At 3pm on December 28th this year, activists will gather in London’s Trafalgar Square to remember the 21 people dragged from their bus and killed, in the hills above Bujumbura, a few days after Christmas 2000.
The passengers were ordinary men, women and children travelling from Rwanda to the Burundian capital Bujumbura. Many were on their way to celebrate the New Year with friends and family.
The killers were members of Palipehutu-FNL, driven by the same extremist ideology used to justify the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Hutu passengers were released unharmed. Those deemed to be Tutsi were robbed, stripped, forced to lie face down on the ground, and shot. One of the last passengers to leave was told to tell the authorities “We’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”.
The Titanic Express attack was part of a vicious cycle of massacre and reprisal in a 12-year civil war that claimed over 300,000 lives. When that war finally ended in 2005, there was a widespread recognition that justice must be done for past atrocities to prevent a recurrence of violence in future.
With this in mind, the UN passed a resolution envisaging: “a mixed Truth Commission and a Special Chamber… to prosecute those bearing the greatest responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”.
Tragically, this promise was never delivered. Those who had instigated mass-killings were instead rewarded with positions of power and immunity from prosecution.
Even as Burundi’s government became increasingly violent and authoritarian, the country continued to be hailed as a peacebuilding “success story”. One of Burundi’s largest aid donors, the European Union, actually increased its financial contributions while exerting little serious pressure for progress on the issue of justice.
Fifteen years on from the Titanic Express attack, dozens of families are again mourning a brutal mass-killing in Burundi.
On December 11th, Burundian security forces went house-to-house through two districts deemed to be strongholds of the political opposition, and arrested hundreds of young men. Hours later, dozens of bullet-ridden bodies were dumped on the streets, many with their hands tied behind their backs. At least 79 young people are believed to have been killed. The massacre appears to have been a revenge attack for an assault on a number of military positions in Bujumbura, in which 8 soldiers were reportedly killed.
Like the victims of the Titanic Express massacre, those rounded up and killed last week died simply because of what they represented to their killers – and because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At our vigil for the victims of the Titanic Express massacre we will also be remembering those who died last week – and the many others killed in Burundi this year.
It will inevitably be a sad occasion – but the candles we light will also represent hope – hope that with sufficient international pressure, those responsible for mass-murder in Burundi may finally be held to account, and the cycle of violence ended.