Fears lead to the abyss Each side in Burundi dreads the other, as civil war grows near

July 28, 1996|By Scott Straus

BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- Despite the international efforts to cool down the crisis raging in Burundi, the core conflict in this Central African nation is a deep, seemingly immutable fear between the majority Hutu community and the minority Tutsi community.

Take two educated Burundians recently interviewed here in the capital. Both men speak four languages. Both men consider themselves to be objective. Both men have a dream of living a full, intellectual life in their country. But their vision of what is happening in their country is vastly different.

Jean Habonimana's gentle manner belies the history of his life. Habonimana, who nearly earned a university degree, has witnessed so many murders in his 29 years that he cannot imagine a future for his country.

Mr. Habonimana, who claps his hands softly to make a point, was 5 years old when soldiers shot his father. He had nearly finished the university last year when colleagues began slitting the throats of his friends. In June, his younger brother was killed. In each case, the victims were Hutu, the attackers Tutsi.

"The Hutu have been oppressed for a very long time," Mr. Habonimana said and clapped his hands. "Our generation has been sacrificed. For us, even if peace comes we will not profit. It is too late."

Outside Mr. Habonimana's home here in the capital, Tutsi his age and much younger ran through the streets, wielding sticks and singing about their readiness for battle. At night they would be organized into "self-defense" gangs. On Sunday mornings, they would train together with new army recruits.

Ask any of their leaders about the need for militarism and their reason is clear: The Hutu, who make up 85 percent of Burundi's population, have a plan to wipe out the Tutsi, who are 14 percent of the population.

"There is a culture of genocide and there's no way to stop it," said one Tutsi professional who has three children. His position is typical among Tutsi in Bujumbura. "When the Hutu say democracy, they mean extermination of the Tutsi. Most people are resigned to the situation. Either you fight it out or you are eliminated."

These are the resentments and fears that are ripping apart Burundi, and leading this nation of 6.2 million closer and closer to an all-out civil war every day.

The political crisis deepened last week when the Tutsi-dominated army announced a coup and reinstated the former strongman, Maj. Pierre Buyoya. The Hutu president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy here.

The president fled to the embassy for safety after the Tutsi prime minister's political party, which was the president's partner in Burundi's weak coalition government, said that it no longer recognized Burundi's national government.

The collapse of the coalition government likely will widen the differences between Hutu and Tutsi.

Already for the last three years -- ever since Burundi's first Hutu president was assassinated by soldiers in the Tutsi-dominated army -- this nation has been whirling in a vicious cycle of violence that has left 150,000 people dead.

Similar fighting erupted in neighboring Rwanda two years ago when Hutu extremists launched a genocidal campaign against the Tutsi and those Hutu who did not support the extermination bid.

Rwanda shares an ethnic mix with Burundi -- both countries are )) 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi. But they have one crucial difference: In Rwanda, before the 1994 slaughter, the Hutu controlled the government and the military.

In Burundi the opposite is true: The Tutsi control the military, the civil service, the professions and the economy.

In contrast to Rwanda, the violence in Burundi has been held in check by the "balance of terror: " Hutu rebels attack a Tutsi enclave or military position. Soldiers respond by devastating mainly Hutu villages, ostensibly searching for rebels. The Hutu have numbers on their side; the military has machinery. Neither side wins.

But Burundi's killers also have been the neighbor next door. Hutu peasants have rounded up Tutsi students and burned them alive. Tutsi youths have hunted down Hutu government officials and businessmen during the night.

Indeed, for the last three years, murderous revenge and fear have dominated Burundi. Many Burundians, especially in the Tutsi minority, feel that they are fighting a war of survival: Kill or be killed often is the message hard-line Tutsi leaders send. These are the sentiments that have triumphed over efforts toward reconciliation.

But in late June, Burundi's Hutu president and Tutsi prime minister signed an accord that some hoped might end the crisis.

Under the direction of former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who was acting as mediator, Prime Minister Antoine Nduwayo and President Ntibantunganya agreed to ask for "military assistance" from other countries in the region. The details would be worked out later.

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