Burundi shares problems with neighbor Rwanda

October 12, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

BUHONGA, Burundi -- In this land where the Nile has its uppermost headwaters, the brief, sudden African dusk had fallen on the rolling mountains, bathing them violet. On the breeze-swept veranda of his parish church and school, a Roman Catholic priest nursed a lukewarm beer and voiced his dread.

"We live in the fear of each day," he confided. "When I consider history, and people's hearts, I am truly afraid."

Just that Friday, he explained, members of Burundi's army had shot and killed seven people in cold blood as they traveled from Bujumbura, the capital at the northeastern tip of Lake Tanganyika, to the terraced slopes of Buhonga.

Last July, he said, the parish school's manager, a professor, two cooks and a driver were pulled from their car on a mountain road by soldiers, and slain just as pointlessly.

"Here, to meet the army is to meet death," said the priest, whose 85,000 parishioners eke a living from small banana plantations and subsistence farming. "But there is no one you can complain to about it. We are Christians, so we are waiting for the Last Judgment."

Others in this remote, land-locked wedge of Central Africa -- bedeviled by ethnic hatred, a colonial past and now, even by geography -- fear an apocalypse. In Burundi, "we are at the brink of the chasm," said Tharcisse Nsavymana, president of Iteka, a human rights group.

Recent events in Rwanda, the country immediately to the north, have given pessimists much to worry about. Last April and May, ethnically motivated massacres led to the liquidation of an estimated 500,000 Rwandans -- perhaps twice as many as that.

"Since the catastrophe in Rwanda, the risk of a total conflagration in Burundi is on everybody's minds," Mr. Nsavymana said. "Not a day goes by without a murderous attack here or there."

But not everyone in Burundi is rushing, lemming-like, toward collective suicide. After protracted haggling, politicians from 10 parties last month signed a power-sharing agreement crafted to placate the powerful, wealthy Tutsi minority without renouncing the Hutu majority's democratic right to rule.

That pact, and the election of a consensus president in late September, may halt Burundi's slippery slide into ethnic war.

Or they may not.

For the single mightiest institution -- the 7,150-member Burundian army, air force and national police, in which Tutsis hold virtually all command posts, including the Defense Minister's portfolio -- possesses an effective right of veto, whatever politicians decide.

In October 1993, in a still murky bid at a government take-over, renegade Tutsi soldiers arrested acting president Cyprian Ntaryamira's predecessor, Melchior Ndadaye, and murdered him at the Muha army base south of the capital.

The attempted putsch and the assassination of Burundi's first democratically elected and Hutu president since independence in 1962 sparked massacres of Tutsis by outraged Hutus throughout the country. Within days, a savage campaign of repression was launched by Tutsi soldiers, police and groups of young unemployed thugs regrouped as self-styled militias.

At least 50,000 people, Tutsis and Hutus alike, perished, Amnesty International estimates.

In the words of one Bujumbura-based diplomat, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya -- the 38-year-old Hutu politician who succeeded Ntaryamira as acting president following the April 6 plane crash -- realizes with his entourage "that no foreign power is going to fly troops in here to save their skins. So they have to deal with the military and the minority."

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