Burundi on brink of an orgy of killing

A year after Rwanda's tragedy, Hutus and Tutsis are at war in a city racked by fear, writes David Orr
Amid fears that Burundi might soon slide into an orgy of ethnic killing, soldiers were last night patrolling the streets as sporadic gunfire continued to sound in the capital, Bujumbura.

The main source of unrest during the past few days has been the working- class district of Bwiza: nine people have been killed and 17 injured, four of them seriously.

The attacks are understood to have been carried out by extremists from the Hutu majority. Bwiza is one of the last ethnically mixed neighbourhoods in a city that has a larger proportion of Tutsis than in the countryside as a whole.

"It's extremely tense here at the moment", said Marjolaine Martin, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "For the past two nights there's been of a lot of automatic gunfire and grenade explosions in Bwiza".

With tension running high throughout the city, the university and some secondary schools were shut yesterday after lecturers and teachers failed to turn up. The market has been closing early for the past week.

"The situation has deteriorated," the United Nations' special envoy, Ahmedour Ould Abdallah, said. "It is now extremely fragile. People have been predicting that Burundi will collapse for a year or longer. There is no doubt this is a serious crisis. But I hope that with our support the government will be able to handle the matter."

Burundi has been prey to a vicious cycle of revenge killings and reprisals for the past year.

The weekend before last, the Hutu Minister for Mines and Energy, Ernest Kabushemeye, was assassinated in Bujumbura. Last Friday, Tutsi youths attacked Hutus in the city centre after police found the mutilated and crucified body of a government adviser; Lucien Sakub, a former mayor of Bujumbura, had been kidnapped by suspected Hutu militants earlier in the week.

Three Belgians, including a woman and child, were killed, along with two Tutsi soldiers, on Sunday evening in an ambush on a convoy of cars just outside the capital. Three other Belgians were wounded in the attack.

"This incident has made foreigners very afraid," said Cecilia Ljungman of the UN World Food Programme. "Now we realise that as expatriates we can just as easily become victims as anyone else." The Belgian government is asking for an investigation into the incident. It is not thought that the attackers were targeting foreigners. None the less, Belgians, as former colonists of Burundi, are unpopular among extremist Hutus.

The recent violence has been condemned in a radio broadcast by the Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, a Tutsi appointed last month after the Tutsi- dominated opposition forced his predecessor to resign. He has urged foreigners living in the country not to give in to "pressure and provocation from criminal groups using violence to attain some political end".

President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a Hutu, appears to be less optimistic. He has warned that Burundi is "sliding into hell".

Burundi, which like Rwanda has a large Hutu majority, has so far avoided the plight of her neighbour. At least half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by extremist Hutu militias in Rwanda last year.

Burundi has been in turmoil since October 1993 when renegade Tutsi soldiers murdered Melchior Ndadaye, the first, freely elected Hutu president: the inter-ethnic fighting that followed led to some 50,000 deaths.

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