Burundi awaits its turn at genocide

March 31, 1995|By John Balzar | John Balzar,Los Angeles Times

BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- This is an ordinary day of doom on the Central African highlands. In this country, too small to find on many maps, the question gnaws at anyone with the capacity to reason with the unreasonable: Does the genocide start tonight, again?

Or will it just be more random gunfire and pervasive fear?

Another night to sleep in the hills in the rain under a banana leaf because you worry that someone will come in the dark and slip a machete through your mattress?

Choices in Burundi are meager, maddening.

This week, the tension became unbearable for Americans and Europeans. The embassies of the United States, France and Belgium evacuated their dependents. Other nations warned their citizens to flee.

And perhaps 40,000 refugees, who escaped here from neighboring Rwanda a year ago, up and bolted yesterday -- this time toward Tanzania, ostensibly fearing for their lives.

[However, Tanzania announced today that it was closing its border with Burundi, Reuters reported.]

Burundi's generation-long cycle of ethnic bloodshed has taken another turn for the worse.

This is a land of misty green mountains, sky-blue lakes -- the land of Hutu and Tutsi, the peoples of East-Central Africa whose suspicions of one another have been intensified by generations of horror, overcrowding and political manipulation into a form of humanity measured by the digits in the death toll.

Almost exactly one year ago, across the border in Rwanda, a Hutu-led genocide resulted in the killing of 500,000 Tutsis. Another 1 million Hutus fled the country as Tutsis sought revenge. In the autumn of 1993, perhaps 50,000 Hutus and Tutsis perished in Burundi in a few weeks of slaughter, and many more were displaced within their own country. Back in 1972, 300,000 Hutus died here. A decade earlier, almost the entire population of educated Hutus was exterminated.

The killing and fleeing, of course, resolved nothing except to compound the scores yet to be settled. So at any moment today in Burundi, those same, ordinary-looking people walking down the colonnade in their bright dresses and button-down shirts, the boys on their overloaded bicycles, the students in the campus courtyard -- all of them are inches from being cornered by fear with no choice but to dig up the AK-47s buried in a tomato garden. They then will turn to what they will call vengeance.

Just ask them.

"To defend ourselves doesn't mean we shouldn't prepare offensive missions. Our ambushes are part of our continued self-defense. As we are talking now we are laying in ambush against the army in the north. This is war."

The man speaking is known only as "Major Savimbi," namesake of another African rebel fighter, Angola's Jonas Savimbi.

Major Savimbi's eyes are wide and watery, his face waxy; under his nylon-running jacket is a .45-caliber automatic. He is a Hutu militia commander. And in the 200,000-population capital of Bujumbura, Hutus have been pushed to the farthest edge of the city, to the mud shantytown called Kamenge, their sanctuary where no Tutsi dare tread.

Not that the Hutus feel very safe, either. Many women and children have vanished into the mud-slick hills behind Kamenge to wait. Major Savimbi and the young militia who follow him secretively down the alleys of Kamenge from one safehouse to another prepare for the attack they believe is coming.

Here in Burundi, the balance of terror is this: Hutus are 85 percent of the population, a working majority for the young, troubled government here. But Tutsis control the army, the police, the heavy weapons and the economy.

Which is stronger, people or firepower? How many will die finding out? Major Savimbi and his Hutu militia contend the Tutsi army is determined to provoke one final incident in Bujumbura as an excuse to drive the last of the Hutu from the capital, giving the Tutsi a mono-ethnic urban fortress against the rest of the nation.

But Clement Nkurunziza sees the opposite. The intense Tutsi chairman of the student body at the University of Burundi insists that the Hutu militia are responsible for the trouble. They want to provoke the army and bring on a civil war to drive the Tutsi to extinction.

In Burundi, such talk is especially menacing. The country's first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was killed in the 1993 coup attempt. His successor, also a Hutu, was killed last April in a suspicious airplane crash that also killed Rwanda's Hutu president.

Scarce are the bystanders who can fairly judge between the Tutsi and Hutu versions of life here. A curfew seals the city at 7:30 nightly. The truth travels the twisted trail of rumor of shrill newspapers and political radio.


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