The United Nation's human rights office on Friday accused Burundi's security forces and affiliated militias of raping and sexually abusing women and allegedly murdering residents in the country's capital, who witnesses suggested were targeted because of their Tutsi ethnicity.
In a distressing brief, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that witnesses reported the existence of at least nine mass graves in and around Bujumbura. The sites reportedly contained some 100 bodies of people said to have been killed on December 11. On that day, government forces reacted with great brutality to early morning assaults on three military installations, afterwards cracking down on neighborhoods identified as opposition strongholds.
"We have documented 13 cases of sexual violence against women, which began during the search and arrest operations that took place after the December events," said the UN's high commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein. "The pattern was similar in all cases: security forces allegedly entered the victims' houses, separated the women from their families, and raped — in some cases gang-raped — them.
Zeid said that "considerable numbers of young men" were arrested in five Bujumbura neighborhoods; many of them "were later tortured, killed or taken to unknown destinations." OHCHR added that members of the governing party's notorious Imbonerakure militia were also said to have been involved in the abuses.
The UN is currently analyzing satellite imagery to determine the full extent of mass graves located in the vicinity of the capital. It said that investigators had already received reports that the Imbonerakure forced people to dig their own graves prior to being executed.
The latest UN assessment is by far its most alarming since President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a controversial third term last April sparked widespread unrest. According the OHCHR, at least 439 people have been killed in the country since April 26.
Among the accounts reported on Friday, testimony charging that security forces and militias targeted some victims based on their Tutsi ethnicity is particularly ominous. One woman told investigators that her attacker told her "she was paying the price" for belonging to Burundi's minority Tutsi community; another witness in the capital's Byakabiga neighborhood "claimed that Tutsis were systematically killed, while Hutus were spared." Elsewhere, the vast majority of arrests appeared to target Tutsis, while Hutus were quickly released.
"There is a rampant impunity for all the human rights violations being committed by the security forces and the Imbonerakure, despite ample evidence that they are responsible for more and more serious crimes," said Zeid. "There is an indication that a complete breakdown in law and order is just around the corner."
Human rights officials were quick to echo the alarm.
"The allegations of sexual violence, the existence of mass graves, the increase in cases of summary executions, enforced disappearances, and acts of torture, and the alleged involvement of security forces and intelligence services into these crimes demonstrate how the protection of civilians in Burundi has become the priority," said Tcherina Jerolon, deputy Africa director at the International Federation for Human Rights. "The ethnic dimension reported by the High Commissioner must also be seen as an emergency signal."
Zeid's comments come just a week before diplomats from the Security Council are set to touch down in Burundi for a fact-finding mission. While the African Union has proposed sending a peacekeeping force of up to 5,000 personnel to the country, the Security Council has neither endorsed that effort with a resolution nor moved to establish a UN mission in the country.
On Sunday, VICE News published details of contingency planning being carried out by the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) for possible future operations in Burundi. The memo, which was sent to Security Council members earlier this month, said that the UN was largely unprepared to intervene in the event of widening bloodshed in the country.
The assessment envisioned three possible scenarios: a continuation of low-level violence; the outbreak of civil war; and rampant human rights violations that could amount to genocide. Only in the first scenario, said DPKO, would the UN or the AU be able to effectively deploy in the country. In the case of open civil war and killings based on ethnicity, the UN would neither be able to act in time nor have the capacity to provide enough troops to protect more than a small share of the population.
"Most importantly," the memo said, "United Nation's peacekeeping is limited in its ability to address significant violence against civilians, even violence amounting to genocide, where it lacks a political framework and the strategic consent of the host nation and/or the main parties to the conflict."
The lack in question is pronounced. Last week the government refused to engage in regionally mediated negotiations organized in Tanzania. Meanwhile, Nkurunziza has said a deployment of AU troops inside Burundi would be met with force. Though any UN peacekeeping mission would require authorization by Nkrunziza, the AU has made use of a clause in its charter that would allow it to intervene without national consent. But many diplomats have privately indicated that this would amount to an invasion of the country on questionable grounds.
The vast majority of killings and human rights violations carried out on December 11 and in the days that followed have been attributed to state forces. But the military installation assaults that preceded them also cast new light on an armed opposition that now include at least two official rebel groups aimed at deposing the government. Though Nkurunziza has downplayed the danger posed by rebels, he has responded brutally against whomever he views as their proxies, largely non-violent protestors and political dissidents, many of whom have been found dead after mysterious violence during nighttime hours.
Watch Fleeing to Rwanda: Burundi on the Brink (Dispatch 1):
Nkruzunzia, who led Burundi's largest Hutu rebel force during a civil war that ended in 2005, has accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of fomenting armed groups inside Burundi and of recruiting among refugee camps in Rwanda. According to refugee officials, Tutsis are disproportionately represented among some 75,000 refugees now living in Rwanda. Kagame, who himself led a predominantly Tutsi-rebel force before becoming president, has denied any involvement.
The accounts of ethnic-based slaughter amount to the worst nightmare of Burundians and members the international community. For the Security Council, whose darkest hour is widely viewed as its failure to intervene during the Rwandan genocide, in which members of the Hutu majority systematically killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus, a second breakdown in the face of wide-scale killings would significantly undermine its credibility. But, as DPKO's own assessment stated, it remains unclear what the UN is even able to do with Security Council authorization.
"This will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues," warned Zeid.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford