A day after the United Nations Security Council received a report from the UN's special envoy for Burundi on the recent deadly violence in the country, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power dashed off a distressed note to diplomats at the British and French missions in New York.
"Flagging, we are leaving Burundi," Power wrote on Saturday in the email, which was obtained by VICE News. "Assessment is it is going to hell."
Before her entrance into diplomacy, Power was perhaps best known as the author of "A Problem from Hell," a book examining American inaction in the face of genocide.Though many consider Burundi's current crisis largely political, Power's choice of language on Saturday was an eerie reminder of the holocaust that beset its neighbor Rwanda 21 years ago – a genocide whose ghosts linger in the Great Lakes region.
While the UN and African Union are meant to be engaging in "contingency planning," to prepare for the possible outbreak of open conflict in Burundi, in her note, Power offered a dire assessment of those efforts.
"Yesterday's council session was pretty pathetic," she wrote. "No contingency planning, no UN presence, no dialogue…" For now, there are no armed UN personnel in the country.
"Let's engage capitals and figure out quickly what we are for," Power told French and British diplomats.
Sunday morning, one day after Power sent the email, the US State Department ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency government personnel in the country, and warned American citizens against visiting the country.
The briefing by envoy Jamal Benomar at the session Power termed "pathetic" came hours after violence in Burundi's capital Bujumbura that reportedly left almost 90 people dead.
Simmering street protests and deadly clashes have plagued the country since this spring, and continued after the re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza in July to a controversial third term. In a briefing to the Security Council in November, UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al Hussein reported that extrajudicial killings and "political assassinations" had become common.
"At least 240 people have been killed since protests began in April, with bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis," he said. "There have been hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrest and detention," he added, "targeting members of the opposition, journalists, human rights defenders and their families, people attending the funerals of those who have been killed, and inhabitants of neighborhoods perceived to be supportive of the opposition."
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But Friday's violence, which spurred Power's email, appeared to represent a different and more worrying level of violence. The army claimed that unidentified assailants had hit three military bases, and observers said the clashes appeared coordinated. According to reports by AFP, the military responded with brutality, rounding up young men and murdering them. VICE News could not confirm those accounts.
Details of who makes up the armed opposition, and how strong the opposition is, remain murky.
"There is so much speculation about Burundi, particularly about who is doing what to who," said Ben Shepherd, a fellow at Chatham House's Africa Program. "It is very hard to know what percentage is revenge killings by security forces… we have a huge information vacuum about what is happening outside the capital, which is where 85 percent of people live."
One actor that the Burundian government has fingered for several months is its neighbor Rwanda, which it accuses of training rebels, and of being tied to a failed coup attempt in May.
More than 200,000 Burundians have fled the country in the face of recent violence, many of them north to Rwanda. Central to the allegations against Rwanda are claims that it has a hand in conscripting opposition fighters from among the roughly 75,000 Burundians inside the country. In November, Jeff Drumtra, a former UN refugee official, wrote in a letter to the Washington Post that Rwanda had in recent months "secretly recruited an army of Burundian refugees presumably for the purpose of conducting an armed insurgency inside Burundi."
Drumtra cited reports from the massive Mahama refugee camp in southeast Rwanda, where he had worked for five months through October.
On Monday, researchers at Refugee International furthered those claims in a report on recruitment among refugees in Rwanda. The report said that efforts appeared to have begun in May of this year — the same month Nkurunziza was cleared by the courts to run again — in Mahama. In statements provided to Refugees International, Rwandan officials denied the reports.
"It is difficult to know how many are being recruited but we can say that over the past five months about 50 refugees have come forward to say that they are being recruited against their will, and another 30 said they were trained and sent to the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] on their way to Burundi," said Michael Boyce, one of the report's authors.
"Multiple refugees say they have seen Rwandan police officers in recruitment meetings and at the boarding of recruits onto Rwandan military vehicles," Boyce said. "Refugees have said they have gone themselves to training sites where there were Rwandan flags."
Boyce stressed that he had not himself witnessed the direct involvement of Rwandan forces in recruiting Burundians to fight. He called on the UN to do a better job of tracking, and reporting on such activities if they are taking place.
Though Rwanda's involvement in Burundi remains unclear, the government of President Paul Kagame has a long history of supporting predominantly-ethnic Tutsi rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
'At least 240 people have been killed since protests began in April, with bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis.'
"These reports of recruitment, if true, will only show that Burundi is headed towards conflict at a faster rate than many of us had feared," Boyce said. "Not only that, but these reports show the risk of a regional conflict is also very significant, and perhaps growing by the day."
Meanwhile, in New York, the Security Council has dithered on Burundi, as Power's email made clear. The so called "P3" – the three permanent Western members of the Council, France, the UK and the US – may favor greater UN involvement and a force presence on the ground, but the other two permanent members, China and Russia, are far less inclined to vote for such an intervention. The deployment of UN forces would require the permission of Burundi's government. That in the end may depend on how strong Nkurunziza views the threat from an armed opposition.
It is also uncertain where potential blue helmets or UN police would come from, since peacekeeping forces on the continent are already overtaxed. Moreover, establishing a peacekeeping mission can take many months, as exemplified by the slow and delayed deployment of forces in the Central African Republic last year.
"The UN are in the usual dilemma: it knows that the escalation of violence can have explosive consequences in the Great Lakes region but at the same time it relies on the Africans to solve this crisis," said Thierry Vircoulon, Central African consultant at the International Crisis Group, referencing mediation efforts nominally overseen by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
In November, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution condemning the violence in Burundi, and said it would consider "additional measures" against "all Burundian actors whose actions and statements contribute to the perpetuation of violence." The US has also imposed sanctions on several Burundians.
On Friday, in remarks to the press following the Council's session, Power reiterated the November threat to impose those further, but unspecified, measures. She also called on Museveni to "immediately convene the government and the opposition for a high-level political dialogue."
"Without this dialogue it's going to be very, very challenging to defuse the situation, and it has to be defused or it really risks evolving into mass violence," said Power.
Echoing arguments put forward in her book, Power added that "those who fail to act in the midst of a deteriorating situation are also at fault."
Vircoulon said he was pessimistic that a coherent solution could be worked out in the near term.
"Of course, it [the Security Council] knows that when the shit hits the fan, the Africans will not be responding and will put the blame on the UN," he said. The UN, he added, "also knows that it won't be able to have a fast reaction capacity to deploy peacekeepers."
"The usual contradictions are hampering the UN to be able to articulate a solution to the Burundi crisis," said Vircoulon.
UN policy, and the awareness of Council members on matters of mass atrocities, has evolved considerably since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, widely regarded as the organization's darkest hour, when it abandoned the small peacekeeping force already in the country. In a little over three months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Ethnic violence targeting Hutus took place in the 1970s in Burundi, and its 13-year civil war that ended in 2005 largely saw fighting along Hutu vs. Tutsi lines. After the war, Nkurunziza, who commanded the most powerful Hutu faction, emerged as president. Observers have cautioned that the divides of recent years are primarily political, rather than ethnic, and a product of Nkurunziza's increasingly authoritarian rule. But whatever the makeup of the rebels, or the government's forces, Power's email reflected the growing sense in New York that a serious escalation is around the corner – or already here.
"It is very clear that the set of steps that we have taken over these many months, really, because this is a chronicle foretold … have not been sufficient," Power said on Friday outside the Council.
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