Cutting Ears: They Don't Listen Any More

Rebels cut off ears in Burundi war
01:20 p.m Apr 16, 1998 Eastern

By Todd Pitman

ISALE, Burundi, April 16 (Reuters) - On a rainy day in central Burundi, blood trickled from under a white gauze bandage wrapped around the right side of Pascal Baruhurike's face.

The bandage covered the stump of what was Baruhurike's right ear, until it was severed two weeks ago by Hutu guerrillas in a new tactic in the country's vicious conflict.

Hutu rebels have cut a single ear from 20 people in the verdant hills a few kilometres (miles) east of Bujumbura, capital of the tiny central African state.

Provincial governor Stanislas Ntahobari told Reuters trouble in Isale began last month following a ``massive infiltration'' of up to 2,000 Hutu guerrillas from the main rebel group, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD).

Ntahobari said more than 20,000 peasants had fled the influx ``spontaneously,'' but local residents and witnesses said authorities ordered civilians to evacuate their homes after a series of rebel attacks and looting sprees.

Most peasants found refuge where they could -- in and around churches, schools, abandoned buildings and military posts across Isale.

But a chronic lack of food forced many peasants to return briefly, sometimes with military escorts, to their fields to forage for what was left.

``When they (rebels) caught me, I was going to look for food for my children,'' said Baruhurike, a Hutu peasant farmer from Kibuye in southeastern Isale who, like many here, doesn't know his age.

``They tied me up, bound my hands and beat me. They told me: 'If you had ears, you would have listened to what we have been telling you. But you don't listen, so now we are cutting off your ear.'''

Baruhurike, who had abandoned his fields for the shelter of a military post, said rebels punished him because he had been cooperating with local authorities and the Burundi army.

``It's an atrocity,'' Ntahobari said. ``Twenty people have had their ears cut off. Thirteen in Kibuye zone and seven more (neighbouring) Kanyosha.''

Residents said fighting between the Burundi army and Hutu rebels had left many people dead, but nobody could give a definite figure.

More than 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Burundi since 1993, when the assassination of the country's first freely-elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, triggered a spate of massacres and a civil war between Tutsi troops and Hutu rebels. Pierre Buyoya took power in a coup in July 1996.

Ntahobari, a Hutu doctor educated in the United States, said the government was conducting a ``sensitisation campaign'' to win over peasants who provide natural cover for rebels blending in with locals.

``The centre of their existence is the population. They can't work without the help of the population, so we try to sensitise the people, to tell them that the ideals of the rebels are not good for them.

``Now they are cutting off people's ears because the population doesn't listen anymore to what they are saying.''

Ntahobari said authorities were also giving out grenades and rifles to civilians, who conduct nightly patrols alongside soldiers for their own self-defence.

``We do it to protect the people, but also to protect the administration,'' Ntahobari said, adding that more than 60 civil servants had been killed since 1993 in his province alone.

Government officials say most rebels have left the area, but the 20,000 or so displaced peasants who remain camped out here -- including a group of 500 under tents across the street from the governor's office -- are not so sure.

``We are afraid to go back to our homes because the rebels are still there,'' said Gaspar Nzoyabona, a farmer from Kibuye, now emptied of its inhabitants.

``There are as many rebels there as blades of grass. The people who have tried to go back have had their ears cut off. We prefer to stay here where there are people to help us.''

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.