Burundi tunes in to message of peace

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They call it Radio Umwizero which, in Kirundi, the language of Burundi, means Radio Hope. For tonight, the station has recorded a special programme on Burundi's cultural identity.

"We never give air time to people who are going to spout politics," explains Hubert Vieille, the French station head. "We want to broadcast a message of peace and reconciliation, particularly to the young people".

Radio Umwizero, officially launched last weekend, aims to provide a beacon of hope in this deeply divided country, where extremists are all too ready to preach words of hatred and ethnic division. Half a dozen propaganda sheets - both Hutu and Tutsi - have been banned by the government in recent weeks. But Radio Democracy, the ironically named Hutu "Hate Station", is still beaming its supremacist contagion into Burundi from across the border in Zaire.

In this mountainous country of isolated rural communities with 80 per cent illiteracy, radio is a potent force for bringing people together - or for driving them still further apart. Those who broadcast for the common good are painfully mindful of the lethal potential of their medium.

The 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda was largely fuelled by the invective poured forth by the extremist Hutu station, Radio Milles Collines.

A Franco-Burundian partnership, Radio Omwizero is funded by money from the European Union. At the moment it can only broadcast for four hours a day but, as the expertise of its small team develops, it is hoped to extend the air time to eight hours a day.

Such new ventures are few and far between in Burundi these days. The economy is in freefall and the government has only seven months of fiscal reserves left for the payment of the military and civil service.

The confirmation this week by Burundi's two largest foreign donors, the US and the EU, that they had suspended all economic development aid to the country has come as a blow to an administration already in extremis. Until recently, aid from the international community accounted for nearly a quarter of Burundi's Growth Domestic Product.

USAID, the American Overseas Development Agency, is withholding $21.5m of development aid. For its part, the EU is suspending $6m of health aid and $8m of budget support. A further $70m of EU aid for new projects is not being disbursed because of the climate of violence that persists.

EU Commissioner Emma Bonino, who visited Burundi this week, said: "It's impossible for the international community to finance development programmes as long as there exists insecurity in this country. It's up to the authorities here to create the conditions for peace."

Despite a programme of "pacification" spearheaded by the Hutu president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, and the Tutsi prime minister, Antoine Nduwayo, Burundi continues to slide ever deeper into chaos and civil war.

The violence has reached new levels of ferocity in recent weeks as attacks by Hutu rebels have broken out in the previously calm southern half of the country. The Tutsi-dominated army has been waging a campaign of often brutal suppression against Hutus in an effort to quell the insurgency.

Fighting between Hutus and minority Tutsis began after the assassination in 1993 of Burundi's first elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. Since then, the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Many fear Burundi could fall victim to the same ethnic cataclysm which engulfed Rwanda two years ago this weekend.