A glimmer of hope flickers in the wake of carnage: One-fifth of Burundi's people perished in civil war, but Richard Dowden in Bujumbura met a man who practises reconciliation

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN you think there is no hope in Africa, it throws up something or someone who seems to redeem it. Such a person is Jean Baptiste Nteturuye, an old man who lives on a hill called Musenyi in the Songa district of Burundi.

Mr Nteturuye has 38 people living in his house. That in itself is not strange in these troubled times. In the Songa area alone, 24 people were killed and 150 houses burnt down last week. The homeless crowd into the houses of their relatives until they feel safe enough to go back. What is strange is that all the guests in Mr Nteturuye's house are Hutu people but Mr Nteturuye is a Tutsi.

But first some figures. In the last week of October between 100,000 and 200,000 people were butchered here. There are 5.7 million Burundians, one-tenth of Britain's population. Accepting the lower estimate of 100,000 dead, the equivalent for Britain would be a million people. In Burundi they died in a week. Nearly 1 million people, one-fifth of the population, lost their homes and are dependent on food aid. On figures, the enormity of warfare in Burundi overshadows Bosnia, Angola and Somalia.

Mr Nteturuye is proud and angry, every inch an aristocrat. He used to be a sub-chief in colonial times. He wears an old, faded white jacket, immaculately cared for, a French beret, and gleaming black shoes which have been stitched and restitched. He shows me a list of his guests and their children in copperplate handwriting. His perfectly kept cement-faced house is near the top of the lush hill which plunges 3,000 feet into the valley. Every inch seems cultivated or planted with trees and it is dotted with mud dwellings, many of them now roofless and blackened with fire.

His guests are a ragged band of women and children in filthy clothes and no shoes. One of the women says they were attacked by a group of Tutsis from the next hill. They killed four people in her family and burnt their house. She and the children fled into the forest and hid until Mr Nteturuye gave them shelter. Why did he take in all these people? 'Because they are my friends' he said. Isn't it dangerous? 'Yes, I am afraid. I have been sent a letter threatening me because I am protecting them.'

They are stereotypical in every way. Mr Nteturuye is tall, straight, long faced and fine featured, a typical Tutsi. His house, its corrugated tin roof and neat lawn, proclaim his hard work. His guests are small, huddled people, typical Hutu, and their homes are - or were - small mud and thatch dwellings. The only extraordinary thing is that they are sharing his home.

It is not easy to understand the relationship between the two peoples. It is unique. The history is that the Hutu farmers tilled these huge steep hills first, but some 400 years ago they were taken over by the Tutsis, tall pastoralists who came from the north and reduced them to a sort of feudal subservience. Both groups were ruled by a king drawn from a royal caste, the Ganwa, who still maintain their separateness. The Belgian colonists changed nothing and at independence handed the country back to the kings.

The king was overthrown in a coup in 1967 - but the Tutsi-controlled one-party state which replaced it simply froze the hierarchy. Even though less than 15 per cent of the population is Tutsi, they are the best educated, hold all the best jobs and provide the army. Burundi was an 'ethnocracy' in which the Hutus remained peasant farmers.

It is not like apartheid, nor is it tribal. The two groups speak the same language and have the same culture. They live on the same hills. they share the same names and inter-marriage has become commonplace. The stereotypes have broken down but there is still hatred. Last October's was not the first outbreak of genocide. There were massacres in 1965, 1969, 1972, 1988, 1991 and 1993. This one was triggered by the election of the first ever Hutu president last year. Melchior Ndadaye moved quickly to replace the Tutsi dominance at all levels of government, restore land taken from Hutus, bring back Hutu exiles and, most dangerous of all, establish ethnic balance in the army.

That was too much for a group of Tutsi officers and they overthrew the government, killing the president and other Hutu leaders. But the spell was broken. The Hutus rose and started killing Tutsis and the Tutsis, backed by the army in many cases, responded in kind. For a week, neighbour turned on neighbour and gangs armed with machetes and spears or sharpened bamboo stabbed and hacked and slashed. Women and children, even babies, were not spared.

The people do not like to talk about it. They shy away from the subject or speak fearfully as if trying to avoid the emotions it evokes. On one hill in the north of the country, I spoke to both sides. A Hutu nurse who had just returned from exile said she blamed the politicians, so did the Tutsi-displaced family living in the school. A truculent soldier guarding his fellow Tutsis giggled when I asked why it had happened and asked why I wanted to know. An Italian missionary raged against the army and said that until the soldiers were disarmed there would be no peace.

Neither the victims, nor the soldier nor the priest could explain the scale of the killing or how the two groups managed to live so close for so long with so much hatred under the surface. And they seemed to accept the inevitability of it and the probability that Hutu and Tutsi could not live together again for a long time. Against that dark inevitability, Mr Nteturuye seems like a tiny but brilliant glimmer of hope.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments