Murder in Burundi: the man who knew too much

How the killing of three elderly nuns set the country’s leading human rights activist on a collision course with its most powerful general

We share with you a recent investigative report on the background story referring to the murder of three Xaverian sisters in Burundi, Africa two years ago. We are grateful to Jessica Hatcher and the Guardian for this important story.  

by Jessica Hatcher

On a Sunday afternoon in early September 2014, Sister Bernadetta Boggian drove into the compound of the Catholic convent where she lived in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, and called out to her fellow nuns. There was no sign of the other elderly sisters who lived in the convent, so Sister Bernadetta went to find Father Mario Pulcini, the head of the mission, to ask if he had seen them. He tried phoning them, but there was no reply. So they walked across the shady compound to the nuns’ quarters, where they found the curtains drawn.

They knocked, and called out, but there was no answer. The priest was about to force open the door, but Sister Bernadetta walked around to a side entrance, which was unlocked. Inside she found a horrific scene. Sister Olga Raschietti was lying dead in her bedroom, blood pooling around her head. In the bedroom next door lay the body of Sister Lucia Pulici. Both women had been stabbed, and their throats slit.

Sister Lucia would have celebrated her 76th birthday the next day. Sister Olga was 82. Together, these three elderly friends had worked for almost 50 years in South Kivu, an eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo that was at the centre of a series of conflicts sometimes known collectively as the Great African War, the deadliest in the continent’s modern history. When the three sisters finally left South Kivu for Burundi, they were looking forward to a more peaceful retirement posting.

Father Mario called the local police, and his superiors in Italy. Lorries and pickup trucks arrived quickly, disgorging police and soldiers, and security forces circled the compound. At around 6pm, the congregation poured out of mass in their brightly coloured Sunday best, straight into a crime scene. A papal official stood over the bodies and wept. Outside the convent, young women the sisters had taught to sew wailed with grief.

When noises woke Sister Bernadetta in the night, she phoned Father Mario. “I think the killer is still here,” she said
Sister Bernadetta, who remained collected throughout, accompanied the bodies to the morgue, and then returned to the convent. Father Mario wanted to find somewhere else for sister Bernadetta and the other nuns to sleep. But the sisters insisted they wanted to stay together, and sleep at the convent. As night fell, heavily armed police patrolled the compound.

When noises woke Sister Bernadetta during the night, she telephoned Father Mario, who was still awake, writing down an account of the previous day. “I think the killer is still here,” sister Bernadetta told him in a shaky voice.
The priest hurried to the nuns’ quarters, but he was too late. Sister Bernadetta was already dead. In an act of violence unimaginable to those who knew the small and wiry 79-year-old, the killer had cut off her head.
The next morning, shocked and angry locals closed their businesses and gathered outside the convent to protest against the murders. People claimed the killers were being protected by the police. Some protesters saw the notorious head of the state intelligence agency, General Adolphe Nshimirimana, enter the convent. Some time later, Father Mario emerged from the gates and appealed to the protesters to disperse peacefully. Three weeks on, a leaflet was found at the convent urging the mission not to pursue an investigation into the crimes.

The murders at the convent horrified Burundians, not just because of their brutality but because they took place almost a decade after the end of the country’s 12-year civil war, in which 300,000 were slaughtered and 1.2 million – a fifth of the population – fled their homes. In the wake of that conflict, which divided the nation along ethnic lines, between Hutu and Tutsi, Burundians vowed that their country would never again experience such brutal violence.
Church missions to countries riven by long-term civil strife are liable to get caught up in toxic politics. The powerful Catholic church in Burundi, which represents 80% of Burundians, has come under suspicion for providing aid to militant groups during the civil war. But it has also regularly criticised government abuses, and paid a price for it. In 1995, during the civil war, when the majority Hutus rose up against the abusive Tutsi military, gunmen executed two priests and a lay preacher suspected of supporting the rebels. A year later, a moderate Tutsi archbishop was murdered by gunmen. More than 10 Catholic clerics were assassinated in Burundi in the first three years of the civil war. When church leaders have denounced the violence of the country’s warring factions, political leaders have often seen them as a threat – and done whatever was necessary to silence them. [MORE]

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