World puts spotlight on tribal atrocities

MASSACRES IN BURUNDI: a year after genocide in Rwanda, `Independent' writers ask if its neighbour can avoid the same fate
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International efforts are under way to bring Burundi's neighbours together to form a regional security organisation to deal with growing ethnic tension. Such a meeting would also be concerned with refugees and providing a peace-keeping force to protect vulnerable groups, according to a source involved in setting up the meeting.

Despite the catastrophe of Rwanda a year ago and the continuing ethnic tension in Burundi, the heads of government in neighbouring countries have never met as a group. There is also deep suspicion among them. Issues such as refugees, illicit arms and preparation for the results of civil war in Burundi have neither been discussed nor planned for. Nor has there been a concerted effort to put pressure on Burundi's politicians to stick together.

Attempts such as these by outsiders to bring all parties together mark the difference between Burundi today and Rwanda last April. In the lead- up to the genocidal murders, Rwanda was not on the agenda. Western diplomats and the UN envoy did not take warnings of planned massacres seriously.

Burundi is at least on the agenda, but predictions of imminent catastrophe may be premature. "Things are normal" said Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, the UN Special Representative in Burundi. "There is a president, prime minister, parliament and functioning army. The only thing that is abnormal is that there are 70 journalists here."

Normality is a relative term in Burundi. Ethnic killings have been reported weekly since October 1993, when the country's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was murdered by Tutsi extremists. But Mr Abdallah stresses that what happened in Rwanda is not happening yet in its twin neighbour, Burundi.

Despite rising tension and the reports of killings in the past few days he told the Independent in a telephone interview from Bujumbura: "I am quite optimistic but I'm also a realist and I have learnt not to panic ... everyone seems to expect an implosion, but now is not the time.''

Some analysts fear that the Burundi government is being made irrelevant and that the agenda is being set by extremist militias, either from the Tutsi community, trying to hold on to the power they have held for centuries, or Hutus, determined that the minority Tutsi must be wiped out once and for all if the majority community is to have real power. The army is almost exclusively Tutsi, and few doubt that soldiers have carried out the recent killings of Hutus in Bujumbura. In rural areas, isolated Tutsis have been attacked by Hutu gangs.

But the incidents do not add up to a mechanism of genocide. In Rwanda the victims of genocide last year were defenceless Tutsis in Hutu areas. In Burundi the Tutsis are far from defenceless, and they have the army to defend them. The Hutu extremists may try to imitate their cousins in Rwanda, but they do not have the weapons to take on the army.

On their side, not even the most fanatical racists among the Tutsis believe they could wipe out all five million Hutus, though they may try to drive them from certain areas, keep them cowed or seek revenge on vulnerable Hutus. Even if the rest of the population gets caught up in the violence, at present carried out by gangs of young men, it will take them a long time to turn their country into another Rwanda.

After the killings of October 1993 the two communities are physically separated. In Rwanda they lived on the same hills and in the same villages. In Burundi, the hills are now either Hutu or Tutsi. Gangs may raid other hills, but genocide would mean a steep walk. Besides, the relationship between Hutu and Tutsi in the ancient Urundi kingdom was less confrontational than in Rwanda; in the past year they have had time to contemplate a prospect of hell.

Burundi has the same ethnic mix as Rwanda and a similar history, but Mr Abdallah is determined that it should not have a similar destiny. He is pressing President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya and other Hutu leaders of the Frodebu party to disown the Hutu extremist militias and denounce them.