by Austin Bay
November 4, 2003
The offensive began in early July. Fifty thousand people immediately fled their homes, most of them seeking shelter in the jungle, a wretched place, but one preferable to the suburban slums.
The guerrillas sabotaged a dam producing a third of the country's electricity, knocking out power in the nation's capital. The national army, a ragtag bunch of tribal thugs whose basic job is to keep civilians kowtowed, launched a series of counterattacks. In one suspicious instance, the army plastered a neighborhood with rocket artillery. Rocket artillery, an "area weapon," is notoriously inaccurate. The army's attitude: If the "area" didn't have guerrillas, it housed their sympathizers. C'est la guerre.
Or c'est la guerre in Burundi. As usual, few outside Africa noticed. Burundi bleeds, then bleeds some more.
In central Africa, however, they notice the bloodshed, since the fighting and fighters spill across hazy borders. Refugees also spill, and with refugees come the costs of food and shelter.
That's one reason a new peace offensive, backed by South Africa, got serious in August, and negotiators last week finally brought the largest guerrilla group into a new "powersharing" Burundian government. The deal is, however, extremely fragile. The day after the new agreement was inked, three government soldiers and three rebels died in a firefight outside the capital, Bujumbura.
That biggest rebel group is the Forces for Defense of Democracy (FDD), a Hutu organization. The FDD launched the July offensive. Burundi, like neighboring Rwanda, is split between a weak Hutu-majority and a strong Tutsi-minority. The Tutsis still control the army (the one manned by Tutsi-led thugs).
Former U.S. Ambassador to Burundi and former U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger told me, based on his firsthand experience, the "Burundian Army primarily kills women and children. They seldom encounter any armed opposition. The Burundian Army finds defenseless (Hutu) women and children, whom they chase after and shoot when the people flee." Krueger said the successful FDD action in July is a bit surprising, since the armed Hutu opposition has not been too effective.
Krueger, like other informed observers, pegs the Burundi Army as the chief obstacle to peace. "They need to abolish the Burundi Army," he said. "... it is used as a force for ethnic domination."
The army also gives weapons to Tutsi youth gangs, particularly the "Sans Defaite" (Without Defeat) youth group. "These groups are like Hitler's brownshirts," Krueger said. Many of the youth group leaders are related to army officers. The youth groups attack Hutus.
The fighting in Burundi has been more or less continual since 1965, when the Burundian Army brutally repressed a Hutu uprising.
The last three decades' death toll is appalling. Hutu activists claim that in 1972 Burundi's ruling Tutsi elite killed over 200,000 Hutus, yet the strife scarcely cracked a headline in the West. In 1988, an estimated 33,000 Tutsis and Hutus died in another outbreak of savagery. Were the slaughters ignored because of inherent Western racism or because no political constituency in the West benefited from trumpeting the violence?
As Burundi bleeds, where are the usual Western critics of violence and repression in Africa? Apparently, the politically correct could safely take to task the state slavery of white-controlled apartheid in South Africa, but one must zip the lip in the presence of what is viewed (inaccurately) as black-on-black repression. Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe appears to get the same pass.
Dominating tribalism, the source of these conflicts, is neither a topic easily addressed nor is it resolved with U.N. bromides. In a global community knit by instantaneous communications and integrated economies, we cannot ignore the complex human fact of tribal warfare. We saw a shade of it in Bosnia. Rwanda in 1994 produced a genocide. The tribal dimension to troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq should not be underestimated.
Several African countries, including South Africa and Uganda, plan a summit to endorse the latest Burundi peace deal. That demonstrates an increasing sub-Saharan capability to help police regional problems.
But there's a lesson for the wealthy "First World," as well: Attention must be paid to the intricate and lethal histories that produce these bloody crises that test our compassion, twist our notions of justice and demonstrate the fragility of human order.