Burundi needs American help

March 19, 2001|By Susan F. Martin

WASHINGTON -- Chaos in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda have overshadowed the acute refugee crisis that still plagues tiny, war-torn Burundi.

Decades of conflict in this east African nation have left hundreds of thousands homeless and divided a once-peaceful population along dangerous ethnic lines. Yet Burundi's plight largely has been forgotten as international outrage focuses on the war over diamonds and oil reserves in neighboring Congo.

Burundi, which is about the size of Maryland, has been riven by inter-ethnic conflict since its independence in 1962 from a Belgian-administered U.N. trusteeship, a legacy of a colonial political strategy that polarized its two main ethnic groups. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians have died in attacks and counter-attacks in the past 20 years. Since seizing power in 1996, the mainly Tutsi government has been battling Hutu rebels for control of this lush, coffee-growing nation in Africa's Great Lakes region.

Most at risk from this ongoing violence are an estimated 500,000 people who have been displaced in Burundi by the fighting. Mostly women and children, they have been forced to live on the move, resting in displacement camps, hiding in forests or sheltering with friends or neighbors. All of them are truly homeless.

The United Nations must bear some responsibility. It significantly pulled back its presence after the killing of two U.N. officials and seven Burundians in October 1999. The shock to aid workers in Burundi is still felt. Coordination deteriorated among U.N. agencies and between the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. U.N. workers mostly stay in urban areas, restricting their movement because of continued security threats.

Burundi is one of the most difficult places in which to carry out humanitarian work. As in many war-torn countries, it is local groups that pick up the pieces when international organizations are unable to carry out their duties.

In the northern province of Bubanza, a local women's association runs a children's center to accommodate a handful of the estimated 9,000 children separated from their families or orphaned by the war. They work alone, with little support, defying Burundi's culture of conflict to reach out to the most vulnerable.

A youth soccer league in the capital of Bujumbura targets youth leaders who may influence patterns of violence in their neighborhoods. Soccer skills are unimportant; the soccer field is used as a starting point to talk about peace. The community is surprised to see young men of different ethnic backgrounds playing together on the same team.

Initiatives like these need to be nurtured and encouraged, but they alone cannot address the serious humanitarian needs of the population. The international community must provide financial support for a full range of programs -- food, shelter, sanitation, health care -- particularly reproductive health services -- education for displaced children and conflict- resolution.

Having witnessed the signing of a peace accord in August that has yet to be implemented, the United States needs to remain engaged in Burundi's search for peace and work for an end to the inter-ethnic violence which could so easily turn Burundi into the next Rwanda.

Susan F. Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, is founding member of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. She recently led a commission delegation to Burundi.

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