Beate Klarsfeld, intrepid hunter of Nazi war criminals and UNESCO special envoy, is in Burundi lending her moral authority to warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in the Central African nation.
In Germany, 76-year-old Beate Klarsfeld is known for tracking down Nazi war criminals. In Burundi, she has shown herself to be no less resolute. "Genocide, massacres loom, if the government fails to contain the situation. A solution must be found immediately," Klarsfeld told DW in the Burundian capital Bujumbura.
The United Nations estimates that more than 300 people have been killed in Burundi since the crisis erupted in April 2015, but the true death toll could be much higher. There have been regular reports of intimidation, murder and torture of opposition supporters.
Beate Klarsfeld and her husband Serge found the notorious Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie in the 1970s
The unrest was triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza's determination to stay in power - in which he succeeded at elections in July - despite serious misgivings voiced by the opposition, large sections of the population and the international community.
Klarsfeld, a German national, lives with her husband Serge, a French Jew who survived the Holocaust, in Paris. The couple have tracked down a number of Nazi war criminals who were then taken to court. UNESCO paid tribute to their life's work by appointing them special envoys in October 2015. "It is our task to tell people about the Holocaust, but also to help prevent genocide," Klarsfeld said. That was why she made the trip to Burundi.
UN cannot prevent genocide
In December 2015, Said Raad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the violence in Burundi could lead to genocide, similar to that which devastated Rwanda in 1994. Burundi, like Rwanda, has Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Tension between the two fuelled the Burundian civil war between 2003 and 2006, which claimed 200,000 lives. The worry that history could repeat itself is shared by a number of international observers. But the Burundian government sees no cause for concern. "Hutu and Tutsi coexist together and will not fight one another. There is no threat of civil war or genocide in our country," government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe told DW in December.
In November 2015, the UN Security Council passed a resolution threatening sanctions if the killings and torture didn't cease. UN observers were also to be sent to the country. But so far the UN resolution has had little or no impact. The world body's apparent powerlessness was also underscored by a leaked, confidential UN memo which warned that any proposed peacekeeping force for Burundi would be unable to quell large-scale violence in the country.
The UNESCO special envoy reminded Burundi's leaders of the impact of the present crisis on future generations
A future for Burundi's children
All hopes for the easing of tensions in Burundi have previously been founded on national dialogue. But attempts by international mediators to broker negotiations between government, opposition and civil society have failed. After a first bid to start talks at the beginning of the year, the government then decided to postpone them indefinitely.
Special envoy Beate Klarsfeld called for a resumption of the talks and appealed to all parties to consider the plight of Burundi's children. "Half of the population are children under the age of 14. How is the president going to persuade these children to go to school, university and perhaps abroad with a scholarship to be trained as a technician or engineer, if the present situation persists? It is impossible," she said.
Jean Fiacre Ndayiragije and Jesko Johannsen contributed to this report