From ............. THE NEW YORKER

FEBRUARY 19,1996

pages 7-8

NOT long ago, President Clinton greeted French President Jacques Chirac on the South Lawn of the White House with a speech celebrating a French and American partnership in world affairs "from the Persian Gulf to Haiti, from Burundi to Bosnia, France and America, side by side, standing for democracy, for progress, and for peace." The inclusion of Burundi in Clinton's list of foreign-policy hot spots was a welcome novelty.

There is hardly a disaster more worthy of urgent attention. Years of fighting between an Army controlled by the Tutsi minority and rebels from the Hutu majority have turned that Central African country into one of the world's nastiest ethnic slaughterhouses.

When Madeleine Albright, America's no-nonsense Ambassador to the United Nations, visited Burundi last month, she found it to be "on the verge of committing national suicide." That diagnosis may be too generous, conjuring up the possibility that the country could still be coaxed back from the ledge. Burundi, however, is already in free fall, and, even if it were to achieve an instantaneous, and enduring, return to the rule of law, its wounds would take generations to heal.

What does America propose to do about it? The hope, as Ambassador Albright told Burundi's leaders, is that Burundi can be prevented from becoming another Rwanda. "That's our basic policy," one United States diplomat explained. 'We're shining the spotlight on the place. We didn't do that in Rwanda. When Rwanda blew, nobody was paying attention, and it's dear it took too long to react. This time, we're going to pay attention. The alarm bells are ringing. We're going to remind everybody there all the time, 'You could be the next Rwanda.' And we're saying, 'Don't be.' We're telling them, 'We'll help, we're into it, but you have to be the people that make history.' "

Unfortunately, Burundi has already made a great deal of history. As happened with its northern neighbor, Rwanda, the intricate traditional relationship between the Tutsi ruling classes [roughly fifteen per cent] and the predominantly peasant Hutus [eighty-five per cent] was reconfigured under Belgian colonial rule into an artificial and polarizing scheme of "ethnic" classification.

In Rwanda, Hutus seized power at independence, and held on to it until the genocide of 1994, when at least eight hundred thousand Tutsis were slaughtered in a hundred days. But in Burundi, the Tutsis, despite their numerical inferiority, retained control of the Army, and used it to keep the Hutus down, killing hundreds of thousands in periodic extermination campaigns during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Hutus also killed thousands of Tutsis before political reforms in the early nineties brought a degree of calm. In the summer of 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, won Burundi's first multiparty Presidential election. That October, Ndadaye's assassination by Tutsi military men triggered a massive Hutu uprising and a civil war, which, to date, has left at least a hundred thousand Burundians dead and nearly half a million displaced or forced into exile.

After something of a hiatus in 1994, the past year has brought a steady intensification of fighting, and the lines of battle have become more sharply drawn. Bujumbura, the capital, is now virtually an "ethnically cleansed" Tutsi enclave. Many of its surviving Hutus have fled into the surrounding hills and reinforced by guerrillas from the Burundian and Rwandan Hutu refugee populations in Zaire have laid siege to the city, which is hemmed in on the west by Lake Tanganyika. Traffic in and out of the city has been brought to a near-standstill. Electricity, which drives the water supply, has been sabotaged for weeks at a time. Hate-radio broadcasts from a Hutu stronghold in Zaire inflame the militias, while the state-owned Radio Burundi offers a slightly more nuanced party line to Tutsis.

Beyond the city, the countryside is controlled by whoever has the upper hand Army battalions and Tutsi youth gangs, or the more numerous but less well-armed Hutu forces. International aid workers estimate that at least a hundred Burundians are killed each week. And the aid workers themselves have been repeatedly attacked; ten foreigners and dozens of local staffers were murdered last year, and many aid operations have been cut back or withdrawn completely.

Diplomats and journalists who compare Burundi with Rwanda often speak of imminent genocide in Burundi. What they can't say is who is going to commit genocide against whom. For the fact is that Burundi is simply Burundi a nation where extremism unleashes mass death, and mass death unleashes extremism.

For some time now, there have been vague rumblings in the U.N. and in the Clinton Administration about readying an international force for deployment in case Burundi blows up. Considering how blown up the place already is, it's hard to imagine what kind of explosion that would be. In any event, no such force exists. Last month, the Security Council, after considering some "contingency plans" and batting around the idea of imposing an arms embargo and other, mostly symbolic sanctions on the belligerents, contented itself with issuing a call for Burundi's killers to stop killing.

The Security Council is scheduled to address the matter again on February 20th. At that time, Administration officials say, real action may be taken. Washington has let it be known that it will not send troops but, if anyone else wants to, the United States will provide "airlift and logistical support" as well as money; an all-African force is a favored idea. But no mission has been defined, no entry or exit strategies exist. There is no plan to deal with the fact that Burundi is what strategists call a "non-permissive environment," which means that both the government and the militias have said no foreign troops would be welcome.

"We had interventions in Liberia, Rwanda.... Were their problems solved?" Burundi's President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a Hutu figurehead, whose primary political task is avoiding ouster or assassination, recently said to Reuters. In Burundi, "there is a tendency to eliminate other people," he went on. "So I do not see military intervention as any sort of solution." Antoine Nduwayo, the Prime Minister, a Tutsi, put things more bluntly in a New Year's address to the nation. Noting the spreading "ideology of exclusion and genocide," he warned of "an extremely difficult year" ahead, saying, "The war will be intensified. There will be a lot of suffering." He urged a mass mobilization for "a decisive offensive."

Yet there was President Clinton "at the dawn," he said, "of a bright new century" standing shoulder to shoulder with Chirac for peace, progress, and democracy in Burundi. The irony on the South Lawn that day was that France, which was the great friend and supporter of the genocidal Hutu forces in Rwanda, is one of the chief opponents of international intervention in Burundi. "Preventing the resurgence of centuries - old tribal conflicts is not in our power," a senior French official explained in the Washington Post. "We cannot support the burden of all that goes wrong in the world." That's blunt and uncharitable, yes and disingenuous. But then so is America's cheery preparation for a future crisis that has already arrived. Think of Eliot's lines "Between the emotion/And the response/Falls the Shadow." The spotlight of American diplomatic concern is trained on that shadow. Behind it, Burundi is dying.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH

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