21/04/2017 10:23 AM AEST | Updated 21/04/2017 10:33 AM AEST

In This Small African Nation, Violence Against Women Has Become A Weapon Of War

Chilling footage of 'rape chants' by the Government's youth wing has been condemned by the UN.

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters
Two women weep and pray for their relative Ndayizeye Janvier Abdul, 36, who was killed by the Imbonerakure, the feared youth wing of the governing party in Burundi.

It's a tiny landlocked African nation that attracts very little attention beyond its own borders. But there are atrocities taking place in Burundi to rival the tragedies of the world's most talked-about conflicts.

Over 400,000 Burundians have fled their homeland since April 2015, when the President, Pierre Nkurunziza, made a bid for a third term. The bid was deemed unconstitutional by the opposition party, and led to mass protests.

Since the protests, the Government has been waging what the United Nations labels a "campaign of fear and terror" against its political opponents, with reports emerging of the systematic use of rape and torture, murder and "forced disappearances" in the country of just over 10 million people.

Now, the United Nations is speaking out again, this time to condemn "rape chants" at rallies of the youth wing of the governing party, which the UN says acts as confirmation of earlier reports of rape being used as a weapon of war.

"Chilling" footage taken at a rally in the Ntega commune in the northeast of the country has been circulated on social media, the UN confirmed.

The Government needs to stop pretending that the Imbonerakure are nothing but a community development group. Such blatant and brazen hate speech and incitement to violence must not be tolerated."

In the video, more than 100 members of the government-aligned Imbonerakure are seen chanting "make opponents pregnant so that they can give birth to Imbonerakure". Another group then repeats a chant in which the phrase "he or she should die" is heard some 19 times.

The ruling CNDD-FDD has condemned the chants, blaming "influences outside the party", but the United Nations says that this rally is just the "tip of the iceberg", with many similar, larger gatherings being organised across the country -- and that senior Government officials from the party have been spotted at many of them.

Senior officials are believed to have attended another rally on April 1, when as many as 2,500 Imbonerakure reportedly marched from Kayanza football stadium along the main road chanting similar slogans, inciting rape and violence.

On April 7, the President of the Senate is alleged to have incited people to violence, calling for all suspected rebels to be "silently collected", according to the UN report.

"The grotesque rape chants by the young men of the Imbonerakure across several provinces in various parts of Burundi are deeply alarming," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said on Tuesday.

"While I welcome the statement by the CNDD-FDD condemning the chants in Ntega, reports that senior officials were present at other rallies are very disturbing.

"The Government needs to stop pretending that the Imbonerakure are nothing but a community development group. Such blatant and brazen hate speech and incitement to violence must not be tolerated."

The High Commissioner said that the incitement to violence rang "very loud alarm bells" in a nation which has suffered so much violence in its recent past.

The Imbonerakure, whose name means 'The Watchmen' or, literally, 'Those Who See Far', are ostenisbly the youth arm of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD. But in reality they operate as a feared militia group, suppressing opposition to the ruling regime.

Armed by state security forces, they conduct raids, loot homes and perform extrajudicial killings, largely with impunity. Sometimes, police and state security forces accompany them on their raids.

Carl de Souza /AFP/Getty Images
Burundian police look on as members of the Imbonerakure, armed with sticks, destroy barricades erected by protestors opposed to the Burundian President's third term. The Imbonerakure have been allowed to operate largely with impunity by the Burundian government.

One woman who managed to escape the violence, Sophie, says that men stormed into her home in the nation's capital Bujumbura, shot her husband dead and then gang raped her on the floor beside his body until she passed out.

They told her that they killed her husband, a senior army figure, for not supporting President Pierre Nkurunziza and that she would "pay for his mistake".

Sophie managed to escape Burundi in March last year and is now living in the Nduta refugee camp in Nigeria.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) began investigating the allegations of human rights abuses in the nation in April last year, but Burundi withdrew from the ICC six months later, after the UN Human Rights Council announced a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in the country.

The inquiry would have identified the perpetrators of the violence, and recommended steps to ensure they were held accountable.

The latest reports of "rape chants" are another blow to international peacekeeping efforts in Burundi. It was hoped that Burundi had seen the last of such violence, having only recently emerged from a devastating civil war which started with the assassination of the country's leader, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993.

AFP/Getty Images
A Burundian refugee child plays at the Gashora refugee camp in Rwanda. The UN estimates that 400,000 Burundians have fled the country since violence broke out in April 2015.

A series of military coups and assassinations, as well as conflict between the nation's ethnic groups, wreaked havoc until peace was finally declared in 2003. Around 330,000 people died in the conflict.

President Pierre Nkurunziza has remained in power since being voted in in the nation's first democratic elections in 2005, but his refusal to step down has once again thrown Burundi into turmoil.

Impoverished by the decade-long conflict, the World Food Programme estimates that 58 percent of Burundians are chronically malnourished as food production has stagnated at pre-1993 levels.

Due to political upheaval and obfuscation of data by the government, information on the number of women subjected to violence in Burundi is not available, although the UN puts the rate of child marriage -- that is, the number of Burundian girls married before their 18th birthday -- at one in five.

Only 1 in 10 girls attend high school, and in 2012 life expectancy for both men and women averaged just 53 years of age.



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