The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

The Imbonerakure in Burundi Perverts the Inherent Power of Youth-Led Movements

Content Warning for discussion of sexual violence

A twenty-two year old woman was beaten with sticks and raped in her own home. A seventeen year old watched her father be dragged away and murdered, before she herself was taken and raped. An eight year old girl was raped by four men while her mother was out of the house. These are only three of thirty-eight stories collected by Human Rights Watch, a global human rights research and advocacy organization, as part of a lengthy report on rape in Burundi. All of these women’s stories share one commonality outside of the sheer horror of the crime committed against them: they were all targeted by the Imbonerakure.

The Imbonerakure, meaning “those that see far” or “visionaries” in the local Kirundi language, is the name of the youth wing of the current ruling party in Burundi, an east African country that has of late been plagued with uncertainty and civil unrest after a long civil war that took place from 1993 to 2006. The Imbonerakure are supporters of President Pierre Nkurunziza, who took power in 2005. In 2015, Nkurunziza announced that he would run for a third term, violating the terms of Burundi’s constitution. His announcement provoked widespread opposition, which has been met with military action in an attempt to silence protesters. Amnesty International reports almost eighty civilians deemed “enemies” by the government were killed by police on December 11, 2015, and the conflict has only escalated since. The Imbonerakure serve as the zealous force behind this violence. They are given the power of police, and as one local protester claims, “Many of our policemen are only Imbonerakure, who wear policeman clothes.”  

The violence incited by these men is a piece of the larger socio-political deterioration of Burundi that has resulted in a refugee crisis in East Africa. The current crisis is a symptom of unresolved tensions from atrocities in 1959, 1963, 1972, 1988, 1993 and 1994, food shortages that create class-related tensions, and the controversial third term of Nkurunziza, all of which the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation cite as causes of the exodus of Burundi. According to the United Nations Office of the Human Rights High Commissioner, over 400,000 refugees have fled to countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. Despite the mass number of refugees, the Burundi government denies that there is a crisis occurring, and, according to the BBC, calls allegations of rape and violence from the Imbonerakure “falsehoods.” For example, the government demands that Uganda “expel” Burundian refugees back to their home nation in what would be a direct violation of the UN Refugee Convention. The conflict and subsequent denial thereof can be correlated with ethnic conflict exacerbated by Belgian colonialism in the 20th century in Burundi; this conflict, facilitated in part by imperialists, also became a factor in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Regardless of government statements, there is an indisputable link between ethnicity and violent crimes against civilians, as multiple Burundi rape victims reported racial comments made during their attacks, including one whose assailants called her a “cockroach,” which HRW describes as “a term used to insult Tutsi during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.”

One member of the Imbonerakure agreed to speak with NPR, and discussed how the government in Burundi incites youth to violence. The man revealed how the ruling party provides military and police uniforms to youth members, presumably to provide a degree of anonymity and veneer of power, and encourages them to kill protesters and crush opposition. Most crimes against the Burundian people are blamed on the police because of the Imbonerakure’s facade. According to the interviewee, those who resist the injunction to kill, directed by government intelligence agents, fear that they themselves will be targeted for insubordination. Youth who comply to orders enjoy a rare sense of power that arises from being a part of the groupa lawless, fearless, and guiltless dominance arising from the feeling of control. By supporting the Imbonerakure, the government has created a force stronger than any law or president. The interviewee boasted, “Even the president of the republic… He’s there because we Imbonerakure, we are there.”

The power of the Imbonerakure reveals that youth-led movements are extraordinarily influential, and wield the potential to promote atrocities. Younger individuals have the power to change the mindset of a nation, and are thus often the focus of campaigns and propaganda, from the non-smoking advertisements of the current decade to Hitler Youth events organized for aspiring Nazis. Moreover, lacking commitments such as marriage, family, or career, teens and young adults often possess more fervor and dedication than adults when participating in political movements. More often than not, the activism of youth portends the future of a nation. As positive youth-led campaigns, such as the largely youth- and social media-organized Women’s March and March for Science in the U.S., gain prominence, it is important to remember that while youth can take on positive positions in society, under different conditions, such as those in Burundi, youth can also become leaders of a darker, potentially violent, future.

The United Nations has, at least in part, begun to take action against the crimes of the Imbonerakure. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein condemned the group in early April after they publicly advocated the rape of “enemy” women:

The grotesque rape chants by the young men of the Imbonerakure across several provinces in various parts of Burundi are deeply alarming – particularly because they confirm what we have been hearing from those who have fled Burundi about a campaign of fear and terror by this organized militia.

Additionally, TRAC, The Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium has listed the Imbonerakure as a terrorist organization. Critics argue that in face of government endorsement of this group, the world should be doing more to aid civilian victims. HRW’s report argues that the UNHRC should do more to provide relief in refugee camps, especially for victims of rape. The camps often fail to identify victims of rape, and should work to create an environment where victims can identify themselves so they can receive proper physical and psychological care. Of the women interviewed, five had become pregnant from rape because the refugee camps had not been able to provide them with emergency care.

