Worlds Away

War seems world's away from Burundi capital

Children play on the shores of the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika with Bujumbura in the background in 1999. In these days, Hutu rebels moved through the hills behind the capital while Tutus army forces controlled the city. -
Photo by Todd Pitman.

June 30, 1998

By Todd Pitman

BUJUMBURA, June 30 (Reuters) - Sporadic bursts of gunfire often crackle over the emerald hills and valleys surrounding Burundi's capital but for most residents the smouldering civil war is worlds away.

At a restaurant by the shores of Lake Tanganyika, wealthy Burundians and expatriate aid workers sip cold beer, chat on mobile phones and keep watch for the occasional hippo grunting in the water.

Out on the lake, sailboats and jet skis whiz through the waves against a backdrop of magnificent 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) mountains to the west in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Bujumbura's lakeside restaurants, gigantic fan-palms, squash courts and playing children contrast sharply with rural life in the hills just east of the city, where officials say dozens of people have died in recent clashes between the army and Hutu rebels.

Listen to Burundi's former coup leader, Pierre Buyoya, talk _ and laugh _ about crying rebels.

20 seconds.

"People in Bujumbura are living in another world," said Louis-Marie Nindorera, executive director of Ligue Iteka, a local human rights group.

"They don't realise there is a war and they don't know how people outside the city are suffering."


Diplomats and aid workers credit Burundi's military ruler, Pierre Buyoya, with restoring security in the capital since he came to power in an army coup in July 1996.

But Hutu insurgents bent on overthrowing the Tutsi-led government remain a permanent fixture in the fertile hills and valleys that crisscross the tiny central African nation.

"Of course Bujumbura is a great city to live in but you go over those hills and it's hell on earth," a foreign aid worker said.

Democracy ran aground in Burundi in October 1993 when Tutsi troops murdered the country's first freely elected president - a Hutu - sparking a wave of massacres and a civil war in which more than 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.

Ethnic Tutsis, who make up about 14 percent of Burundi's six million people, say Hutus launched a genocide against them following the assassination. Hutus accuse the army of brutal reprisals.

The government, 12 political parties and three rebel groups signed an agreement in Arusha, Tanzania, earlier this month promising a truce and a second round of negotiations - both to begin on July 20.

Despite the pledge that "all armed parties to the conflict declare a suspension of hostilities", the future of the peace process remains far from assured.

A senior army official said after the talks that troops would continue their patrols and operations to hunt for rebels.

In Isale commune, a half-hour drive east through steep, winding roads, some 20,000 peasants displaced by the fighting huddle under plastic sheeting in and around schools, churches, abandoned buildings and military posts.

A recent broadcast on state television showed about 20 civilians in Isale who had their ears cut off by the rebels.


But the macabre images of war are easily replaced - for those who can afford it - by private companies offering the latest American and European movies on digital satellite television from South Africa.

At Bujumbura's vibrant central market, the ethnic divisions seem forgotten.

Under a vast steel canopy, Hutu and Tutsi traders work side by side, hawking stereos, colourful wraps called "kangas", tropical fruit and American vegetable oil marked "Not to be Sold or Exchanged".

But by nightfall, most Hutus return on foot to their homes in the hills and the city's ubiquitous road blocks, manned by armed - and occasionally drunk - gendarmes, begin to spring up.

At the Archipel nightclub, a DJ pumps out modern Zairean and western music while dozens of well-off and smartly dressed Tutsi youths dance and drink Primus beer until a government-imposed midnight curfew.

"People come out here to relax and ease the tension," said the club's manager, Michel Rugema.

"They just need a place to enjoy themselves and forget about the troubles for a few hours."


Fighting between the army and Hutu rebels flared recently just a few kilometres (miles) northeast of the capital in hills off National Route 1, a major highway running out of town.
Small cars and trucks zoomed by a line of soldiers and several hundred displaced peasants squatting sullenly by the roadside.

As a steady exchange of gunfire rattled away on the hill behind them, a tractor operator, oblivious to the fighting, emptied gravel from a rock quarry into a truck.

"It's just business," said one woman observing the scene. "You know this war has become normal for us. People have to make a living. What else can you do?"

After five years of civil war and bloodshed, many Burundians harbour a mixture of hope and resignation over what sort of peace the politicians and the rebels will be able to achieve.

"Many people here live as if it (the war) was all a bad dream," said Charles Ntezahorigwa, one of Bujumbura's leading coffee exporters. "They just ignore it and think one day they'll wake up and it will all be over."

(C) Reuters Limited 1998.