Pierre Claver Mbonimpa wasn’t able to attend his son’s funeral. The veteran human rights activist is recovering in Brussels after he was shot in the face in Burundi in August.
"Do not lose courage," Mbonimpa wrote, according to a translation from French. "Time will pass. The tragedies we face will end with a resolution of the conflict in Burundi. I maintain hope that it will come soon."
The deadly unrest in this small African nation broke out in April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza declared he would run for a third term. His security forces crushed the ensuing protests, and the crackdown intensified after soldiers tried and failed to stage a coup in May. Nkurunziza ultimately secured his controversial third term by holding elections in July, despite an opposition boycott.
"Security forces resorted to violence, and people began dying like flies," Mbonimpa recalled, in a video interview in Brussels with the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project on Oct. 23. "We told the people to retreat and stop demonstrating, because seeking other peaceful means of action is better than dying."
"This did not stop the regime’s security forces from muzzling and killing the population," he said.
The situation has escalated recently. Nkurunziza issued an ultimatum last week for dissidents to hand over weapons by Saturday night, after which they would be "dealt with as enemies of the nation."
People living in areas associated with the opposition fled in fear of police violence ahead of the deadline. Among them was Mbonimpa’s 28-year-old son, Nzitonda -- but police detained him as he tried to leave the Mutakura neighborhood in the capital of Bujumbura on Friday.
Several hours later, Nzitonda's body was found not far from where he disappeared, with bullet wounds to the heart and head, according to a journalist from SOS Médias Burundi.
"How much more suffering and violence can one family bear?" wrote Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher for Burundi and Rwanda at Human Rights Watch, the following day. "Is this the price for speaking the truth?"
Just a month earlier, gunmen killed Mbonimpa’s son-in-law, Pascal Nshimirimana, outside his house in the capital.
Mbonimpa, who is in his late 60s, was also shot as he drove home from work in the capital on Aug. 3. The bullets penetrated his face and neck, damaging his vocal cords and the vertebrae at the top of his spine.
Mbonimpa told Human Rights Watch he recognized the gunman as someone who worked with the state intelligence services. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the shooting as an “assassination attempt.”
He was taken to a hospital in Brussels, where he continues to speak out against violent repression in his country, despite his severe injuries.
The United Nations estimates at least 240 people have been killed in Burundi since April, but the actual toll could be much higher due to the climate of fear in the country and the mysterious circumstances that surround many of the deaths.
Nearly every morning, dead bodies are found dumped on the streets of the capital city. Some of the victims are unidentified, others are well-known figures linked to the government or opposition, caught up in a gruesome cycle of revenge killings. Many victims had been shot with their hands bound, and their bodies show signs of torture, Human Rights Watch says.
Many Burundian activists blame the security forces and the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling party, for executing dissidents. Security forces have also been killed in grenade and gun attacks, suggesting some opposition sympathizers are armed, although the identities of the assailants are unclear.
Over 280,000 people have fled their homes in Burundi since April. Most independent journalists and activists have been detained, gone underground or escaped.
Mbonimpa was determined to stay. He had long received death threats due to his human rights activism, and he briefly went into hiding earlier this year when they got to be too much.
But he was back at work by the summer, documenting political violence and killings in his troubled country before he was attacked. The shooting was a shock to the country.
"He’s a hero to many Burundians," Tertsakian told The WorldPost. "People view him as a father figure because he’s always stood up for people’s rights, whoever they are, and in a very hands-on way."
Mbonimpa was working as a police officer in Burundi in 1994 when he was falsely accused of illegal possession of a firearm and jailed for two years, according to Amnesty International. After surviving torture and deplorable jail conditions, he set up an organization dedicated to prisoners' rights called the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons.
The organization, registered in 2001, quickly won acclaim in Burundi and around the world for its advocacy and legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses including torture, sexual violence and political killings.
As tensions rose in the country last year after Nkurunziza indicated he might run for re-election, Mbonimpa was jailed for several months on charges of endangering state security, but was freed on medical grounds in September.
Nkurunziza's intent to govern for a third term was deeply controversial. Opponents contend that it defied the two-term limit laid out in the country’s constitution, as well as the peace deal that ended Burundi’s civil war in 2005. But Nkurunziza and his supporters argue that his first term didn't count because he was initially elected by Parliament, and not by a popular vote.
His re-election bid and crackdown on the opposition threatened to upset the power-sharing deal that ended over two decades of war between the country’s Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. The war broke out at the same time that similar fault lines in neighboring Rwanda sparked that country's 1994 genocide.
While the current wave of violence in Burundi has occurred along political, not ethnic, lines, some members of the ruling party issued crude threats, echoing language used during the Rwandan genocide and sparking international alarm that the politically motivated violence could morph into ethnically motivated bloodshed.
"The problem that plagues the country is not ethnicity, but politics," Mbonimpa told the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2010. "It is politicians who manipulate the population in pursuit of power."
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