What seems a lifetime ago, Barampama Maximilien shovelled dirt over rows of bodies at gunpoint, sweating in fear 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, is one of more than 4 000 identified – a stark reminder of the east African country’s brutal history of ethnic conflict.
The pit Maximilien helped dig contains more than 300 bodies, locals say. It 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 the prison and accused of aiding rebels. Many new arrivals were Hutus, Maximilien said.
Burundi has the same mix of population from that ethnic group and the Tutsis as neighbouring Rwanda, where 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus are estimated to have died in a 1994 genocide. Both countries have blood-soaked histories dating back to colonial days.
“Those brought to Gitega prison’s compound were badly beaten. Some had hands or arms broken. The perpetrators accused them of helping rebels,” he said.
Graves were sometimes dug by machine and at other times he and fellow prisoners were forced to do it, he said. The military 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 friends were missing.”
When a group of prisoners rioted and tried to escape, soldiers fired until blood flowed 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 colonised by Germany, up to 2008. That is three years after President Pierre Nkurunziza took office. UN authorities accuse his security forces of overseeing the torture, murder and gang rape of opponents.
Its chairman, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, said Burundians should “pray to God so what happened, never happens again”.
For one man, opening the grave is action enough. As shovels rose and fell, he craned forward as if to recognise the face of the elder brother he never knew among the 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.”