International Support Could Fan an Ember of Hope in Burundi

Originally published
Paris, Thursday, March 16, 2000
By Steve Smith, International Herald Tribune

BUJUMBURA, Burundi - There is renewed hope that Burundi may yet avoid a descent into the genocidal nightmare from which the Great Lake's region of central Africa seems unable to awaken. As with its northern neighbor Rwanda, Burundi's woes are the result of Hutu and Tutsi ethnic divisions and raw political ambition exploding into violence in the post-Cold War world. But despite harrowing risks, the people of Burundi are demonstrating that they want a sustainable peace - not just an end to war, but reintegration of their society with tolerance and justice for all.

For the last two years, Burundians from every walk of life have been involved in an internal ''peace dialogue.'' This process was intended to complement the long-stalled official talks in Arusha, Tanzania, mediated by the late Julius Nyerere. With the naming of Nelson Mandela as the new facilitator and his broad acceptance by both Hutu and Tutsi factions, timely support for the internal dialogue may present Burundi with the best hope for peace in a generation.

Women are the heroines of this quiet effort. When Hutu attacks and Tutsi reprisals come, women from both sides come together to offer condolences and assistance to their friends and neighbors. They are fighting a desperate battle to maintain the bonds between communities, which extremists on both sides are attempting to shatter. Because of their courage, the center is holding - for now.

But ''peace comes dropping slow'' in this benighted land. On Oct. 12, two UN humanitarian workers were murdered, resulting in a significant withdrawal of international staff. They join a long list of expatriates who have died, along with an estimated 300,000 Burundians, since the country's first freely elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated in 1993. Attacks on relief workers have continued. On Jan. 20, staff traveling in a Catholic Relief Service vehicle escaped a hail of bullets.

The UN workers were ambushed and executed while en route to evaluate needs in one of the many squalid ''protection sites'' which many Burundians call home. In a classic counter-insurgency tactic, the government of Burundi has forced more than 800,000 (mostly Hutu) of its 6 million citizens into congested camps so its soldiers can root out a determined Hutu rebellion. The government believes the minority Tutsi population it represents would be at risk of genocide should the rebels prevail. But the internment policy ignores a simple fact - a very small minority cannot control the majority forever. One day there will be hell to pay.

Fortunately, the people of Burundi are accomplishing what the diplomats have not. They are building the center and giving the international community time to act. Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based nonprofit group that has played a significant role in conflict resolution worldwide, has been an advisor in the internal dialogue. The courage of the women is remarkable, but the continued violence is making the middle ground the most dangerous ground of all. As an observer said, ''The vast majority of people in Burundi are in the middle and only want peace, but the idea that if you are not with us, you are against us, is gaining strength.''

There is still time for peace in Burundi. A peaceful resolution there would have a critical stabilizing effect in a region mired in conflict. The loss in human life in Central Africa has already been enormous. The continuing cost in humanitarian assistance diverts critically short resources from productive development efforts.

We must use all diplomatic means to support Mr. Mandela in his efforts to achieve a peace accord. We should insist that all sides declare a cease-fire and come to the bargaining table. A peace dividend that includes military demobilization and a resumption of development aid is essential for a sustainable peace. Continued arms shipments to a region drowning in weaponry are obscene. The United States and other powers, particularly France, should help halt this traffic in death.

We rightly want African solutions for African problems. However, the problems confronting Africans are not only of their making. It takes more than two to keep the fires of conflict burning, and profit is a strong incentive. The people of Burundi understand what is at stake and have stood up for peace. The least we can do is to stand behind them.

The writer, senior advocate for Refugees International, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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