By Ruby Pratka
As a child, growing up in a small village in Ngozi Province in northern Burundi, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa never thought he would grow up to fight for human rights.
The now 67-year-old activist writes in his recent biography, "Rester Debout" (Stay Standing), co-written with journalist Antoine Kaburahe that in 1994, Mbonimpa, then a police officer, was arrested and jailed after firing a colleague’s service weapon to scare off potential intruders. He was held for 18 months without charge. He discovered that 3000 inmates were squeezed into a facility built for 800, where dozens of people shared a single toilet, and inmates were given only a few hundred grams of rice and manioc each day.
"I couldn’t stand to watch people live this way,” he recalls.
When he was released, he became a full-time prisoners’ advocate. He founded the Association for the Protection of the Human Rights of Prisoners (APRODH). The group developed a deep-rooted network of informants which stretched across the country, and soon went beyond monitoring prison conditions and began investigating other human rights violations. Mbonimpa was rearrested in 2014 after revealing in a radio interview that Burundi’s ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, was training militia members over the border in Congo.
In May 2015, when president Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to seek a third term, despite a constitutional provision restricting presidents to two terms, thousands of people in Bujumbura took to the streets. Mbonimpa and other civil society leaders endorsed the peaceful protests. But after an attempted coup d’état rattled the leadership, authorities began responding with violence.
"My colleagues and I encouraged people to stand up for their rights," Mbonimpa recalls. "We were surprised and saddened when the regime started using force."
On Aug. 3, 2015, Mbonimpa nearly paid the ultimate price for his work — he was shot in the face while returning from an event. In critical condition, he was evacuated to Belgium. While he was still in hospital, his son was assassinated.
"I couldn’t even go to the funeral," he recalls with a pained expression — a rare departure from the matter-of-fact tone with which he describes the regime’s abuses. Although he still speaks with some difficulty, his recovery has gone well.
"It’s very frustrating being so far away from home," he says. "As soon as the doctors have told me that I’m fully recovered, I’ll go back."
It is uncertain what kind of country he will go back to. Those who continue to expose abuses face growing risks; several researchers for APRODH and similar organizations have been arrested and detained on dubious charges, or without charge, over the past several months, according to the World Organization Against Torture.
Mbonimpa believes the keys to building a durable peace are respect for human rights, youth engagement, ending reprisals, building a strong internal judicial system, and ensuring the respect of the Arusha Accords, the agreements signed in 2000 that ended decades of conflict in Burundi.
"Killing Nkurunziza is not how we ensure a peaceful transition. Launching a coup d’État is not how we ensure a peaceful transition. We ensure a peaceful transition by making sure the Arusha accords are respected…the important things are not to hold onto hatred, and not to take revenge."
"In my neighbourhood in Bujumbura, Hutus and Tutsis live together. I’ve never seen someone say, ‘I’m from this ethnic group, this person is from that ethnic group, we should kill each other. It’s always been the people in power who have incited the population. The country belongs to our young people…career politicians aren’t going to change anything."
He plans to return home and continue his work documenting human rights violations, along with researchers who are on the ground even now.
"Officially, we don’t exist. But we believe an illegal government can’t declare our organizations illegal. So we continue to make our reports and gather our evidence. We rely on the people…and now, with mobile phones, anyone can take a picture of something that’s going on and speak to us on WhatsApp. It’s risky but important work. We haven’t given up. We have the truth, and the truth always wins."
Image: Courtesy of Human Rights Watch