Due to the current lack of political will for intervention, as time goes on the likelihood increases that Burundi may ultimately face government-sponsored genocide or civil war, the impacts of which have been historically devastating in both Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. The slow rate of action among government officials to stop the tragedies in Burundi suggests that it is necessary for the youth-led movements advocating for genocide prevention and human rights to become a leading force in the fight against the atrocities occurring in Burundi.

Ugo Ndife is a recent graduate of Terre Haute South Vigo High School in Indiana, and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. He began his work with STAND as a kid, following his brothers to chapter meetings, and has been involved with STAND ever since. Ugo has a passion for social justice of all kinds, among other things – namely drawing, listening to music, and afternoon napping.

Featured photo is (c) 2015, France 24.

Dirty Hands: How do regular people become involved in genocide?

A few weeks ago, I listened to James Waller, a professor of Holocaust and Genocide studies at Keene State College, recount a talk he had with a man who had killed children for a living. During the Rwandan Genocide, this man joined countless others responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of children by grabbing their legs and swinging them into a wall. Rwandans are not alone; similar horrific acts of cruelty have taken place in the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Cambodia, and even in Westward Expansion in the United States. The question everyone in the audience was thinking as we sat listening to Waller talk was, “what type of person could do something like this?” Waller’s answer: anyone.

Waller’s talk took place at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he was giving a lecture on his investigations into the grunt work of genocide. He was not interested in the architects, the people who planned the mass atrocities; he was interested in the “people who dirtied their hands.” He was invested in trying to understand who these people were and how they were enlisted to perpetrate such extraordinary evil.

So, when he sat down with the murderer, he was surprised to find the man didn’t seem like a terrible person. He seemed like a good guy. In fact, he was a school teacher, who says he “lost himself” during the genocide. I was shocked to hear that, according to Waller, “this description of someone who commits mass atrocities is a lot more common than uncommon.”

If the murderers were innately evil, it would be easy to dismiss them as crazy, which many have tried to do. After recounting his conversation with the man, Waller went on to describe and repudiate the Mad Nazi Thesis, which states, in layman’s terms, that anyone would have to be crazy to participate in something as horrible as genocide. However, scientists put Nazis through thorough mental testing to attempt to find a correlation between intelligence, insanity, and participation in these deeds, and they found none. If we take inherent evilness or insanity out of the equation, something else must be responsible for enabling such monstrous acts. Dr. Waller assigns this blame not to some inherent feature within a sole individual, but rather to the creation of a monstrous collective.

“What groups do is what this microphone does to my voice,” Dr. Waller said, speaking loudly into the mic, “it amplifies it.” The actions of a group can take the little bigotries inside of an individual and create a monster. A group can create a genocide. Waller explained how he began to notice the external factors that transform a person into a killer—factors like a culture influenced by the domination of a single social group or authority, and strong collective values in a nation that may lead to intolerance. These factors can put a culture at greater risk of committing atrocities. This concept is exemplified in the Holocaust, where propaganda, poisonous societal beliefs, and charismatic leaders led economically-distressed Germans to project their frustrations onto minorities.

Contemporary political movements, such as the Alt-right Movement, similarly harness and cultivate the anger of many disenfranchised Americans—those who seek a return to what they perceive as older glory days. These radicals use social media to spread their message in a way similar to how the Nazis spread hateful propaganda. Today, the Alt-right’s widespread use of memes featuring bigoted imagery works to dehumanize anyone who does not match their idea of a model American. Despite what we would like to believe, these are contemporary warning signs that we should notice and address before they escalate.

When economic, social, or military crises ignite pre-existing risk factors, the flames of genocide can begin to take over. Over time, collective cruelty can numb the conscience: individuals simply become a part of a larger cause for which they themselves are not solely responsible. Dehumanization occurs within themselves as well as their victims.

Still, we can always combat such dehumanization. Waller argues, “because genocide is done by normal people, there’s a way to stop it.” Economic empowerment is one key factor. If people are financially independent, they are less likely to become susceptible to the temptations of blaming other groups for their own fears and insecurities; they are less likely to dehumanize others and themselves. Yet this truth is not all. For a person to escape the hatred spread by architects of genocide, they must also physically, mentally, and emotionally isolate themselves from the risk factors that perpetuate atrocities. In order to accomplish this state of independence, one must have access to financial stability, build the critical thinking skills needed to ignore propaganda, and have access to media alternatives to state-run media – which can, in part, be helped by an open and accessible Internet. Activists from low-risk areas can help by supporting information campaigns and advocating for free speech and media. Those who are able to retain their moral compasses will not want to dirty their hands with the crimes of a “hive mind,” advocating for inequality and violence. These are the people who must stand up to prevent mass atrocities.

