Fears of Rwanda-style bloodletting in neighbouring Burundi

Bujumbura: A little more than a week ago, minibus driver Benny Uwamahoro went out for a beer. He met up with some friends, listened to some music and then received a mysterious call around 8.30pm asking him to go to a neighbourhood shop.

The next morning, Uwamahoro was found dead on his back on a dirt path, a bullet hole in his head, his tongue sawed out.

"Was he targeted because he joined a couple of protests?" his distraught sister asked. "Or was it because he was a Tutsi?"

In Burundi, dangerous times lie ahead if Tutsis are indeed being targeted because of their ethnicity, as many now believe. Ethnic rivalries have set off several devastating wars in this part of Africa, but none come near the deadly legacy of the Hutu-Tutsi divide, which plunged Rwanda into genocide in 1994, wiping out nearly a million lives.

Though analysts caution that Burundi and Rwanda are very different from each other, that same politically manipulated faultline killed tens of thousands of people during the civil war in Burundi as well, casting a shadow that continues to loom over the country today.


This is why Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have tried so assiduously in the past months to get out in front of Burundi's conflict and press its leaders and opposition politicians to negotiate before it is too late.

According to witnesses, human rights monitors and Western officials, government forces - mostly the police - went on a rampage in mid-December after rebels staged a simultaneous sneak attack on several military bases. Burundi's government is led by Hutus; witnesses said most of the victims in the revenge attacks were Tutsis. Fears are now growing that this conflict is becoming more ethnically driven.

"We are looking into multiple reports that those killed during retaliatory attacks, allegedly by the government, were disproportionately from one group of Burundians," said Tom Perriello, the US special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa.

"Credible allegations of extra-judicial killing by government forces warrant immediate investigations," he added, "and those responsible should be held accountable, regardless of whether an ethnic dimension is proved."

The government denies any ethnic bias, saying all those killed were "enemies". But what is undeniable is that a wave of suspicion and anxiety is moving at great speed across the sunny streets of Bujumbura, where people sold Christmas trees and shiny tinsel next to men walking around with rocket-propelled grenades. Many Tutsis are terrified.

The biggest worry now turns on what is happening inside the army. Burundi's military is commanded by Tutsi and Hutu officers who have mostly resisted getting dragged into the troubles that began this year when Burundi's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu, announced that he would run for a third term, disregarding those who said the constitution barred him from doing so.

He was re-elected in July. Since then, several hundred people have been killed in protests, assassinations and a wave of gruesome murders. All analysts interviewed said the surest recipe for all-out war was if Burundi's military split along ethnic lines, and that seems to be what is beginning to happen.

On Wednesday, a Tutsi lieutenant-colonel in the army announced that he was forming a new rebel group - the sixth. This was precisely the worry: that Tutsi military officers would begin to turn against the government if the reality, or even the perception, was that government police forces were singling out Tutsis.

Few were surprised when the colonel, Edouard Nshimirimana, claimed that his mission was to "protect the population".

According to several analysts, Mr Nkurunziza is now reshuffling the military, removing Tutsi officers he does not trust from vital positions and disarming others. One member of the security services said many Tutsi police officers were now being blocked from going on patrol and re-assigned to anodyne tasks like guarding banks.

After the rebels attacked several military bases on December 11, the most organised and lethal such action yet, government forces stormed their own military academy, killing a number of students suspected of collaborating with the rebels and arresting others. Some suspects were Hutu, two people with knowledge of the operation said; the majority were Tutsi.

The government also encountered stiff armed resistance in several predominantly Tutsi neighbourhoods in Bujumbura and then went door to door in those areas, witnesses said, pulling scores of young men out into the street and shooting them in the head.

Some opposition politicians have been quick to accuse the government of genocide, deliberately harking back to Rwanda in 1994. The two countries do share many similarities: their size, their ethnic breakdown of about 85 per cent Hutu and 15 per cent Tutsi, and their legacy of mass murder. More than 100,000 lives were lost in Burundi during its civil war in the 1990s.

But the riddle of Burundi is that it is not nearly as binary as Rwanda once was or maybe still is, despite Rwanda's rapid development in the past 10 years. In Burundi, the population - even amid its increasingly ethnic politics - has not turned on itself.

Hutus and Tutsis continue to live together, work together and intermarry. There have been few if any reports of civilians killing civilians along ethnic lines, which is what made Rwanda's genocide so terrible and which happened to some degree in Burundi in the 1990s. Many Burundians blame European colonial policies for exacerbating divisions between the two groups, who speak the same language and share a long common history.

More complicating still is that in Burundi, politics and ethnicity overlap, but not completely. More than a dozen Tutsis recently interviewed all said they opposed Mr Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term. At the same time, many of the armed rebels are Hutus, lying in wait in small houses and in the papyrus swamps on Bujumbura's outskirts, ready to strike. And it was a Hutu general who led a coup attempt in May. (It quickly fizzled.)

Still, the hottest areas of anti-government resistance have been Bujumbura's predominantly Tutsi quarters. So it is possible the police have not been singling out Tutsis but simply young men who lived in opposition strongholds and who the police believed were rebels. But some of the recent talk raises red flags.

One Bujumbura resident who hid in his bedroom during a recent police sweep, peeking out of an air vent, said he had watched officers drag one of his neighbours, a Tutsi man who was not politically involved and sold milk for a living, into the street.

"This is payback for 1972," the witness said he had heard the police officers say, a clear reference to the killings of Hutus by Tutsis in Burundi in 1972. The witness said the officers had then shot the milk vendor in the head.

Another witness said police officers had told a Tutsi man they detained, "Call your friend Paul Kagame to save you," referring to Rwanda's president, a Tutsi, just before killing him in broad daylight.

New York Times