Disintegrating Burundi: A Rwanda in waiting? Thousands are dying in ethnic civil war between Hutus, Tutsis

January 13, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ever since Rwanda erupted in 1994, leaving more than a half-million people dead, turning churches into charnel houses and clogging waterways with corpses, Western leaders have nervously watched neighboring Burundi for signs of similar genocide.

Massacres on the horrific scale of those in Rwanda have not occurred in Burundi. But the country, with the same ethnic rivalry between Hutus and Tutsis, is destroying itself slowly.

Thousands are dying monthly in a growing civil war that pits an insurgency of the majority Hutus against the Tutsis, who control the army and allied paramilitary gangs.

Electricity and water in the capital, Bujumbura, have been disrupted. International aid organizations are cutting back or halting food deliveries and medical help for the hundreds of thousands displaced by 2 1/2 years of violence.

The economy is nearly paralyzed, and the central government is an ineffective shell.

"As one Burundian said to me, 'It's not going to be Rwanda; it's going to be Somalia,' " a senior Clinton administration official said. Violence and government collapse blocked food distribution in Somalia in 1992, causing widespread starvation that ended only with the arrival of U.S. troops.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Krueger said an "extremely conservative estimate" of Burundi's death toll is 100 a day, or more than 36,000 a year. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali fears "ethnic violence on a massive scale."

Searching for new ways to halt the slide, the Clinton administration is dispatching its ambassador to the United Nations to Burundi this month and is taking a new look at the formation of a military quick-reaction force to be sent there if violence gets much worse. However, Washington refuses to contribute troops to the effort and, so far, no other country has offered its own soldiers.

A volatile mix

Like Rwanda, Burundi is a place of spectacular scenery, lush hillsides and abundant rainfall. But it is troubled by overpopulation, rural poverty and a combustible ethnic mix: roughly 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi.

Favored by former colonial rulers, the Tutsi minority still dominates Burundi's economy and military, keeping majority Hutus from wielding effective political power.

A brief but fierce insurrection flared in October 1993 after the assassination of the nation's first popularly elected president, a Hutu. More than 50,000 people died in resulting massacres by Hutus and crackdowns by the Tutsi military.

Burundi stayed relatively calm in the spring of 1994 as Rwanda's Hutu-led government and military leaders unleashed a systematic campaign to exterminate Tutsis and Hutu moderates, killing 500,000 to 1 million people.

But the shock of the Rwandan genocide strengthened the hand of Burundi's Tutsi extremists who were opposed to sharing power with Hutus. The Tutsis became further emboldened when Rwanda's Hutu-led government and army were driven from that country by a Tutsi-led rebel force, giving Tutsis effective control of both countries.

'Last line of defense'

"The military sees itself as the last line of defense" for Burundian Tutsis, says Kathi Austin, who has studied the region's arms traffic for Human Rights Watch, an international observer group.

Since the summer of 1994, violence has escalated steadily in Burundi. Experts say that Tutsis, and particularly the military, are responsible for the most of the killings and that victims are overwhelmingly Hutu. Attacks have included the slayings of two students at the University of Burundi, shooting deaths of 15 primary school students and the killing of 42 people at a refugee camp.

From camps in Zaire, Rwanda's ousted Hutu-dominated army launches border raids into Rwanda and trains Burundi's Hutu insurgents, Ms. Austin says.

Burundi's army has responded in brutal if scattershot fashion, Western observers and officials say, in one instance killing more than 450 people in a village. Lately, according to some reports, it has acquired both Chinese weaponry and North Korean training. Ethnic cleansing by the military and Tutsi "youth gangs" has left Bujumbura an almost totally Tutsi city.

"The country is teetering on the edge of an explosion," says Lionel Rosenblatt, president of the aid group Refugees International.

Increasingly, outside organizations are being attacked and threatened, as Burundians view them as siding with one group or the other.

"It's getting harder and harder to work there," says Samantha Bolton of Doctors Without Borders, which has documented violent attacks against aid groups.

Another private group, Search for Common Ground, has tried to mobilize peace activists through radio broadcasts and a women's organization in Bujumbura. But its efforts have been overwhelmed by the increasing violence.

"We've had a kind of crocodile that has been eating up the limbs of democracy in Burundi one bite at a time," says Mr. Krueger.

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