Burundi’s troubled history of the untold 1972 Hutu genocide

Bones from the mass grave in Mashitsi/Gitega province, central Burundi in 2020. Victims were buried by the army and youth of the UPRONA party in 1972. Picture by Desire Nimubona. Used with permission.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is a widely documented atrocity, but it is important to note that in 1972, a significant number of people in neighboring Burundi were brutally killed in a largely forgotten “genocide.”

According to Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, president of Burundi's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), numerous executives, government officials, traders, students, pupils, seminarians, doctors, and public school teachers were killed in 1972, in what some scholars consider a Hutu genocide. The massacres that took place followed a Hutu rebellion against rule by the minority Tutsis, to whom the former Belgian colonials had given power. Retaliation led to the loss of more than 100,000 Hutu lives.

During my conversation with Rich Quinlan, the director of the Holocaust and Genocide Education Center at St. Elizabeth University in Morristown, New Jersey, U.S.A., he shed light on the events of 1972, characterizing them as “organized” and classifying them as a “genocide” targeting the Hutu ethnic group. In addition, revelations through the TRC brought to light more than 4,700 mass graves, laying bare the profound magnitude of the atrocities that transpired during that time.

Since the recent discoveries, families have been visiting mass graves daily, searching for their loved ones. They often rely on personal items such as shoes to identify them. Sister Barayavuga Marceline, a nun, specifically came to find the remains of Father Michel Kayoya, the founder of their order.

Maximilien Barampama, a key witness I interviewed, was imprisoned in Gitega during the 1972 massacres. He disclosed his role in restraining resistant prisoners before they were taken to execution sites — an agonizing role that was imposed upon him against his will. Barampama recalled Father Kayoya's uplifting hymns in prison, inspiring fellow inmates to join in singing and praying, adding:

When Father Kayoya was taken to be killed, he made the sign of the cross on us. Upon arriving at the execution site, he offered the sacrament of penance to the arrested members of the congregation. When he finished, he handed his stole to the executioners and told them, ‘Take this to the bishop; it is holy and cannot be buried with me.’

Barampama said the soldiers who shot Father Kayoya were crying while he was laughing as he went to his execution.

Some non-governmental organizations argue that it is premature to exhume remains because of inadequate medical and technical conditions for conducting the work properly. However, Burundi's 1972 Genocide Survivors Association believes this is causing unnecessary delays, especially since some perpetrators have died while others have fled the country, as reported by Francois-Xavier Nsabimana, the leader of the group.

A plan unfolding over 50 years

During my conversation with Rich Quinlan, a transitional justice researcher and director of the Holocaust and Genocide Education Center, he said the events of 1972 can be traced back to Hutu rebellions in Rwanda more than a decade earlier. He suggests that fear played a significant role in driving the actions of 1972, particularly the fear of the Tutsi losing control over the government and the military.

Quinlan explained:

I believe that President Michel Micombero‘s actions at the onset of the rebellion were politically opportunistic, allowing him the authority to impose a repressive form of martial law under the pretext of national safety … While it may appear that the genocide of 1972 was planned, with Tutsi soldiers possessing lists of Hutu victims, I believe such information arose due to the Tutsi-controlled government seeking information about Hutu students and teachers from the JRR (youth of the UPRONA Party, the sole party in power at that time). The genocide of 1972 was not accidental, but rather the culmination of decades of frustration and fear manifesting as devastating violence. 

In my conversation with Aloys Batungwanayo, an investigations officer at the Burundi Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he points out King Albert I of Belgium‘s role in dividing the previously united society. Batungwanayo explains that on August 25, 1925, Albert issued a decree portraying Hutus as inferior and incapable of governing, while glorifying the Tutsi as capable leaders, even without Belgian supervision.

Batungwanayo notes that this marked the start of a deteriorating situation. Hutus were progressively excluded from government responsibilities, and by 1945, they had no positions of power. Throughout this period, Hutu peasants were marginalized, often being treated as subhuman and blamed for all societal problems. They were even accused of being harbingers of bad luck, with the belief that their contact with a cow (a revered animal in Burundi) would cause the cow to stop producing milk.

Batungwanayo adds that the assassination of the newly elected prime minister Prince Louis Rwagasore in 1961 led to the further marginalization of Hutus, despite his efforts to restore their status as heroes of independence. In 1966, a coup toppled the monarchy and established the Republic of Burundi. In 1968, Martin Ndayahoze, the sole Hutu in the cabinet, warned President Michel Micombero about a plan to eliminate the Hutu population, but his warning was ignored. Four years later, Ndayahoze the man who described these events as the minister of information and communication, was himself executed during the early stages of the purge. 

1972: Burundi's darkest year

After April 1972, Burundi's situation worsened. The government forcibly repatriated Natare V, the exiled former king, from Uganda. He was accused of supporting a rebellion and met a tragic end in Gitega. After the assassination of Ntare V, Burundi's last monarch, came the killings of thousands of Hutu people. A memo attributed to Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon's national security advisor, points out that the victims were predominantly Hutu males. 

Israel W. Charny, editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide, estimates that the death toll during this period ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 people. In Karusi, located in eastern Burundi, bulldozers were used to dig mass graves. They were overflowing with corpses, and health services had to spray them to mitigate the unbearable stench. Survivor Margarette Ndabihoreye testified that some bodies remained visible, attracting birds that fed on the remains.

She said hundreds of high school students were arrested, followed by traders, prominent coffee producers, academics, doctors, nurses, priests, pastors, soldiers, officers, and subordinates. It became evident that preexisting lists had been created, indicating a planned assassination campaign. The victims, all of Hutu ethnicity, were subjected to roll calls and taken to prisons before being transferred to their execution sites. Some endured horrific conditions in small rooms doubling as toilets.

Reasons for the long silence

Despite initial concerns raised by Tanzania, Belgium, and the United States, the international community did not act decisively.

Rich Quinlan highlights factors contributing to the global silence on the 1972 massacres, despite their severity. One key factor is the United States’ role. Quinlan points out that, in 1972, President Nixon was preoccupied with a re-election campaign and the Vietnam War, leading to minimal U.S. State Department interest in Burundi. African affairs were largely disregarded by the Nixon administration. Although he was reportedly appalled by the reports, the genocide in Burundi had no significant impact on the presidential election. Notably, only one U.S. broadcaster, CBS, reported news about Burundi in 1972.

Additionally, Burundi's extreme poverty offered little financial motivation for other nations to intervene and aid those affected.

Another significant factor was that the perpetrators of the genocide, who were accused of mass killings, remained in power and shielded one another for many years. This allowed the killers to operate with impunity for an extended period.

The intricate dynamics of Tutsi–Hutu relations, rooted in pre-colonial Burundi, present a challenge often misunderstood by those outside African studies. This lack of comprehension acts as a barrier, hampering global awareness of Burundian history and hindering the pursuit of justice for past massacres in the country.

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