DAWN in Bujumbura, and bodies line the streets. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza succeeded in his return to power, but the violence that accompanied his controversial election has not stopped.
Who carries out the killings on the streets of the capital—assassinations or reprisal raids—is not known, and both sides blame the other.
Some say it is the opposition being killed, others say the attacks are to scare off pro-government supporters.
“We discover corpses almost every day on the street in Bujumbura, sometimes with traces of extreme violence,” said Carina Tertsakian from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The corpses are often found in the same position - the arms bound tight behind the back, the limbs twisted in death.
“The Burundian authorities have the duty to investigate and punish those responsible,” Tertsakian said, adding that while the police say they are “investigating” the killings, they do not release their findings.
Police sources and witnesses give more details however, describing how the victims are shot in the middle of the night, when most people are too terrified to venture outside, locking themselves indoors.
Nkurunziza won a highly controversial third term in July in polls boycotted by the opposition and denounced by the United Nations as neither free nor fair.
His re-election bid sparked an attempted coup by rebel generals and months of civil unrest led by opposition groups, who condemned it as unconstitutional.
‘Spiralling tit-for-tat violence’
The bodies found in the morning are either bundled into ditches or on the roadside, as though thrown out of a passing vehicle.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein this week warned that Burundi risked sliding back into civil war after a dramatic rise in killings, arrests and detentions.
“Almost every day, dead bodies are found lying on the streets of some of Bujumbura’s neighbourhoods,” Zeid said in a statement.
“In many cases, the victims appear to have been killed by a bullet fired at close range. The bodies sometimes show signs of torture and are typically found with their hands tied behind their backs.”
Since April, Zeid’s office said it had registered 134 killings, more than 90 cases of torture and hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, including 704 arrests this month alone.
Burundi’s 1993-2006 civil war left at least 300,000 people dead and sporadic violence has continued since, with fears mounting of renewed conflict that could have ripple effects throughout the region.
Zeid stressed that because such serious crimes are going unpunished, “more people are looking to take the law into their own hands.”
“There is an increasing risk that spiralling tit-for-tat violence will plunge the country back into its bloody past,” he warned.
Burundi’s constitution only allows a president to be elected twice—for a total of 10 years in power.
But Nkurunziza argued ahead of the poll that he had only been directly elected by the people once. In power since 2005, when he was selected by parliament, he was first re-elected in 2010.
Critics say his third-term went against a peace deal that helped end the war.
Opposition leaders say supporters take photographs of those killed, then circulating them via social media, in a bid to “identify victims - and to warn people to avoid a certain area,” they told AFP, asking not to be named.
“They are often opposition activists or people who participated in protests against the third term,” according to the same sources.
Residents of opposition stronghold neighbourhoods blame Burundi’s widely feared National Intelligence Agency (SNR), who relish a reputation for extreme brutality.
“The bodies are left in these areas… to create terror amongst those who oppose the authorities,” said a human rights activist, on condition of anonymity.
In turn, the government blames the opposition for the killings, accusing them of a “Machiavellian plan” of eliminating those who support the authorities, while at the same time trying to pin the executions on the government, said Willy Nyamitwe, chief of presidential communications.
The executions are intended to “punish those they call ‘traitors’, to frighten so that others do not follow,” Nyamitwe said.
Such claims are rejected by the opposition.
“Most of the bodies are identified as those of opposition activists and civil society, who were key in the protests against the third term,” said Leonard Nyangoma, chairman of Cnared, the anti-third term coalition.
“They arrest you, torture you, kill you - then say you committed suicide,” he added.
Amid swirling rumours, claims and counter-claims, exactly who is behind the murky murders is unclear, not least because independent journalists and rights groups have been forced to flee.
“It is a disaster,” HRW’s Tertsakian said. “All that was built up in terms of human rights since the end of civil war is being destroyed.”