Most Burundian refugees arrived in Congo after the unrest of 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to change the constitution and run for a third term in office.

Around 300,000 people fled to neighbouring countries as violence and intimidation spread to all parts of the country.

There are currently 44,000 Burundian refugees in Congo.  

Nkurunziza won presidential elections later in 2015, but the country remains on edge with the UN documenting a series of assassinations and targeted killings over the past two years.

The Burundian government has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but people continue to leave Burundi out of fear.

Congo is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons who fled violence and intimidation. Activists and human rights organisations say that Congo is ill-suited to host refugees.

“State control and capacity in these territories are limited, with local security forces often a source of insecurity for the population. Social services are barely functional to nonexistent, and standards of living are extremely low,” Refugees International said in a report in May 2016.

“Further, more than 50,000 Congolese in these two territories are internally displaced, with more than 360,000 IDPs in South Kivu province as a whole.” 

Dismas Nkunda, chief executive officer of Atrocities Watch Africa, told Al Jazeera that for many, coming to Congo is a last resort.

“It’s like jumping from the frying pan and into the fire,” Nkunda said, from the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Is it safe for Burundian refugees to return?

The UNHCR said that 7,200 Burundian refugees have returned so far but that it did not see large scale returns in 2017 given there had been an increase in refugee numbers in early 2017.

“Violence, human rights violations and fear of persecution are the main reasons for their departure to the DRC,” the UNHCR said in a report released in May 2017.

“The total refugee population is expected to grow to over half a million by end 2017 – making it potentially the third biggest refugee situation in Africa,” the UN Agency said.

Burundi has repeatedly urged refugees to return home and officials in Tanzania, home to more than 250,000 refugees, have also asked Burundians to return home. 

Following a meeting with Nkurunziza in July, Tanzania’s President John Mugufuli, asked Burundian refugees to return, saying that he has been assured that “the place was now calm”.  He was immediately criticised for the suggestion that Burundi was now stable. 

READ MORE: UN commission: Burundi commits crimes against humanity

Uganda, currently hosting more than 45,000 Burundian refugees also asked refugees to return home. 

Nkunda told Al Jazeera that there is concerted campaign to get refugees back home. “It is an attempt to show that the country is stable when it isn’t,” he said.

In September 2017, UN investigators said that Burundian troops were killing, committing torture and sexual violence, and other serious crimes against Burundi citizens.

“We also noted a lack of will on the part of the Burundian authorities to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judiciary. As a result, there is a strong likelihood that the perpetrators of these crimes will remain unpunished.”

Baloch from the UNHCR said that repatriation has to be voluntary. He also said he was not aware of an attempt by Congo to repatriate Burundian refugees.

Will the Burundian refugees in the DRC gain justice?

Though Congo has opened an investigation, it is unclear that justice will be served for victims of this massacre. 

Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of Rights and Accountability in Development (Raid), told Al Jazeera that letting such actions pass without justice would do nothing to help avert abuses by security forces in the future.

“Justice is rare in Congo, that’s true, but there has been an uptick on bringing cases of abuses by security forces to trial, usually military trial.

“This is a clear example of where that should happen. A huge number of refugees/migrants have been killed, which demonstrates at best an over-reaction by the security forces and at worst woeful deliberate killings,” van Woudenberg said. 

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa

Source: Al Jazeera