Burundi, the Great Lakes region's other "Red Zone"

Burundi is a country mired in eternal war, with no obvious way out. Everything in Burundi is dictated by the rebels --- people cannot work the fields because of the rebel threat, they cannot fish because of the rebel threat, they cannot live in their homes in the Bujumbura area because of the rebel threat, they cannot get out of the regroupment camps because of the rebel threat, and many cannot even live in refugee camps on the other side of the border because of the rebel threat there. The rebel threat controls everything in Burundi. Nelson Mandela will give peace a try, but no one is holding his breath waiting for a breakthrough. Presidents Clinton and Chirac promised to help, but they will only participate by video link instead of making the trek to Arusha to stand by Mandela's side and impress the combatants this incessant killing must stop.
February 14, 2000

With warfare in Angola, the DR Congo, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa, it is easy to forget the calamitous warfare that has been in train in Burundi for these many years, since at least 1993. There is no end in sight. Rebels are fighting the government, rebels are fighting against each other, the government has forced its citizens to leave the Bujumbura area to live in regroupment camps reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge's evacuation of Phnom Penh, one of the world's most beloved senior statesmen, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, is trying to organize and lead a meaningful and productive peace negotiation at Arusha, but there are those in Burundi who see these peace talks as not useful. In the mean time, virtually the entire country remains subsumed by killing, people dying from bullets, machetes, disease and starvation, a red zone, a hot zone for death, despair, and destruction.

When one thinks about Burundi, one thinks about warfare, one thinks about civilians being hacked to death and butchered like pigs from the sty, so many innocent people with no one standing by their side to protect them. More than 200,000 people have been killed in Burundi since 1993.

Todd Pitman reported for Reuters on February 12 that the killing fields remain active, with at least 19 people killed, but this time, as the result of fighting among Burundian and Rwandan rebels west of the capital, Bujumbura. Pitman reported eyewitnesses saying that corpses, some tied-up, others decapitated, were floating down the Rusizi river, which empties into Lake Tanganyika about 10 km west of Bujumbura. Army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Minani told Reuters all the dead were Rwandan rebels who had been executed by Burundian rebel fighters from Palipehutu. Pitman quoted Minani saying, "These people were killed in the Rukoko forest, north of Bujumbura, and thrown into the Rusizi." A Reuters correspondent counted three corpses on February 12, one with a bullet hole in the back of its head, floating in reeds on the delta. Local fishermen said they had spotted at least 15 corpses on the delta. Minani commented, "More than 200 people have already been killed in the mountains. We're mobilizing the population to bury the bodies to avoid the spread of disease." Burundian rebel sources have confirmed the fighting between the Rwandan and Burundian groups.

Pitman reported earlier, on February 9, that four people were killed on that date when Burundian rebels attacked the outskirts of Bujumbura. One attack on Kibenga, a neighborhood on the southern end of Bujumbura, killed two civilians and injured one. These attacks were marked by gunfire and grenade explosions. State radio said two other people were killed as the attackers fled toward Kanyosha, a neighborhood southeast of the capital.

From a regional perspective, Burundian forces have been for some time located on the west side of Lake Tanganyika, in the DR Congo, trying to secure their border against rebel attack from there. For some period of time, however, Burundi has been complaining about the rebels attacking from Tanzania, over on the eastern side. On January 24, Reuters reported that Burundi's army said it had killed 20 rebels the previous week, the rebels allegedly responsible for burning homes in the southeast of the country. State-run Burundian radio said on January 22 that dozens of civilians had been killed and 1,600 homes burned in a series of rebel attacks the previous week. Surviving rebels were said to have taken some civilians hostage as they fled. Aid workers commented that the rebels had also killed 20 civilians during their attack by guns and machetes. State-run radio said on January 22 that civilians fled the attacks into neighboring districts and into Tanzania. There are said to be more than 300,000 Burundian refugees who have already taken refuge in this area.

Todd Pitman, again reporting for Reuters, this time on January 27, said that a Burundi army officer described the border region with Tanzania, in the area of Giharo, in the eastern province of Rutana, as "a red zone, a combat zone full of rebels." Giharo is some 110 km Bujumbura, and fighting has forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes. Pitman said that Burundi has long criticized Tanzania for failing to move refugee camps farther away from the border to a distance of 150 km it says is required by international law. Burundi has charged on a number of occasions that rebels have been using the camps in Tanzania as their safe-haven supply areas and military planning headquarters. Pitman quoted Emmanuel Mbonirema, governor of Rutana province, saying, "We have always asked Tanzania to move them away, but until now that request has not been respected." The border is long, stretching several hundred kilometers, and is mostly savannah, where infiltration is easy. Burundi has lacked the resources to defend it, or even adequately monitor it.

Xinhua reported on January 28 that two senior Tanzanian military officials traveled on that date to Bujumbura to review with their counterparts the security situation in the border areas. For its part, Tanzania complains that the influx of refugees has been creating a lot of inconveniences to local residents near the refugee camps, including criminal incidents.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of all this have been the regoupment camps. The government has herded some 350,000 citizens out of the Bujumbura area to these so-called regroupment camps, and most of the people, living in squalid conditions, are afraid to go home even if the government allowed them to return. The government says its strategy is to clear the capital, in a scene reminscent of the Khmer Rouge clearing out Phnom Penh in Cambodia many years ago. The Burundi government says it has no intention of murdering the citizens in the camps as did the Khmer Rouge, but rather that the camps are an effort to isolate and defeat the rebels who had been attacking the capital. The government has called these camps "protection sites," while the outside world and the people living in the camps have called them squalid detention centers, and some have even feared the potential of a Cambodian-style genocide. The government has said it wanted to separate civilians from combatants and deny food and support to the rebels. The good news is that the attacks against the virtually empty capital have subsided, but the fighting in the hills around the capital continues and those aid workers and residents who are in the camps paint an image of them as places not fit for rats.

