Burundi Genocide Ignored

News and Press Release
Originally published
WASHINGTON (AP) -- When Secretary of State Warren Christopher testified on a range of issues before two congressional committees recently, the world's most compelling humanitarian crisis barely got a mention.

Lawmakers probed Christopher for four hours about the Middle East, Bosnia, Mexico, weapons proliferation, terrorism and other issues. But Burundi, the Central African country where an estimated 150,000 have died in tribal warfare since 1993, was on no one's agenda. Christopher himself omitted the subject in the lengthy statements he prepared for the two days of testimony.

The relative inattention to Burundi's plight has given rise to suggestions that humanitarian crises in Africa have become a low priority item for the United States and other advanced countries. It wasn't too long ago that the spectre of starving Africans touched off massive aid programs as well as music videos and benefit concerts.

In Burundi, the problem is not starvation but savagery involving the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi tribes. No one is quite sure how to pacify tribes seemingly bent on killing each other. Talks have been going on for months at the United Nations about forming an international force for Burundi. But few countries seem interested in volunteering troops and there are unresolved questions about what just a force would do once it arrived there.

Burundi might be even less of an international priority were it not for the genocide perpetrated by Hutus against Tutsis in 1994 in neighboring Rwanda. More than 500,000 lives were lost in six weeks. Although the Burundi bloodletting has not reached Rwanda-like proportions, a repeat of that tragedy has not been ruled out and, among some, there is a strong sense that it must be avoided at all costs. ''History will judge us rather severely for Rwanda, and I don't think we can repeat that experience in Burundi,'' says Kofi Annan, the Ghanian who heads U.N. peacekeeping.

Earlier this summer, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck warned that Burundi is ''on the brink of genocide'' and may fall victim to ''national suicide.''

Inside Burundi, the Rwanda genocide has had a traumatic effect on both sides. Tutsis worry that the slaughter of their kin in Rwanda could be a preview of what could happen to them in Burundi. The Hutus worry their rivals may be trying to avenge the slaughter of their brethren in Rwanda.

The Committee of Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has called for ''assertive action'' by the international community to prevent ''further genocide'' in Burundi. Amnesty International reported that since the Tutsi-dominated military seized power in a coup in July, the daily death toll has been about 200.

In response to the atrocities, the Clinton administration has limited itself to dispatching diplomatic missions to Burundi and neighboring countries in search of ways to start a national dialogue. It decided long ago that the African countries themselves should play the lead role in attempts to pacify the country. The centerpiece of the African effort is an economic boycott of Burundi aimed at inducing the military government to open negotiations with Hutu rebels.

The administration has offered transport and other forms of assistance to an international force but has ruled out American troops, partly because Burundi doesn't qualify as an area of vital national interest. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns says that after the U.S.-led interventions in Haiti and Bosnia, the burden for easing Burundi's plight should be left to other countries.

Given the generations of tribal hatred in Burundi, some officials wonder whether there is any constructive role for outsiders. ''If extremism is allowed to succeed, there is little or nothing the international community can do,'' National Security Adviser Anthony Lake says. ''Only Burundians can solve the problems in Burundi.''

The administration's caution also is the result of bitter memories of the U.S.-led intervention in Somalia, where 18 American soldiers died in 1993. Electoral considerations also are widely believed to influence the debate in the administration. ''I know how difficult it is to get something done during an election campaign,'' says Morton Abramowitz, a former ambassador who heads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Beyond that, there is little grass roots demand for a substantial U.S. commitment. The mood might be different if Burundi were part of the nightly television fare. Absent are poignant stories of youngsters orphaned by the strife -- the kind of tales that can have an impact on public opinion.

When Tutsi forces executed thousands of unarmed Hutu civilians over a two-week period recently, as reported by Amnesty International, there were no cameras to record the event. At best, that tragedy was relegated to the back pages of newspapers.

Among many Africa watchers, there is strong sense that the United States and other influential countries have not grappled the Burundi situation with sufficient energy and creativity. ''You almost have to have genocidal activity before someone will say you've got to do something,'' says Chester Crocker, the top Africa hand of the Reagan administration.

Says Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica, a local advocacy group, ''We need a United Nations peacekeeping force to avert what will certainly be an enormous disaster. It's not apparent to me that the State Department is moving with the speed that this developing crisis warrants.''

Andrew Natsios, who once headed the State Department's foreign disaster assistance office, agrees with Robinson. ''Without strong American leadership, things are not going to happen and we will witness another great tragedy,'' he says.

The leaders of 14 charitable organizations and voluntary aid groups said in recent letter to President Clinton that the violence in Burundi could reach ''catastrophic levels without any further advance warning.

''We call on you, as president of the world's most power and influential nations, to take the steps necessary to forestall repetition of the tragedy which shamed the international community two years ago in Rwanda,'' the letter says.

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press