US concerned by Rwanda’s “destabilizing activities” fueling the Burundian conflict

Burundi refugees at a camp in Rwanda/Photo Daniel S. Ntwari

Burundi refugees at a camp in Rwanda/Photo Daniel S. Ntwari

Two US diplomats on Wednesday told the United States Senate Rwanda was involved in “destabilizing activities” aimed at exacerbating the turmoil inneighbouring Burundi.

While appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, Thomas Perriello  and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs told legislators there have been reports implicating Rwanda in destabilizing Burundi through training and arming refugees in the camps in Rwanda with the goal of toppling the Burundian government.

“There are credible reports of recruitment of Burundian refugees out of camps in Rwanda to participate in armed attacks by Burundian armed opposition against the Burundian government,” Perriello said.

Echoing the special envoy’s concerns, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield told senators  that “We have seen a number of reports from our colleagues in the field that suggest (that) the Rwandan government has been involved in destabilizing activities in Burundi.”

The diplomats’ fears are partly based on reports by advocacy group Refugees International and the United Nations. Both organizations recently issued almost identical reports about Rwanda training Burundian refugees in Rwandan camps. The duo interviewed refugees who claimed to have been recruited, trained and armed with Rwanda and sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from where they join armed rebel groups against the government in Bujumbura.

In December 2015, Refugees International released a report alleging Rwanda was recruiting Burundian refugees at Mahama camp, and training them in Nyungwe Forest before shipping them to neighbouring DRC into armed groups fighting the Burundian government.

The scathing report titled Asylum Betrayed: Recruitment of Burundian Refugees in Rwanda contained detailed accounts of refugees narrating their ordeal prompting the authors to strongly urge Rwanda to halt recruiting and training activities involving Burundian refugees with immediate effect.

Refugees International called on Rwanda to “ensure that all efforts to recruit Burundian refugees into armed groups – whether on or emanating from Rwandan territory, and whether committed by Burundian or Rwandan nationals – cease immediately.”

The Burundian government has also openly accused the Kigali government of training and arming refugees but the authorities in Rwanda have repeatedly dismissed the allegations as “childish” and unfounded.

Diplomatic ties between Bujumbura and Kigali have been affected by these reports.

Burundi has been rocked by political violence since April last year when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run the controversial third term. Routine grenade attacks and the increasing death toll have prompted fears the country is tilting toward a civil war or genocide.

The conflict has thus claimed about 500 lives, and over 240,000 Burundians have fled to regional countries as refugees.

Rwanda and Tanzania host the bulk of the refugees.