BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI - It made history as the first country to quit the International Criminal Court. Then it kicked out the United Nations human rights office. Even as Burundi's vice president asserts in a rare interview that the troubled country is now peaceful, reports of abuses are up ahead of next year's election as some people worry President Pierre Nkurunziza will run once more.
An Associated Press visit this month witnessed a government intent on portraying an image of calm while some citizens said they live in fear that the upcoming vote could be bloody, like the one in 2015 that sparked political turmoil that still simmers today.
"It's hard to live in Burundi, there's no freedom. You can't express ideas opposing the government as there's a constant fear of being arrested, kidnapped or killed," said Sake Mathieu, founder of the Community Association for Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, one of the few rights groups still operating in this East African country of some 11 million people.
More than 1,200 people have been killed since Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term and the government cracked down on the widespread protests that followed, the U.N. says. Nearly 350,000 people have fled the country, the International Crisis Group said last month.
Concerns are growing that the situation will worsen before the next election set for May 20.
Nkurunziza's ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy, and its youth militia, the Imbonerakure, have been accused by rights groups of killing, torturing, raping and intimidating members of the opposition.
"We continue to document people being killed, harassed, disappeared. This is a real campaign against people who are opponents of the ruling party and it's continuing to build up as we approach the presidential election," Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told the AP.
Burundi's once dynamic civic space continues to shrink. In June, the government shut one of the country's last civil society organizations. Earlier this year the government ejected the U.N. rights office, angered by its probing of alleged abuses and the former U.N. rights chief's declaration that Burundi was one of the "most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times."
Local journalists are regularly detained and threatened and few international reporters are allowed in the country. In March the BBC was banned, reportedly for airing a documentary on alleged torture sites that the government considered slanderous.
Burundi's leaders say the country is stable and the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, are bustling with daily life. But behind that facade some residents say that people are living in dread.
Nervously peering over the balcony of a hotel room, one 23-year-old checked to see if he had been followed. Since returning to Burundi last year after fleeing the 2015 violence, he has been accused by the Imbonerakure of supporting the opposition, he said. Now he lives in hiding. He spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety.
"They have a list of names ... If they see you're here or you return back here, they come to catch you and ask you where you were and what you're coming to do," he said.
Earlier this month the U.N.'s commission of inquiry on Burundi said the government was trying to "convince the international community that the situation in the country is returning to a state of normalcy," yet it noted that widespread human rights violations continue.
Top officials deny the government is ordering any violence.
"Some people may have the motivation to oppress, but that doesn't mean the government is commanding them to do it," First Vice President Gaston Sindimwo told the AP in an interview. He called on opposition figures who fled the country to return and participate in the election but said the opposition should not "make trouble" for its organizers.
The few remaining opposition groups in Burundi say they experience daily harassment. Agathon Rwasa, head of the National Congress for Freedom, the main opposition party, said he doesn't believe the election will be fair.
Compounding the political unrest is the dire economic and humanitarian situation in a country whose GDP per capita slipped 3% in 2018, according to the U.N.
In September the government suspended international aid groups and accused them of not complying with the law. That left the U.N., which has said Burundi has the world's highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition, with 56% of children stunted. The U.N. says one in three people need urgent aid.
In the town of Rumonge outside the capital, locals described the situation as desperate.
Aline Ntakirutimana returned to Burundi last year after fleeing to neighboring Congo in 2015. Most of her belongings were destroyed and she said she can't care for her 10 children, who sometimes go days without food. "I feel sorrow," the 42-year-old said, hanging her head.
Seated beside her on a tattered couch, local chief Cyrien Sanzgueemo said there is no medicine or aid for impoverished village families.
Although Nkurunziza has said he won't run in next year's election not many people in Burundi believe him, especially after a national referendum last year that approved changing the constitution to extend presidential term limits. Critics accused the government of intimidating people into voting "yes."
The constitutional amendment would allow Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034.
"Without a significant opening of political space, the 2020 elections will take place in a climate of fear and intimidation," the International Crisis Group said in June.
The ruling party has already started campaigning for Nkurunziza, despite his comments on stepping aside. In one march in the countryside about two hours from the capital, a group of Imbonerakure cleared a path for about 30 party loyalists who chanted in unison, "He is going to win again."
Source: Voice of America