Life of terror for Hutus in 'dead city'

Burundi crisis: Government dithers as ethnic killings multiply and country slides into chaos
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The Independent Online


A Bible by his side, Daniel Nahimana lies on a bed in a makeshift health centre on the outskirts of Burundi's capital. A bandage on his right leg marks the bullet wound he received when soldiers moved into the nearby hillside settlement where he was staying. He ran into a banana grove when the shooting started but was hit as bullets sprayed his hiding place.

"There are no Hutu guerrillas in this area," says Mr Nahimana, who once lived in the predominantly Hutu suburb of Kamenge, which was "cleansed" of its residents by the army last June.

"The soldiers are attacking ordinary civilians. My house in Kamenge was destroyed, so I had to stay with relatives. Now it's no longer safe in the hills. My wife and children have gone to live with other family members. We have nothing left."

Mr Nahimana, a builder, used to work alongside Tutsis, but after the escalation of ethnic conflict last year he no longer felt it safe to move around Bujumbura.

Across from him lies a Hutu woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the smiling face of the Pope. Odette Nyabenda was shot in the neck when she recently returned to visit her house in Kamenge. Her voice a feeble croak, she says she did not even see the people who shot her.

There are other wounded in the bare-walled room, among them a little girl who was shot through both legs. Outside are clustered some women, preparing beans and maize delivered once a week by the United Nations World Food Programme. They are among 4,000 former Kamenge residents now living at the Centre Johnson, a Plymouth Brethren mission station at the foot of the hills overlooking Bujumbura. The sick are tended by nurses from the aid agency Medecins sans Frontieres. The mission's single-storey school buildings now serve as living quarters for the destitute families.

Elsewhere around the mission station are dotted hundreds of box-like corrugated iron shelters covered with tarpaulins, the muddy paths between them cluttered with ragged children and women bent over cooking pots.

Occasionally gunfire can be heard in the hills. The Hutu families who continue to seek refuge at the Centre Johnson say it is the sound of the Burundian army attacking innocent Hutu civilians. For its part, the military claims the operations are designed to weed out the bandes armees, or Hutu guerrillas.

The Centre Johnson is one of the last Hutu enclaves on the edge of an almost exclusively Tutsi town. No taxi driver wants to go there. You might as well ask a Northern Ireland loyalist to walk up the Falls Road singing "God Save the Queen".

On quiet days Hutu traders still venture into the marketplace to sell their produce, but to do so they must run the gauntlet of the Tutsi youth gangs who patrol the streets.

These thugs, known variously as the Sans Echecs (Without Failure) and the Sans Defaite (Without Defeat), have been implicated in the massacres of Hutus which have been taking place with increasing frequency throughout Burundi during the past year.

The presence of heavily armed soldiers from the largely Tutsi army does little to allay the fears of the few remaining Hutus coming into the capital.

For the past week, Bujumbura has been subjected to a ville morte, or dead city, action by Tutsi extremists of the Society of Youth for Democracy (Sojedem).

This misleadingly named militant grouping, whose avowed aim is the ousting of the democratically elected Hutu president, Sylvestre Ntiban- tunganya, has succeeded in paralysing much of the town.

Civil servants, bank officials and other workers have been intimidated into staying at home, and there has been little traffic in the streets. By the time of the evening curfew, Bujumbura has become a ghost town.

The increase in military "actions" in the countryside by the army and by Tutsi militias has seen a corresponding rise in the incidents of sabotage by Hutu extremist groups such as Intagoheka -"Those who never sleep".

In recent weeks, Hutu guerrilla attacks against electricity and other installations have plunged Bujumbura into darkness and cut the water supply.

"The Hutu guerrilla war is probably only starting," said one aid worker. "What we've seen is nothing compared with what they might soon be doing: firing rockets on the town from the hills, blowing up bridges and laying mines."

The government, an increasingly ineffectual coalition of Hutu and Tutsi parties, seems incapable of acting to prevent the country's slide into chaos, which began two and a half years ago with the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi's first Hutu president.

Despite pleas for calm from President Ntibantunganya and his Tutsi Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, attacks continue to mount and killers act with impunity.

The government has launched a half-hearted programme of sensibilisation, preaching the virtues of reconciliation to the populace. But with the leadership so obviously unsure what course to steer, the venture has, not surprisingly, generated little enthusiasm. The other day Mr Nduwayo invited a gathering of government ministers and top civil servants to present their proposals for a return to peace: a single raised hand, a few rambling speeches and prolonged periods of silence were the muted response.