- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Augustin Niyonzima sighs as he waits with other drivers stopped by police because of gunfire up the road leading north out of the capital.

“It’s normal,” he says with a shrug. “But we get fed up with it.”

Since the civil war began in October 1993, Burundians warily have traveled the roads of this small central African nation of 6 million people.

Civilians make up most of the more than 200,000 deaths in a conflict that began when Burundi’s first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated by paratroopers from the Tutsi minority — which has ruled the country for all but a few months since independence in 1962.

Sometimes, the victims have been caught in the cross fire of battles, but often they are targeted by rebels or soldiers.

On Dec. 29, Archbishop Michael Courtney, Pope John Paul II’s ambassador to Burundi, was mortally wounded in an ambush of his official vehicle south of Bujumbura. The government blamed the rebels of the National Liberation Forces — known as the FNL — and the insurgents accused the army.

Three other rebel groups have signed a peace accord with the government, but the FNL remains active in the hills surrounding the capital, and fighting in Bujumbura Rurale and Bubanza provinces has forced thousands to flee their homes.

Yet most Burundians are more optimistic than they have been for years, because of a November accord signed by the largest rebel movement, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD).

Not even the gunfire on the highway can dent Mr. Niyonzima’s optimism.

“Except for Bujumbura Rurale and Bubanza, people walk around as they want, they return home as they want,” said Mr. Niyonzima, whose arms bear the scars of bullet wounds suffered in a 1995 ambush.

Hopes were bolstered on December 7 when FDD leader Peter Nkurunziza returned to Bujumbura to take a post in a transitional government that includes members of Hutu and Tutsi political parties, among them two smaller former Hutu rebel groups.

People have high hopes that the FNL soon will agree — or be forced — to begin peace talks.

A week after Archbishop Courtney’s death, the FNL announced it had agreed to hold talks with President Domitien Ndayizeye, a Hutu, but it stressed that it would meet with him only as “a father of the nation,” not as leader of the government.

Even if the FNL enters negotiations, the path to a lasting peace is unlikely to be smooth.

Before the cease-fire agreements in place can be fully implemented, thousands of rebels have to be integrated into a new army, a process that already is behind schedule and being overseen by an underfinanced mission of 2,800 African Union peacekeepers. Analysts worry that further delays could result in rebel fighters returning to the bush.

Politicians also must overcome decades of mistrust between Hutus and Tutsis fueled by cycles of bloodletting. But perhaps most important, they have to make sure the lives of ordinary Burundians improve.

“They are going to have to do something where the people of Burundi start feeling the benefits, not just the politicians. That’s the war cry of the FNL — that the politicians have been enriching themselves while the situation doesn’t get better for ordinary people,” said Jan Van Eck, an analyst at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

Burundians are desperate for change. About 80 percent are subsistence farmers, many eking out livings on plots averaging just an acre and a half. Nearly half of adults are illiterate.

The economy, based largely on the export of coffee, has been ravaged by the conflict. Military spending rose from 3.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1990 to 8.1 percent in 2001, while spending on health in a country with an average life expectancy of 40 years amounted to 1.6 percent of GDP in 2000, according to figures from the United Nations.

The government also has to cope with returning hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom will find their lands occupied by others.

The International Crisis Group, a think tank, calls the land issue a time bomb. An average of 537 persons are packed into each square mile of Burundi — which is almost the size of Maryland — making it one of the world’s most densely populated countries.

Tharcisse Yamuremye, dean of Burundi University’s economics department, said competition for the nation’s meager resources was one of the major causes of the war.

“Once you have reached power, you get the wealth required to please your friends, and because you please a small part of society, it creates tensions with the other group,” he said.

“Up to now, Burundi has enough land to feed its population, but if we do not find a way of reforming the economic structure of our country, this will not last long.”

In Bujumbura, the gap between the rich and poor is stark.

During the day, poor farmers buy and sell vegetables at the main market from rickety stalls that spill into the street. At night, after the farmers have returned to rudimentary homes in the hills, wealthy Hutu and Tutsi politicians and businessmen crowd into the city’s few smart restaurants.

Some Burundians can’t even go home.

Dafrose Ngendakumana normally lives in Kinama, a poor Hutu neighborhood in northern Bujumbura that is known as an FNL stronghold and usually bustles with activity outside its mud-brick houses.

In recent weeks, Kinama has been eerily quiet. FDD fighters and government soldiers have raided the neighborhood looking for FNL rebels, and residents say it is too dangerous for them to be there.

“We do not see peace. It’s getting worse,” said Mrs. Ngendakumana, who spends nights with her five children at the homes of friends in other parts of the city and visits her house only a few hours each day. “The only way we will have peace in Burundi is when politicians — Hutus and Tutsis — actually do what they say they are going to do.”

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