For the workers carved up with machetes last week, genocide happens just once. Chris McGreal reports from Bujumbura
There is a difference of opinion in Burundi about the cement factory manager w ho burnt 22 of his workers to death, and sold tickets to their fellow employee s to watch. The manager is a Tutsi, his victims were Hutus. Today there are ma ny in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, who refuse to condemn him. Some even argue that the killings were a blow against genocide.
On a typical day, 100 people are killed in Burundi. In the three years since i t began, the death toll has risen to over 100 000. Most are not killed in conv entional combat. The Hutu rebels and Tutsi army, backed by their militias in t he cities, rarely confront one another. Mostly they attack those unable to res ist. Each side accuses the other of genocide. Each has a point.
Genocide haunts the nations dotted around Lake Tanganyika. Rwanda witnessed th e swiftest and most comprehensive mass murder of modern times. Survivors and w itnesses are still being killed to prevent them telling what they know. In the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania — where the West feeds and protects th
e killers — the genocide hangs over the guilty and innocent alike, imbuing a fear of retribution that keeps two million people from going home.
But today the fear of genocide lives most openly in Burundi where it is used t o justify mass murder, and where it threatens to kindle a larger war that coul d engulf the whole region.
Two weeks ago, faced with an escalating death toll, a war it cannot win and an economy close to collapse, Burundi’s government bowed to pressure from its ne
ighbours to accept foreign troops on its soil in an effort to quell the killin g. The shape and mandate of the intervention force is to be decided by regiona l leaders who believe more than Burundi’s future is at stake. If the nation de scends int o full-scale civil war, it is likely to drag Rwanda into the fray, plunge east ern Zaire into conflict and possibly embroil Uganda and Tanzania.
The dawn chorus in Bujumbura is provided by the young Tutsis singing as they j og through the capital. Gripping sticks and Kalashnikovs, they are members of the “civil defence units” formed over the past few weeks at the Tutsi prime mi nister’s behest after Hutu rebel attacks on the electricity supply shattered t he illusion of security created by ethnic cleansing. They are reminiscent of t he youths who pounded Rwanda’s streets before the killing.
The dilapidated heart of Bujumbura bustles for a few hours a day with citizens in a hurried search for necessities.
Some fear to walk the streets, especially close to the market, a target for ra ndom grenade attacks. The 9pm curfew killed Bujumbura’s nightlife. Power cuts occur daily.
Most people prefer to get home by dusk and huddle in homes tucked into the hil lsides sloping down to the edge of Lake Tanganyika. Even there, the war encroa ches. Fishing boats are no longer permitted to scour the lake — an attempt to prevent weapons being shipped across the water.
When the government first tried to enforce the curfew, the joke was that it ap plied to Hutus and foreigners. But that could not allay the growing sense of f ear among Tutsis. So the army decided the Hutus had to go all together. Kameng e, a large township in the capital, was the first to be cleared with the enthu siastic assistance of the Tutsi militias. Its houses were wrecked in the army raids and its people massacred.
Certainly there was some support for the rebel cause. The Kamenge malcontents were run by a young man known as “Savimbi” who was as much into organised crim e as liberation. But when it came to driving township residents out, the army did not discriminate between guilty and innocent, men and women, young and old . They left behind hundreds of dead.
Most of the Hutus forced out tramped into the nearby hills. Some still venture into the city in the mornings to sell food. Bujumbura needs the supplies, so
they are tolerated.
But it is outside the capital where the real terror lies, and where the scale of murder is overshadowed only by its routine brutality.
Typical of the military’s contribution to the murderous cycle was the massacre of at least 70 Hutu civilians in hills around Gitega a fortnight ago. Witness
es said six truckloads of soldiers armed with guns and bayonets drew up. Over five hours they hunted down their victims across four hills. A survivor descri bed seeing men, women and children shot or bayonetted and their bodies tossed in a river
The Hutu rebels respond in kind. Last week, they murdered as many as 100 peopl e at Burundi’s largest tea plantation, about 50km from the capital. They claim ed that the only victims were soldiers. But of the 22 bodies I saw outside the factory, 16 were women and children. Some were babies, their skulls crushed e
ven as they clutched their mothers.
“If there is no intervention by the international community — very tough an d very rapid intervention — the conflict is going to get worse and it will not only affect Burundi. It will have a direct impact on Rwanda, Zaire, Uganda and even Tanzania. The whole Great Lakes subregion will burn.”
This prediction was made by Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, Burundi’s former foreign mi nister, who fled to South Africa. The warnings have sounded ever since Rwanda erupted in 1994.
African elder statesman Julius Nyerere, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-G hali, Jimmy Carter, senior American officials and Tanzania’s President Benjami n Mkapa have all warned that Burundi is perilously close to the edge. “There i s an almost frantic amassing of weapons of all kinds by each group. We must no t let a replay of the 1994 Rwanda tragedy take place,” Mkapa said at the regio nal summit two weeks ago.
The former American ambassador to Burundi, Robert Krueger, fired a parting sho t in an official cable before his reappointment to Botswana, probably for bein g too outspoken in his demands for Western action.
He drew a comparison with the Oklahoma bombing. In proportion to its size, Bur undi is suffering a death toll equivalent to that at Oklahoma each day, but fe w take notice.
‘This cable is a reminder that in an obscure country in the heart of Africa, t he killing is proportionately vastly heavier than what the cameras are coverin g; or, indeed, than in almost any place else in the world,” he wrote.
Boutros-Ghali’s appeals to the UN Security Council for an international force for Burundi have fallen on deaf ears. The memories are fresh of the US’s debc le in Somalia under UN auspices.
Rwanda provided an unmitigated UN failure which counted among its victims the deaths of Belgian peacekeepers beside the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. So far as the UN is concerned, Africa will have to look after itself.