WORLD

Burundi on the brink

Ethnic fighting sparks alarm over a new genocide

NOMI MORRIS February 12 1996
WORLD

Burundi on the brink

Ethnic fighting sparks alarm over a new genocide

NOMI MORRIS February 12 1996

Burundi on the brink

Ethnic fighting sparks alarm over a new genocide

AFRICA

In the wake of Nazi genocide in the Second World War, most of the world vowed, “never again.” But that pledge is sounding distinctly hollow in a decade

that has seen Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” and the massacre of more than 800,000 civilians in Rwanda. Now, as the last 100 Canadian peacekeepers leave Rwanda, a rising chorus of aid workers and international leaders is warning that similar genocide has already begun in the neighboring Central African nation of Burundi. Rwandan-style ethnic tension between the 85-per-cent Hutu majority in Burundi and the Tutsi minority—which runs the army—escalated two years ago to a civil war that has so far killed nearly 100,000 and displaced 300,000. The vicious cycle of massacres and reprisals has forced entire villages to flee in fear. Rice fields and coffee plantations lie abandoned. Thousands of wounded huddle in relief camps near the capital, Bujumbura, and around the country.

Yet last week, the UN Security Council rejected Secretary General Boutros BoutrosGhali’s call to station an emergency reaction force in Zaire or Tanzania to protect civilians, choosing instead more diplomacy, delay, and—according to many critics—fatal dithering. “This situation is well known by all major political powers in the world—there’s no excuse this time,” says Dave Toycen, executive director of World Vision Canada, which

has 29 relief workers in Burundi. “How many children are going to have to die?”

The United States has responded with diplomacy and a proposal for outside military intervention. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright returned from a recent visit to Burundi saying the country is “on the verge of national suicide.” But choosing its lessons more from the failed action in Somalia than the failure to take action in Rwanda, Washington has made it clear it will not send troops to the area, offering mere logistical help to other countries. A frustrated former president Jimmy Carter has accused the West of racism, pointing to the 20,000 Americans currently policing the peace accord in Bosnia. France, unwilling to repeat its go-italone decision during the Rwandan crisis, has led the European reluctance to enter an apparent quagmire, where the combatants have shown no inclination to sit down and talk. And Canada, sympathetic to calls for a UN standby force, is waiting for the world body to file a new report on the crisis later this month. Said Foreign Affairs spokesman Rodney Moore in Ottawa: ‘We support the United Nations, but our paramount objective is political dialogue to prevent another bloodbath. We have made it clear to Hutus and Tutsis they should be looking at ways of power sharing.”

Until that unlikely reconciliation occurs, innocents are caught in a war driven by small

numbers of militant extremists on both sides. While tribal hatred has simmered for decades in the region, ethnic clashes intensified in October, 1993, when Tutsi soldiers murdered Burundi’s first freely elected president, Melchior Ndadaye—a Hutu. In the wave of violence that followed, 13-year-old Tutsi Fides Niyizigama witnessed her own parents bound and butchered, then dumped in a public latrine. Hutu rebels also killed one of her younger brothers, while another survived by hiding in a pile of rotting corpses. Margante Nishimirimana, a 13-year-old Hutu, saw her parents shot, then fled to her uncle’s house just in time to observe his killing before she found refuge at a displaced persons camp. The two girls are among 900 at a shelter in Kibimba, 40 km east of Bujumbura.

Such relief efforts are threatened now that aid workers have become the latest target of the warring parties, who evidently feel inhibited by foreign witnesses. At least 115 aid workers among the 40 groups operating in Burundi have died since 1992. The International Red Cross was forced out of certain areas after it became a key focus of militants, who killed one IRC volunteer in November. Workers from CARE Canada, as well as World Vision, have vowed to stay for the long haul despite thefts and other harassment. World Vision’s Betty de Jong, 44, of Hamilton escaped unharmed in November when three armed men grabbed her Landcruiser. “So far, no Canadian has been hurt during a robbery and no shots have been fired,” De Jong said of her frightening experience. “They’re just after trucks and goods. But as we become more cautious, they will obviously become bolder.”

With international action on hold and aid groups running scared, many analysts believe the stage is set for a catastrophe in Burundi that rivals the 1994 Rwandan horror, which is still unresolved. Nearly 250,000 Burundians have joined the nearly two million Rwandans afraid to return home from their places of refuge in Tanzania and Zaïre—although a 2,000-strong UN presence in Rwanda was designed to restore their confidence. Canadian troops are now withdrawing three months early from the Rwandan mission, a protest against the United Nations’ acquiescence to Kigali’s demand that it reduce the international force. “It is a sign of our concern that the Security Council has not yet fully absorbed the lessons learned from the recent past,” said Ottawa’s UN envoy, Robert Fowler. An attempt to learn from history has moved aid workers to sound the alarm bells in the wake of last month’s rush of 20,000 Rwandan refugees in Burundi to Tanzania. “No responsible figure will be able to feign surprise if genocide erupts in Burundi,” says Andrew Natsios, a leading African aid worker. For Natsios and other concerned onlookers, “never again” means right now.

NOMI MORRIS

LUKE FISHER

ROB ANDRUS