What seems like a lifetime ago, Barampama Maximilien shoveled dirt over rows of bodies at gunpoint, sweating in fear that he would be next. This week the skeletons—and his memories—emerged from Burundi’s red earth.
The mass grave, which authorities exhumed on Monday, was one of more than 4,000 they said this month they had identified—a stark reminder of the east African country’s brutal history of ethnic conflict.
The pit that Maximilien helped dig contains more than 300 bodies, locals say, and dates back to the aftermath of an attempted coup in April 1972, when he was 21 and in nearby Gitega prison for petty theft.
Others were brought there and accused of aiding the rebels. Many of the new arrivals were Hutus, Maximilien said.
Burundi has the same mix of population from that ethnic group and the Tutsis as neighbouring Rwanda, where over a million Tutsis were estimated to have died in a 1994 genocide. Both countries have blood-soaked histories dating back to colonial days.
“Those who brought to Gitega prison’s compound were badly beaten. Some had their hands or arms broken. The perpetrators were accusing them of helping rebels,” he said.
Graves were sometimes dug by machine, and sometimes he and other prisoners were forced to do it, he said. The military then took suspected rebels there by truck.
“Those still alive were ordered to walk to the grave, lie down and then six soldiers lined up and shot them dead,” he said, imitating the sound of guns.
“Soldiers warned us against talking about it. I was deeply afraid I could be the next to be killed, particularly when I noticed some friends were missing.”
When one group of prisoners rioted and tried to escape, soldiers fired into the jail until blood flowed form under the doors, he said.
It is unclear whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission responsible for opening the graves will hold anyone to account for the killings.
It is mandated to investigate abuses dating from the 19th century, when Burundi was colonized by Germany, up to 2008.
That is three years after President Pierre Nkurunziza took office. UN authorities have accused his security forces of overseeing the torture, murder and gang rape of opponents.
Its chairman, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, said in a speech that Burundians should “pray God so that what happened, never happens again”.
He declined to comment on whether anyone would be held accountable.
For one man, just opening the grave is action enough. As the diggers’ shovels rose and fell, he craned forwards as if to recognize the face of the elder brother he never knew among the dusty skeletons.
“I am happy if I see the remains of my brother…before I die,” he said, as another brother choked back tears and ducked back into the crowd. “I know his bones are here.”