What, Burundi Again?

April 21, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- It is always difficult to arrive in the middle of an argument. This is as true among nations as within a family. What should one say and to whom? It's probably better just to cross the road, find a bar and order a stiff drink. Perhaps we would lose this temptation if our media did a better job of reporting our world.

Our ignorance of Burundi can be said to begin in 1965 when the first serious intercommunal violence erupted in that newly rTC independent central African country. Thousands of Hutus, including virtually every significant Hutu leader, were executed.

The press paid little attention. The world was preoccupied with Vietnam, the Cold War and the arms race, the threat of war between India and Pakistan and, for those inclined toward the idealistic, with the civil-rights movement in America and apartheid in South Africa.

In 1972, the situation worsened dramatically. The Tutsi army slaughtered a quarter of a million Hutus and drove 150,000 out of the country. The only newspapers that gave it any space were the right-wing ones, which wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of the liberal mood that thought that the only important thing in Africa was the oppression of black by white in South Africa.

Another massacre of Hutus in 1988 left 20,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless, driven into neighboring Rwanda.

On this occasion, we saw rather more activity on the international scene. Perhaps it was the loosening of the Cold War straitjacket to permit a little space in international relations for a non-ideological reflex. The world's chancelleries started to show concern. The Burundi government even felt moved to respond with a new, less Tutsi-dominated, constitution.

The press, however, had its own agenda; not much appeared in our newspapers, or on our television screens. The violence rolled on, rarely reported. Three more coups. Then, in 1993, there were elections and the unbelievable happened -- a Hutu president took power. Again outside diplomatic influence had played a useful role. Again the media were uniformly inattentive.

Four months later another Tutsi coup led to a frenzy of intercommunal violence. Two hundred thousand dead, 1.5 million driven from their homes. The U.S. and the European Union cut off aid.

All this had already happened in Burundi before the mother of all pogroms began last year in neighboring Rwanda. Like the American chiefs of staff who plan to fight just two and a half wars at a time, the media, focused on Yugoslavia and Somalia, can report only two.

In February, 1994, largely through United Nations mediation, a new Hutu president was installed in Burundi. Then a plane carrying him and his Rwandan counterpart crashed on the way home from a regional summit in Tanzania.

The murder and mayhem that ensued in Rwanda finally captured the front page. But inevitably, the media tired on the job and interest flickered again. Now Burundi seems likely to erupt again, and this corner of the planet is starting to receive renewed attention.

So it goes. The Cold War's demise should have freed us to pursue other urgent but not all-consuming concerns. But we wait in vain for a similarly significant change of purpose by our media. We take what they choose to feed us, and thus cannot sustain the commitment and attention necessary for the successful amelioration of complicated and long-running problems. Should Burundi explode in the next month or two as some predict, some of us will duck across the street for the proverbial drink. Others will decide that duty calls. The press can provide us the information and rationale to respond constructively. But there is not much reason for optimism that it will.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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