We may only overlook the horrors of genocide through ignorance or in a trance of inhumanity. By providing the means to avoid that trap, we can preserve the humanity inside potential murderers. Real people become criminals, and as such, it is possible to find a way to end genocide before it starts—by protecting their own humanity and providing equal access to resources and information.

“The lesson we take is most don’t choose to kill, most choose to stand by, but there are many options.”

Click here for James Waller’s book Becoming Evil.

Ugo Ndife is a high school student in Terre Haute, Indiana. He began his work with STAND as a kid, following his brothers to chapter meetings, and has been involved with STAND ever since. Ugo has a passion for social justice of all kinds, among other things – namely drawing, listening to music, and afternoon napping.

The Iron in Blood: A Scientific Take on Genocide

Science and technology reaches into almost every aspect of the lives we live. As research becomes more efficient and results are released daily, questions of ethics must be asked. Within scientific fields, there are people with knowledge and technology able to prevent, or even cause, crimes against humanity, and the impacts that these people may have on the world as we know it are limitless. So, the question must be asked: What is the role of science when dealing with genocide and human rights?

The idea of Lebensraum, spearheaded by Hitler, spread through Germany during World War II. Lebensraum is the notion that German land was not large enough to support the population, and that the only solution was conquering Eastern Europe. This concept was ingrained into the minds of every “patriotic” German of this era. It was also, more importantly, entirely false. Timothy Snyder of The New York Times writes that Hitler “specifically – and wrongly – denied that irrigation, hybrids, and fertilizers could change the relationship between people and land.” Hitler insisted that these scientific means of sustainability were Jewish ploys, and held no true substance. If the people had invested in the research of these options, however, it would have proven otherwise. Just looking around the world today can show scientific improvements of agriculture can allow a much larger population that what one would have thought in that era.

The blatant refusal to accept potentially life saving hypotheses can be a testament to the use of ignorance and fear mongering to control the masses. Instead of utilizing what could have been the salvation of a severely injured country, Hitler kept his citizens in the dark as a means of raising a hatred for Jews across his country. It seems  as though the omission of scientific solutions, in part, led to the desperation that the Germans felt after the first World War, and, the Holocaust that we know today. Obstruction of science, as well as the perpetuation of ignorance can possibly make it easier for genocide to occur.

Another field in which these two topics converge is psychology. In Paul Rosenberg’s article, “We don’t have to be monsters: The new neuroscience of genocide and mass murder,” he discusses various psychological analyses on why genocide takes place, and what could cause a brain to consider that as a possibility to achieve their goals. One neurosurgeon, Itzhak Fried, has labelled a medical syndrome associated with genocide, that describes “participation in repetitive, genocidal, mass murder by otherwise ‘normal individuals’,” as “Syndrome E.” Although there are many theories about what may cause syndrome E, none are entirely conclusive. What can be drawn from these studies is that many aspects of science can help us better understand and even prevent genocide, and if human rights and anti- mass atrocity campaigns work closely with scientific researchers, there is a chance that these projects can encourage new approaches to genocide prevention.

However, there is not only good that can come from the association of science and genocide. As the world becomes more advanced, the potency of future (and even some modern) technology can end in results that violate human rights in horrible ways. In “The Science of Genocide”, Chris Hedges  holds that while technology is innately neutral, humans with power are not, and the corruption that can occur with this knowledge can result in genocide that would have never happened had scientists not devoted their lives to these fields. He uses the sobering example of Americans dropping the atomic bombs, which marked a dark day in history. Hedges uses this example to state that as technology becomes more powerful, so do humans; and, inadvertently, so do the consequences of the choices we make.

Although the possibilities of science are infinite, there are projects that manage to merge human rights and technology to help end genocide. A group called Amnesty USA uses technologies such as satellites to see into inaccessible areas. They work to end genocide by incorporating the best that technology and science  have to offer. Other organizations, such as The Sentinel Project, use technologies such as website analysis to prevent radical organizations from spreading hate through mass media , and in a way counteract some of the negative results of the accessibility of technology. One group, The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, not only utilizes the growing field of science to raise awareness of genocide, but also inspires a passion for human rights in innovators. The Tech Challenge is a competition that awards“problem-solvers who developed innovative concepts and prototypes to help us better predict, prevent, and respond to the risk of mass atrocities” with recognition for their outstanding accomplishments. It is through organizations like all three mentioned that we can be sure that although there is greater potential for devastation, there is also a new hope for the end of mass atrocities. Although both the fields of human rights and the sciences are hard to predict the future for, there is potential to combine them and see the most effective means of fighting genocide yet.

Borimage(1) (1)n in Texas, Harrison (more commonly known by his middle name, Ugo) became active with STAND as soon as he moved to his current home of Terre Haute, Indiana. As early as 5th grade he was following his siblings to local STAND chapter events. Now a junior, Ugo has a passion for social justice of all kinds, among other things – namely drawing, music, and sleep.