KIBONDO, Tanzania – The men who stormed into Sophie’s home in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura shot her husband dead and then gang-raped her on the floor beside his body. They told Sophie that they had killed her husband, a senior army figure, for not supporting Burundi’s embattled President Pierre Nkurunziza and that she would “pay for his mistake.”
“They told me, ‘Now you will also see,’” and then three men raped her until she blacked out, she says, speaking in hushed tones as she sits in a tent in Tanzania’s packed Nduta refugee camp.
Sophie woke up in hospital to be told that she should flee Burundi, because the men who had left her for dead wanted to finish the job. In March, she made it across the border to Tanzania.
Over 275,000 Burundians have fled their homes in the small central African nation since April 2015, when Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, which was deemed unconstitutional by the opposition, sparked mass protests. Daytime demonstrations on the streets of Bujumbura were met with nighttime raids by gangs of youths called the Imbonerakure, who were loosely allied to the government. Armed by state security forces, who sometimes joined them in their raids, the Imbonerakure would go door-to-door in residential neighborhoods dotted across the country raping, murdering and looting.
As people continue to run from Burundi, or disappear within it, Nkurunziza has denied mounting claims of rights abuses – currently being investigated by the Hague-based International Criminal Court as possible war crimes – and has rejected a UN police force sent into the country to monitor events.
Human Rights Watch researcher Skye Wheeler, who recently interviewed around 70 women in Nduta camp for a report on Burundi sexual violence, says she found a clear pattern of women being targeted for rape as punishment for their political affiliation.
“A very large proportion of these had been raped in their own home, often by Imbonerakure, or people they suspected to be Imbonerakure. And these are almost always the wives and daughters of men from different political parties,” she says. “Often these attacks or very brutal gang rapes followed periods of harassment.”
Sandra’s husband answered the door to the men demanding to know which political party they supported, but started beating him before he could reply.
They found Sandra hiding in her bed, told her to get out, then threw her back into it and raped her. “Are you really accepting the president?” they asked her. When she tried to reply, they would hit on the head with their machetes.
“After they raped me, they asked me to bring them money and when we didn’t have any, they took my clothes,” she says.
When they left, Sandra found her husband blindfolded, but alive. Their five-year-old son was dead, his throat slit.
One of the poorest and most densely packed countries in the world, Burundi emerged from a 12-year civil war in 2005. The conflict was marked by high levels of inter-communal violence when men were often the main targets for murder or were conscripted into the war. With men fighting or fleeing, women were often left behind to guard the land, making them wide open to attack.
The same thing is happening now, according to a counselor (who asked not to be identified) working with abused women in the Tanzanian camps for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). She says she knows of women who were left behind by their families and received notes warning them to leave “or face the consequences.” Some women reported being raped – even by family members – to drive them off their land.
But those who do run are often caught at the border. Several women who made it to Tanzania said that men, some of them officials, demanded money to let them cross the border. When they couldn’t pay – and sometimes even if they could – they were raped. One women described border forces beating and abusing people who tried to leave for being “unpatriotic” and contradicting Nkurunziza, who was telling the world that Burundi was calm. During her research, Wheeler found “a variety of ways that people are stopped from leaving, and rape is one of them,”
Melanie’s children’s screams scared off the gang that came to her house in Makamba province in February. “They said they had to check all the people living alone and kill or torture them.”
Melanie left for Tanzania, but her three children couldn’t save her from arrest at the border, or stop the three men who marched her off the main road to the police station and told the children that “if they followed, they would die.”
The rape only stopped when a man started shouting and the gang fled. When Melanie got back to the road, only two of her children were standing there. Crying, they said that the men had snatched their 8-year-old sister. They begged their mother not to go back for her and, instead, to take them to Tanzania. Still bleeding, Melanie snuck them out of the country across mountain back routes.
In Tanzania’s refugee camps, many rape survivors are getting medical and psychosocial support. “There has been an increase of counseling in the camp and group counseling, which many women told us they’d like to do,” says Wheeler.
But even in the camps, women are not safe from sexual violence. Wheeler says during her research she found “alarmingly high numbers of rapes happening inside the refugee camps and the areas around it.”
Chronic underfunding for the Burundi refugee crisis has meant cutbacks to protection measures such as more secure housing, lighting and more latrines so that women don’t have to walk far from their homes to go to the bathroom, especially at night.
Many women have reported being attacked as they walk up to 10 miles to forage for firewood, so charities are now trying to provide the camps with more cookstoves and fuel or tools, allowing women to cut their firewood nearer home.
But for so many of the women in Tanzania’s refugee camps, no amount of counseling or support can ease the pain of what they have been through.
Nicole was picked up by police at the border with her two children and detained at a station where she was tortured and raped. When she lost control of her bowels, she was kicked out of the station, and people told her that her children had been maimed or killed. Alone and far from home, Nicole now clings to her story, the only thing she has left to give.
“I just felt like a leaf being blown in the wind,” she says.
The names of some of the women in this story have been changed to protect their identities and those of their children.