One bullet tore through his neck, damaging his vocal cords. Others sprayed the car, sending metal and glass flying. Within seconds, the gunman on a motorcycle was gone; despite the bloody scene, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, Burundi’s most prominent human rights activist, was alive.
A week later, Mbonimpa would be evacuated from Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, to Brussels, where he made a full recovery. But the minute that shot was fired on Aug. 3, 2015, Burundi changed. “The message was clear,” says Clementine de Montjoye, advocacy and research officer at the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. “If an assassination attempt could occur on Pierre-Claver’s life” — the man who received the 2007 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, commonly considered the human rights equivalent of the Nobel Prize — “then no one is safe.”
Since Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose administration did not respond to requests for comment, decided to run for a third, controversial term last year, the country has become an increasingly despotic state: in the spring of 2015, mass protests against Nkurunziza’s candidacy were met with tear gas and live bullets. After elections in July, the bodies of those believed loyal to the opposition began turning up in the streets. Journalists and human rights advocates fled to neighboring Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Mbonimpa, or “Mutama” (“the Wise One”) as he is locally known, remained in Bujumbura, denouncing Nkurunziza’s presidential bid and the government’s brutal response to peaceful protests. When I first met him, a month before the presidential election, the gray-haired, soft-spoken advocate was arranging for protesters to arm themselves with plastic whistles to warn each other of police movements in opposition-heavy neighborhoods.
“Now the only problem we have is that we’re running out of whistles!” Mbonimpa exclaimed. The irony of employing plastic whistles against armed police was not lost on him. When I arrived at the office of his organization APRODH — the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons — his waiting room was filled with advocates and colleagues seeking counsel. “He’s the only person everyone trusts,” a local journalist told me.
Perhaps it’s because Mbonimpa is one of the only activists operating across ethnic lines. “He’s very unassuming, he doesn’t speak like politicians, he doesn’t have a sense of self-importance. He’s an older man and yet he’s lost none of his energy,” says Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Though many of the teenage protesters he guided were witnessing mass civil upheaval for the first time, Mbonimpa had experienced nearly 70 years of it. Born in Ngozi, in northern Burundi, the same region where President Nkurunziza was raised, Mbonimpa was 13 years old at the moment of independence. After earning a diploma in civil engineering, he worked for almost 20 years as a government official, first at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development Planning as a foreign trade inspector, later in the air and border police in the Congo-Burundi border region.
Then, in 1993, the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by extremists in the Tutsi army. The country was soon engulfed in an ethnically charged civil war, and Mbonimpa, an ethnic Hutu, found himself in the midst of a Tutsi army trying to eliminate the country’s Hutu population — the cleavage is along the same clan lines as the well-known conflict in Rwanda. When he learned of police colleagues planning to attack families in his neighborhood, Mbonimpa confronted them, a decision that cost him dearly. One frightening morning, alleges Armel Niyongere, Mbonimpa’s friend and colleague, the police planted a gun on Mbonimpa’s property, promptly imprisoning him for possessing illegal arms. According to Niyongere, Mbonimpa remained in prison for one year and eight months without appearing before a judge.
Twenty years later, as he explained the circumstances around his arrest in the 1990s, Mbonimpa pointed to the coat rack standing next to his office door where a plain green button-down hung. “That was my uniform in prison,” he said without bitterness. His experience in prison had inspired him to establish the APRODH office in which we sat and where, until the current crisis, he had advocated on behalf of inmates throughout Burundi’s prisons and against extrajudicial killings. “One of the most touching things I can think of is doing a prison visit with Pierre-Claver,” says Tom Gibson, Protection International’s representative for Burundi.
For years the organization and Mbonimpa were able to operate freely. But in May 2014, he ended up in prison again after making allegations on national radio that Burundian youth were being sent to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for military training. The short imprisonment “raised Burundi’s profile,” says David Khode, senior policy and research officer at the World Alliance for Citizen Participation. “A lot of people got to know about his arrest and then developed an interest in what was happening in Burundi.” Despite the attention on the country today, though, things have become frightening. “The
Four days before his son’s murder, Mbonimpa, wearing a metal device to stabilize his neck and forehead, addressed Burundians in a video. “Today still, we continue to pick up all types of dead bodies here and there: men, women, children, pupils.” He did not use complex words to describe it. “It is very sad,” he said.