Burundi hovers on the edge of Armageddon: Robert Block believes that after a week of mounting violence, Rwanda's neighbour looks likely to become the next theatre of carnage in the region

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The Independent Online
THE TYPE of national identity card used by Rwandan extremist militias to distinguish Tutsis from Hutus does not exist in Burundi. But the absence of ethnic ID cards does not mean much. Ethnic identity is so deeply entrenched among the people of Burundi that there is no need for bits of paper to know who is Tutsi and who is Hutu.

Soldiers and police are almost always Tutsi. Peasants who make up the majority of the country are mostly Hutu. In urban areas where such distinctions were more difficult to make, a quiet campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' has made things easier. Neighbourhoods where both groups once coexisted have been segregated into pure- Hutu and pure-Tutsi areas.

Each group watches the other with hate and fear and people are very afraid. After the horrors of Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi are more frightened of each other than ever.

A willingness among Hutus to take on Tutsis was visible last week on the faces of a group of young Hutus, sitting on the roadside on the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura. Whenever a military or police car approached, the youths would jump to their feet with their fists in the air, screaming anti-Tutsi insults.

Less than a week later, another group of youths, this time Tutsi university students, angry at the arrest of a leading Tutsi politician, were also shouting at the army. Theirs was not a shout of defiance but a call to action. Over barricades of burning tyres, the students screamed, 'iboro', a slang term meaning 'kill the Hutus'.

Burundian troops sealed off the university yesterday to quell five days of bloody, ethnic unrest. The day previously a grenade had been thrown into a covered market, killing several people. Fifteen people had already died in clashes after the arrest of Mathias Hitimana, an opposition Tutsi politician accused of inciting violence. The simmering unrest has led the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to consider sending a mission to try to head off a bloodbath.

Ethnic violence, often incited by the country's main political parties, has caused an estimated 2,000 deaths this year. Most of the violence has taken place, until now, in remote rural districts.

Half-hearted moves towards reconciliation by the political parties have not stabilised the situation. Increasingly frequent acts of barbarity have sent shockwaves through the country, and now the international community, still traumatised by its failure to stop the orgy of killing in Rwanda.

Burundi has already experienced an outbreak of genocidal violence, after the first democratically elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, was murdered by renegade Tutsi soldiers last October. Unlike in Rwanda, where a Hutu rebellion toppled the Tutsis in the early Sixties, the Tutsis in Burundi have maintained their grip on power through their domination of the army.

Ndadaye's Hutu succesor, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was killed on 6 April in the suspicious plane crash that claimed the life of Rwanda's then president, Juvenal Habyarimana and unleashed the horror in Rwanda. Since that event the world has expected Burundi to explode. But so far the country has refused to follow its neighbour. Instead it has smouldered and teetered on the edge of disaster without going over it. Most officials agree that it may now only be a matter of time before Burundi becomes central Africa's next killing ground.

'The country is in an undeclared state of civil war. There is confrontation, and violence can erupt over land, over a goat or over politics. It doesn't take much now to get people excited. People are very sensitive and they are quick to move in a violent way. A small incident is capable of igniting the whole country,' a senior UN official in Burundi said.

The International Red Cross has been so concerned about the volatility of the situation that last month it organised seminars on 'norms of minimum humanitarian behaviour' for the army and political parties. 'It was a bit like teaching manners to children,' an organiser said. Although well attended, the seminar's main theme - that violence and intolerance are unacceptable - appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

(Photograph and map omitted)