Magazine article The World and I

Burundi Inching Closer to Ending Long Civil War

Magazine article The World and I

Burundi Inching Closer to Ending Long Civil War

Article excerpt

Carter Dougherty is a writer with The Washington Times.

Tiny Burundi has seen more than a decade of war, but events in the past few months suggest that it is closer than ever to wrapping up one of Africa's most persistent civil conflicts. Since the country's largest rebel group signed a cease-fire with the government of President Domitien Ndayizeye, hostilities wound down rapidly in most of Burundi, a hilly, densely populated nation. Only in a few suburbs of the capital, Bujumbura, which sits astride the beautiful Lake Tanganyika, is a last, tiny rebel group still carrying on the fight.

"We have seen brisk change in the entire country," said Adrien Ndayisaba, executive director of the Burundian human rights group Iteka. "People can travel without fear of ambushes all along the roads."

But recently, Burundi's problems have overlapped viciously with those of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, demonstrating how closely the destinies of Burundi, Congo, and nearby Rwanda are linked.

In September, an unholy alliance of Burundian rebels and Rwandan guerrillas from Congo massacred more than 160 civilians who had fled Congo's war earlier this year for a refugee camp just inside Burundi. "We will collaborate with the Congo government and make all efforts to ensure that such crimes never happen again," Ndayizeye said during a visit to the camp.

Burundi's civil war, which began in 1993, stems from a combination of ethnic conflicts and naked power struggles, both of which have proved stubbornly difficult to put to rest. The former Belgian colony has roughly the same ethnic makeup as northern neighbor Rwanda, with about 14 percent from the Tutsi tribe and 85 percent from the Hutu group. Though the conflict never exploded into outright genocide as it did in Rwanda in 1994, Burundi has been racked by tension since independence in 1962, when Tutsis assumed a firm hold on the country's key institutions of power, especially the army, which periodically massacred Hutus.

Under heavy international pressure, President Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, stepped down in 1993 when a Hutu was elected president, but renegade Tutsi army officers killed the new chief executive a few months later. Hutu leaders streamed into the hills and began a 10-year insurgency that the army sought to suppress mercilessly. Up to 300,000 people have died since then.

Efforts at finding a political solution came to naught until former South African President Nelson Mandela took charge of mediation efforts in the late 1990s. The result was a peace accord signed in Arusha, Tanzania, in August 2000 by the key Hutu and Tutsi political parties, but not by rebels. It foresaw a turnover of the presidency from Buyoya, who had retaken power in a coup, to Ndayizeye, a Hutu, and cease-fires with the various rebel groups. The country also is supposed to hold elections by October 31, 2004, when the transition period mandated by the accord officially ends. The first goal was reached last year, when Ndayizeye assumed the presidency, and the second is nearing fruition. The third is proving the toughest task.

In the neighborhood of Kamenge, in Bujumbura, residents have enjoyed relative calm for nearly 10 months. The area used to be a favorite hiding place of rebels from the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), the main Hutu rebel group, which signed a cease-fire with the government in December. Previously, the Burundian army often would retaliate massively against the neighborhood, raining explosives and heavy machine-gun fire on rebels and civilians alike. "There was no trust between the people and the government," said Claude Massop, a 32- year-old man who has lived in Kamenge for most of his life.

But now that the cease-fire has held, alongside the destroyed mud-brick houses and burned-out shells of other buildings, residents have left pile after pile of new construction materials. Already, numerous new edifices have sprung up, and inhabitants are able to move about freely. …

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