These regroupment camps have been the subject of heavy criticism from the international community and from Burundian lawmakers. One parliamentarian was quoted by Pitman saying, "It's catastrophic. People are dying every day. From malaria, from cholera, and sometimes by the guns of soldiers." The parliamentarian waved a list of 157 people he said have died in Muyaga and Kavumu, two camps just east of the capital, since last month alone.

Conditions are said to vary among the camps. In some, people are able to work the fields and children are able to attend school. But in most, observers agree, the conditions are worse than deplorable. People are unable to work the fields, sanitary conditions are a disaster, the people lack food, water and medicines. Famine is said to be a threat. Craig Nelson reported for AP that people have been barred from fishing in Lake Tanganyika as there are concerns Burundi rebels will use the fishermen to make the crossing from the Congo. So everything in Burundi is dictated by the rebels --- people cannot work the fields because of the rebel threat, they cannot fish because of the rebel threat, they cannot live in their homes in the Bujumbura area because of the rebel threat, they cannot get out of the regroupment camps because of the rebel threat, and many cannot even live in refugee camps on the other side of the border because of the rebel threat there.

The Government of Burundi, under intense international pressure, has said it would close the camps and return the people to their homes. It has thus far said it would close 11 of some 60 camps, but only "as the security situation allowed." This first group of camps reportedly houses some 50,000 people. Christophe Nkurunziza reported for AP that a second group of 11 camps, housing about 65,000 people, is said to be on the schedule for the next phase of closings. Some humanitarian aid people argue that famine will follow if the camps are not closed by mid-February. It is now mid-February. People in the camps are said to be dying from hunger and disease, those who are still alive are said to be angry and getting more angry, many are too weak to do anything, but others will likely never forget this ordeal and survive to see another day. These citizens will not be happy citizens, and that in turn breeds a turbulent future.

Amidst all this fighting, regroupment, disease and squalor are the Arusha peace talks, once seen as a potential bright-spot in an otherwise gloomy Great Lakes region. Under the leadership of the late former Tanzanian President Nyerere, the talks were said to be moving forward. But the underlying problem with these talks has always been that they have not yet dealt with the hard-core, gut issues, and have not included some of the more important rebel groups. Now former South African President Mandela has taken over, following Mr. Nyerere's passing. Talks under Mandela's leadership are due to resume on February 21.

Xinhua reported on February 12 that Mandela had asked French President Chirac and American President Clinton to come to Arusha and address the talks, as a means to impress those in the negotiation that they must get on with their work. Clinton and Chirac declined, and will address them by video hookup instead. There has been a report that American Secretary of State Albright might physically travel to Arusha. Other leaders invited to the talks have been South African President Mbeki, Mozambican President Chissano, Nigerian President Obasanjo and all heads of state of the Great Lakes region. UN Secretary General Annan and the Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity have also been invited. Mandela, while recently speaking to the UN Security Council about Burundi, attempted to impress on world leaders the role they have to play to bring peace to Burundi, saying, "The misery of the Burundian people affects us all and diminishes the humanity of all of us, where even one single human being, one group of people, one nation, one part of the world, labor under preventable suffering, it is the concern of all."

It is not yet sure that the armed rebel group, the Force for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), which has never taken part in the peace negotiations, will attend. Mandela is negotiating that separately. Indeed members of the group did travel to Mandela's home to meet with him. Their spokesman would only say, "We are very satisfied with Mandela. There is a new atmosphere, and it gives us the chance to be more flexible."

While talks led by a statesman like Mandela raise expectations, it must be said that some in Burundi's civil society are not so sure. PANA reported on February 8 that nine Burundian politicians and civic leaders were arrested on February 7 in Bujumbura at the start of a demonstration against what they qualified as the Arusha "false peace process." The talks have been rejected by those opposing any amnesty for those who are responsible for mass killing. These people also oppose merging the national army with the rebels. Charles Mukasi, the former chairman of the Union for the National Progress, was among those arrested. Students who came to watch the demonstration were also arrested by the police. In the previous week, seven civic leaders who applied for a permit for a rally were turned down by the mayor of Bujumbura for security reasons. Mukasi was quoted saying, "The Arusha process is a real danger for Burundi and the sub-region."

So in addition to everything the people cannot do because of the rebel threat, they also cannot oppose their government through peaceful demonstration --- the government's requirement for security is so dominant that no one can do anything in Burundi because of the rebel threat.

What this translates to is that the rebels have shut down Burundi, they have succeeded without having won any military victories, they advance their cause by killing a few here and there, and creating an image of being invincible ghosts hiding in the hills, able to strike at will, able to shut down an entire country. For its part, the government has hidden behind this security threat, has used it to cover its tracks, has inconvenienced and antagonized well over 300,000 of its citizens, and has demonstrated little capacity to deal with the problems it confronts. None of this spells a bright future for Burundi.