Is Burundi's Slow-Motion Genocide Finally Over?

Burundian women victimized by rape as a weapon of war.
This Burundian woman, photographed at her home on Dec. 11, 2003, was raped by Hutu rebels. Human-rights groups noted an increase in reported rape cases over 2003 and found that the crime, whether perpetrated by rebels or government soldiers, had become an entrenched feature of the crisis (Photo: Gianluigi Guerica/AFP-Getty Images).

Burundi’s ethnic civil war is nearing a conclusion, according to the country’s president, Domitien Ndayizeye. Now entering its 11th year, the conflict has killed at least 300,000 people and forced more than 1 million to flee their homes.

Speaking to journalists in Paris on Jan. 16, Ndayizeye said his country has reached “the point of no return on the road to peace and security.” He heads a transitional, power-sharing government that comprises both the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi people.

The first stop on Ndayizeye’s European tour was a donors’ conference in Brussels. The European Union, the United States, and multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund pledged a total of 810 million euro (US$1.03 billion) to fund the reconstruction of Burundi over three years.

Ndayizeye said his priorities are, above all, “peace and security.” The first step, already underway, is the demobilization and integration of rebel forces into the national army; the second step, also underway, is the revitalization of the economy to “cement the peace;” the third step will be “free, transparent, and democratic” elections.

While in Paris, Ndayizeye was received by French President Jacques Chirac. He then traveled to Amsterdam for meetings with representatives of the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), the only armed rebel group that has yet to join the transitional government.

He claimed to have proof that the FNL was responsible for the Dec. 29, 2003, assassination of the apostolic nuncio to Burundi, Michael Courtney. Describing it as an “act of desperation,” he said the best way to honor his memory would be “to obtain peace.”

“The elections will take place no matter what,” he said. “If the FNL is willing to join the peace process, then nothing stands in the way of their benefiting from the same things as everyone else.”

Sharing Power

Located at the headwaters of the Nile, Burundi is smaller than the state of Maryland. It has roughly the same ethnic mix (85 percent Hutu, 14 percent Tutsi) as its better-known neighbor, Rwanda. But in Burundi the Tutsi minority still rules the country, having controlled the police and armed forces since it won independence from Belgium in 1962.

The most recent cycle of killing began June 1993 with the election of Melchior Ndayaye—the first Hutu to become president of Burundi. He was assassinated after four months in office by a group of Tutsi officers. Extremist Hutus killed thousands of Tutsis in revenge. The Tutsi army then swept through the countryside, using their weapons on Hutus.

The peace process, set in motion at the Tanzanian town of Arusha in August 2000 and mediated by former South African President Nelson Mandela, calls for the division of government between Hutus and Tutsis. The transition began in November 2001 when Tutsi Pierre Buyoya ceded the presidency to Ndayizeye, a Hutu secretary-general of the main opposition pro-Hutu party Le Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU).

It did not spark a coup, as many feared, on the part of the Tutsi-dominated armed forces. The principal Hutu rebel force, the Forces de Défense de la Démocratie (FDD) signed the agreement last November.

A complex power-sharing formula based on ethnicity is meant to institutionalize respect for the rights of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority. “The institutions established by the Arusha agreement call for minimum and maximum quotas,” Ndayizeye explained. “Thus, Arusha will not allow more than 67 percent of a district’s communal administrators to be from the same ethnic group. One person in three on a ballot will belong to a different ethnic group. This is the spirit that will prevail in future elections.”

Land Time Bomb

Although hopes for an end to the fighting are high, the humanitarian situation is no less alarming than before. Roughly 1 million uprooted Burundians are waiting to go home to land that has, for the most part, been expropriated. An emergency team from the U.N. refugee agency left Geneva in mid-January for Burundi to take steps toward re-establishing field offices in key provinces for their possible return.

But the transitional government and international community are still not doing nearly enough to “defuse” the “land time bomb,” according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. That Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in the world makes the question of resolving the land dispute even thornier.

If preparations are not made quickly, the report warns, the peace process could end in slaughter rather than reconciliation. When 50,000 Hutu refugees returned to Burundi spontaneously in 1993 and recovered land taken by Tutsi families, it helped to set in motion the assassination of President Ndadaye and a decade of ethnic strife.

“Provisional” Immunity for War Crimes

An additional protocol to the Arusha accords, signed on Nov. 2, 2003, grants “provisional” immunity to its signatories from prosecution for war crimes. Rights groups say rebels and government troops alike are guilty of the rape and massacre of civilians. Presumably, the same form of immunity will be extended to the FNL if it joins the peace process.

In its December 2003 report on Burundi, “War Crimes May Go Unpunished,” the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch warned that “peace agreements ignoring past atrocities rarely succeed,” a pointed reference to the immunity provisions. Human Rights Watch noted that neither the rebels nor the government forces “will have to fear punishment for crimes committed except in the distant future—and probably not even then.”

Amnesty International published two reports in December timed to anticipate the Burundi donors’ conference. In a press release, the human-rights organization stated that “despite positive political changes, many Burundians…remain trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence, human-rights abuses, poverty, and humiliation.” For a political settlement in Burundi to succeed, Amnesty International argued, human-rights issues must be “centrally addressed in every stage in the process.”

Thérence Sinunguruza, Burundi’s minister of foreign affairs and former minister of justice, told World Press Review that the government favors the creation of an international commission of inquiry into human-rights violations, “to ascertain exactly what has happened in Burundi since our independence. If crimes of genocide have been committed, we will ask for the involvement of the International Criminal Court.”

Asked if Burundi was “consecrating impunity” with the immunity protocol, President Ndayizeye—a former political prisoner—exclaimed “No!” three times. He repeated that there are plans for both an international commission and a national commission of truth and reconciliation on the South African model to “study the reality of what has gone on in Burundi and allow its institutions to make a decision...Why should that stop us from getting on with our lives now?”