The Unsolved Mystery of Agnès Dury

Agnès Dury.

Four years have passed since a young French aid worker was assassinated in a small Burundian town. Despite a joint French-Burundian investigation, those responsible for her death have still not been identified.

On New Year's Eve 2007 in Ruyigi, eastern Burundi, Agnès Dury and Aude Staine, two employees of French NGO Action contre la faim (ACF), were returning from a hiking trip with a colleague and two Burundian friends, Flora Sindayigaya and Médiatrice Butoyi. As the vehicle pulled up to Sindayigaya's house, it was ambushed and sprayed with bullets from a Kalashnikov. Staine was wounded in the right arm, Dury in the stomach and thigh. Dury died of her injuries four hours later while being transported to a hospital in Gitega, the nearest large city.

State prosecutors in Burundi and France opened investigations almost immediately after the shooting. However, three more New Year's Eves passed with no definitive answers.

"Barely more than three hours—that is the time that went by between laughter and death. That is the time that Agnès suffered. The thousands of hours that have passed since then are too numerous to count," Dury's sister, Séverine, wrote in a blog post. "And our only comfort is a bundle of uncertainties."

"In the days after the attack, ACF authorities met with highly placed representatives of the Burundian state," according to a joint statement released by ACF and the Dury family. In a press release, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded that "all possible light be shed" on the shooting. Five days after the murder, regional governor Moise Bucumi announced in a radio address that the guilty parties had been arrested. However the two men, former ACF employees, were released in early 2009. Since then, no conclusions have been reached. Three years after the events, a French investigation revealed a new suspect, a local police officer named Emmanuel Bigirimana. Despite an international warrant for his arrest, his whereabouts are unknown.

Late last month, Séverine Dury and ACF Director General François Danel returned to Burundi to pay their respects to the victim and denounce what they call a deeply flawed investigation.

"We deplore the unjustified delays, the approximations and the absence of reactivity and initiative, as much from the Burundian procedure as the French one up to this point," said ACF spokeswoman Anne Degroux.

Agnès Dury was an intercultural psychologist who worked with HIV/AIDS patients in eastern Burundi. ACF also had programs in the area related to food security, water quality and nutrition. The NGO left the country soon after her death and has not returned. "We have no plans to go back there for the moment," says Degroux. "Not until justice is done and we know what happened."

"These events are totally unexplained," Dury said. "At the beginning of the investigation none of the procedures were followed and no one was interrogated. The Burundians just pretended to do an investigation to please France." She explained that at the outset several arrests were made that did not lead to the discovery of the guilty party. "They arrested one person as the possible organizer, which was totally unreasonable," Dury said. "They tried to close the file with a false culprit. They only explored one angle: former employees who might have been unhappy to lose their jobs. But that is all that is in the file." She calls for a more thorough investigation of the possibility of a mistaken target (an employee of a Burundian NGO, Maison Shalom, lived nearby) and of local police involvement.

Dury accuses the victims' home country of not doing enough in the investigation, either. "The French have all the technology but are not doing their jobs," she said. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing this alone. The Ministry of Justice should intervene but does not have the same version of events. We have been updating them, because we know the whole story while they only know what is in their file."

Dury says the French justice system is allowing repeated lapses in the investigation. "A team of French police were ready to go to Burundi in 2008, and they went in 2010," she said. "The two bullets that were retrieved, one from Agnès' body and one from the car, were sent back to Burundi and mixed with others, so we can't check them."

She prefers not to speculate on her sister's cause of death. "I don't have my own theories; I would rather not make them. I'm not sure what happened or why."

"The slowness of the French makes me wonder if they really want to look and, on the other hand, if the Burundians want to find," said Danel at a press conference in Bujumbura.

"I want my sister's death not to be a cold case," said Dury. "It's a matter of respect for her life. I want her death to mean something."

She and Danel travelled to Burundi in hopes of restarting the investigation. They hoped to meet with President Pierre Nkurunziza and Justice Minister Pascal Barandagiye but were unsuccessful. Dury says that since the visit, bullets removed from her sister's body have been sent back to France for analysis, but "that is the only thing that has advanced concretely, as far as I know." Neither the French nor the Burundian government has spoken publicly about the case since the shooting itself. The Dury family does not know what direction the investigation will take. "We'll see," Dury says. "We just have to wait."

Marie Nsabimana and Jean-Marie Bukeyeneza contributed reporting to this article. Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. She speaks English, Russian, French and Quebecois. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France, but her heart and mind are in East Africa.