Burundi's rising ethnic violence also threatens region

April 05, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A year after Rwanda's explosion of genocide, central Africa remains roiled by ethnic hatred, desperate economies and the plight of more than 2 million refugees.

Now, rising political violence in Burundi raises the question: Can the genocide happen again?

U.S. and United Nations officials, for their part, play down the prospect of a bloodbath in Burundi. "It's not going to happen," insists Gordon Duguid, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura, the Burundian capital.

But human rights groups are more pessimistic.

Since its first democratically elected president was assassinated in a coup attempt in October 1993, Burundi has been unable to forge a peace between the minority Tutsis, who control the economy and the armed forces, and the Hutus, who are largely agrarian and account for a majority of the country's population.

"It's a nation on a tightrope," says Alison DesForges, an expert on the region, at Human Rights Watch-Africa.

Indeed, regional specialists warn that without a political settlement, a regional conflict could erupt involving Burundi, Rwanda and the Kivu region of eastern Zaire, putting 20 million people at risk.

Central Africa became the focus of worldwide attention after a still- unexplained plane crash last April 6 that killed both the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira.

The Rwandan armed forces and allied militias, dominated by the majority Hutu ethnic group, launched a campaign of massacres against Tutsis and perceived political opponents, killing a half-million people in a matter of weeks.

The scope and speed of those massacres may well have been unprecedented in the region, but they fit a decades-old pattern of ethnic and political violence that has destabilized Rwanda and neighboring Burundi and now threatens to spill over into eastern Zaire and Tanzania.

The ethnic hatreds do not respect national borders, and the antagonism is worsened by hate-filled radio broadcasts by all sides.

With both Rwanda and Burundi sharing much the same ethnic mix, "violence from one bounces into the other," says Ms. DesForges.

Compounding the instability is a huge, semi-permanent population of Rwandan refugees crowding camps in eastern Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania. Those refugees are mostly Hutus who fled the victorious rebel armies of the Rwandan Patriotic Front last year; they fear reprisals from a Tutsi-dominated government if they return home.

Many also are subject to the control and political manipulations of Hutu extremists in their midst who joined in last year's massacres of Rwandan Tutsis. Periodic waves of panic send these refugees by the tens of thousands trudging toward one border or another.

The presence of the refugees strains even the gigantic international relief effort organized toward the end of the Rwandan civil war. Food rations have been cut and distribution has at times been uneven. At the same time, relief officials say, the local water supplies are being drained and areas around refugee camps deforested to provide fuel for the wood fires used for cooking.

This environmental damage adds to the long-term problems of a crowded, miserably poor region whose economy has been wracked by repeated political crises.

Even before Burundi's coup in 1993 and the plane crash that killed the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi last year, the region's per-person gross national product hovered around $200. While Tanzania, its economy restructured, is now seeing 5 percent annual growth, Zaire remains in economic chaos.

Rwanda has seen little peace since rebel forces claimed victory and installed a government last year that includes prominent officials of both ethnic groups. Some 30,000 people remain incarcerated in overcrowded prisons, according to a U.N. official. The relatively few Hutu refugees who have returned at times find that Tutsis, returning from an earlier forced exile, have claimed what used to be Hutu land and homes.

Burundi's 1993 crisis claimed more than 50,000 lives and made another 300,000 refugees within their own country, according to the United Nations.

Even if an immediate crisis can be averted, "in the longer term it is another story," says Ould Abdallah, the United Nations envoy in Burundi, who describes a nation "suffocating" and a populace sensing "no future."

The envoy's own presence in Bujumbura reflects the diplomatic attention that has been given to the region in the last year, including visits from U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake.

But the diplomats have failed to raise the penalty for political and ethnic violence. A U.N. war-crimes prosecution and tribunal process has been slow in getting under way in Rwanda, and nothing comparable has even begun in Burundi.

"Our governments are prepared to respond to humanitarian crises," says Ms. DesForges, "but there's no similar rapid response to the need for judicial action."

The U.N. Security Council is weighing proposals to freeze overseas assets of identified Hutu and Tutsi extremists in Burundi, but some Western diplomats doubt these measures would have much impact.

And should the violence again spin out of control, the world's major powers are unlikely to do much more to stop it than they did in Rwanda.

Proposals floated by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a multinational quick-reaction force to prevent a new explosion have drawn little enthusiasm in the Security Council.

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