Extremists silence the moderate politicians

No arrests have followed the killings, writes David Orr in Bujumbura
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The Independent Online
In the hospital of an obscure little town in a isolated part of remotest central Africa lie the survivors of a massacre which took place last week. Among them are a one-year old girl, bayoneted in her genitals so she would never be able to bear children; an 11-year old boy shot in the face; and a teenager whose head was bashed with a club or rock until part of his brain protruded through the skull.

They are the victims, says a diplomatic source who visited the hospital, of an attack by members of Burundi's Tutsi minority on a community drawn from the Hutu majority. Estimates indicate that as many as 400 people may have been killed when men alleged to belong to the Tutsi-dominated army entered the township of Gasorwe in the north-east of the country.

Westerners who have come to view the Hutu ethnic group as the only perpetrators capable of such infamy after last year's genocide in Rwanda are having to refashion their understanding. Following the killings in Rwanda, which has the same ethnic make-up as Burundi, the Tutsi minority emerged as the largely innocent victims of atrocities carried out by the army of the former Hutu-dominated regime and extremist Hutu militias known as interahamwe (those who attack together). The Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels who relaunched their war this time last year did so not just to overthrow the Rwandan government, but to end the genocide for which it held Hutu radical politicians responsible. After their victory last summer, soldiers of the RPF were hailed as saviours by Rwandans and Westerners alike.

But in Burundi it is now clear that neither ethnic group is blameless and that Tutsi soldiers and militiamen are killing with the same ferocity as their Hutu counterparts in Rwanda. In addition to the Gasorwe attack, reports have emerged of two other villages, Gitaranywa and Tula, being deserted by their terrified Hutu inhabitants.

Towards the end of last month, two ethnically-mixed slum districts of the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, were attacked by Tutsi military and militias. In well-organised operations which bore all the hallmarks of Bosnian-style ethnic cleansing, shots rang out and dozens of houses in the teeming neighbourhood of Bwiza were burned, their Hutu inhabitants driven out. In nearby Buyenzi, as many as 200 Hutus were killed by bullets and grenades.

The attacks took place within walking distance of the two hotels where journalists and international aid workers were staying. Ascertaining the exact numbers of casualties was difficult, if not impossible, because the bodies were "cleaned up" by the municipal authorities the next day.

Calls to Radio Burundi, which is mainly staffed by Tutsis, elicited the information that only three people had been killed in Buyenzi. It quickly emerged, that the figure was in the hundreds. The official government figure was given as 152 dead in Buyenzi, and eight dead and 52 houses burned in Bwiza, though Hutu ministers in the coalition government, in which both Hutu and Tutsi parties are represented, said it was probably higher.

It is not that the authorities do not have the resources to hunt down the guilty. The day after the bodies were removed from the muddy streets, one foreign photographer was arrested four times.

Bujumbura, with the exception of a couple of districts, is now a Tutsi town. It is quiet at the moment, but in the countryside there is turmoil. Last week, tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutus, who poured into northern Burundi last July, fled from their refugee camps following an attack on one settlement by alleged Burundi military. Though their attempted exodus to Tanzania has now been halted, aid officials and diplomats say the problem has at best been postponed.

Burundi has never recovered from the death of the first popularly elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, murdered with other leading Hutu officials in a failed coup by Tutsi soldiers in October 1993. The subsequent inter- ethnic slaughter of more than 50,000 people left a bitter enmity between Hutus and Tutsis and a power vacuum in the ranks of the Hutu lite.

The rise of the Hutu militias (intagoheka - those who never sleep) is seen as a result of frustration among Hutu extremists, who include some leading radical politicians in or close to the majority Frodebu party. For their part, the Tutsi militias - Sans dfaites (Without defeat) and Sans checs (Without failure) - are supported by equally shadowy, hardline figures in Tutsi parties such as Uprona, which is in government, and Parena, which by choice remains on the political outside.

Both the Hutu president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, and two former (Tutsi) presidents, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, and his successor, Pierre Buyoya, have talked recently of impending or actual civil war in their country. So alarmed has Mr Ntibantunganya become that last month he called for international intervention to stop what he warned could be the beginnings of genocide in Burundi.

The Tutsi Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, has talked him down and the two have since issued a declaration of co-operation. But the feeling among many Burundians and nearly all remaining expatriates in the capital is that the president and prime minister have been sidelined by the increasing vociferousness of extremists from both ethnic groups. The failure of moderates to condemn the hardliners and the unwillingness of the authorities to disarm the militias has exacerbated problems. Events are in danger of spinning out of control.

The great fear is that the centre can no longer hold and that anarchy will be loosed on this lush and mountainous land.