Students flee US embassy camp, claim police harassment
Police officials denied the allegations.
But after a team of officers flushed the students out of makeshift tents they had set up outside the embassy at the end of June, dozens are now on the run or in hiding, fearing not just that their university education is over – but also their future in the country.
More than 70 people have been killed and tens of thousands more have fled the capital Bujumbura since violence erupted in late April.
Protesters have been marching against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, which they say is unconstitutional. They continue to clash with police, and automatic gunfire and grenade blasts are now regular sounds in Bujumbura ahead of a presidential poll currently scheduled for 15 July.
Students had been ordered to leave the University of Burundi on 27 April, with the government saying that it was closing the only public university because of security concerns.
Students speak out
Like many senior students, 30-year-old Ernest Niyungeko lived in a dorm on the main Bujumbura campus. The fourth-year civil engineering student said he was given only five hours to evacuate his room.
His first impulse was to travel to his family in the country’s north, but he was stopped at a police roadblock on the outskirts of the city and forced to return to Bujumbura. The officers, he said, did not offer a reason why they were preventing him from leaving.
Niyungeko’s next move was to head to the US embassy in the centre of the city. He said the decision was instinctive – there was no gunfire in the area of Bujumbura where the building is situated and, if it started, he hoped American security forces might offer protection.
He arrived to find he had not been the only student to have that thought: dozens had already gathered outside the embassy compound. Over the course of the next few days, more than 500 more would join them.
“This was the only safe place,” he said. “We couldn’t get anywhere else.”
The students received no assurances of protection from embassy staff and they said they did not request asylum or any specific services. But Donatien Nimubona, a third-year English student, described the situation as harmonious.
“When we are here, really, we feel safe,” he said in late June, nearly two months after they moved to the sites. “We are under their cameras,” he explained, gesturing toward the embassy.
They built tents from donated tarpaulins and used bathroom facilities at a courthouse being constructed next to the embassy. For food and water, they relied on the kindness of strangers. People would often pass by to hand out fruit or rice. When they did not, the students went hungry.
Despite the cameras, Nimubona said they continued to be dogged by security officials.
Most of the independent media in the country has been shut down since the start of the political crisis and a failed coup attempt that followed in mid-May, allowing rumours to run rampant in Bujumbura.
Stories soon began to circulate on social media that the encamped students expected to be armed by US embassy officials.
“The agents come here to intimidate us and tell us we are going to be killed,” Nimubona said. “But we have no guns and we don’t want them. We use our brains in order to contribute to our country.”
He said the threats bolstered a feeling that the embattled government was targeting perceived enemies – and educated young people were on the list. The number of students dwindled as people looked for safer places to stay.
Pierre Nkurikiye, the deputy police spokesperson, called the allegations baseless and said only criminals were being targeted. Police officials did visit the makeshift camp because they were receiving complaints from people living in the area.
When the students built the tents, they strung them from the fences of the compounds across the street from the embassy. Residents had called to complain. Nkurikiye said the police had the obligation to ask – and finally force – the students to leave.
In the wake of the protests and the attempted coup, political analysts in international media have noted that President Nkurunziza appears to be consolidating his hold on power.
Opposition groups, who have boycotted the election, have argued that this includes marginalising anyone who might pose a threat to his presidency – including members of the educated class who question the policies he has pursued over the last 10 years.
Critics argue that the government has failed to deliver sustainable economic growth or reduce poverty across the population. World Bank figures for 2013 say that GDP per capita remained at US$267.11.
Amid these concerns, campuses have been a hotbed for activists. Last year, for instance, students went on strike over a change to the education grant system.
Parliamentary and local elections were held in Burundi last Monday 29 June, and violence erupted again, leaving six people dead in the capital.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had appealed to the government to postpone the polls after months of turmoil. The UN declared the elections, which were boycotted by the opposition, as neither free nor credible.
A UN observer mission report said the elections were held during a political crisis and amid “widespread fear and intimidation in parts of the country”, AFP reported.
“Episodes of violence and explosions preceded, and in some cases accompanied, election day activities, mostly in Bujumbura.” There have been calls for the presidential poll on 15 July to be delayed.
Early in the afternoon on 25 June, more than a dozen police officers converged on the unofficial displacement camp.
The students sprang for the embassy, clambering under a gate into the visitor’s parking lot. As they rested on parking blocks, the officers tore down their tents and loaded their belongings into trucks. By early evening the students began to disperse.
US officials did not respond to a request for comment, but a press statement said the students “departed of their own free will after speaking with Ambassador Dawn Liberi. There was no effort to forcibly remove them”.
Nimubona, who spoke from an undisclosed location, said they had no choice but to leave. He had heard that at least five of the students were arrested as they left the embassy and most of the others went into hiding.
Nkurikiye said he had no record of any students being arrested. In fact, he said the students were welcome to return to their campuses to retrieve their belongings and wait for classes to start again.
Despite Nkurikiye’s assurances, the main campus was largely empty in the days after the students were dispersed. The only people visible were security officials guarding the campus. The administration buildings were locked.
An official in the administrator’s office, who refused to provide her name after she was reached by telephone, confirmed that the university has reopened, but declined to answer any additional questions.
Nimubona said it did not matter if the campus is officially open or not. Few students are going to return in the current climate. “We’d be back only when security is back in the whole country,” he said. “To study is work that requires a calm environment.”