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Burundi's Tutsis Herding Hutu Civilians Into Camps

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 30, 1999; Page A25

RUZIBA, Burundi –– The capital city of this tiny, verdant country can be a lovely place. Bujumbura has fine restaurants, elegant manners and sweeping views of shimmering Lake Tanganyika and the mountains of Congo, wreathed in cotton candy clouds on the opposite shore.

But in a "Tutsi city" dominated by the minority ethnic group that has clung violently to power in a country that is 85 percent Hutu, daily life can match the fairy tale setting only as long as the civil war remains in the countryside.

So this summer, when automatic weapons fire flared among the hillside villas that are home to the ruling elite, government troops swept through the hills and ravines of the surrounding province of Bujumbura Rurale, herding Hutu farmers into makeshift camps that shortly began producing epidemics of cholera, dysentery and malnutrition.

In Burundi, a country of 6 million that has been at war with itself almost constantly since regaining independence in 1961, the division has never been more visible than in the 58 "regroupment" camps that form a grimy ring around the now calm capital. More than 300,000 people are confined in them, allowed out only with soldiers who warn they are liable to be shot if they return to their homes.

"We were given about 30 minutes to collect a few things," said Sala Ndayisenga, 22, as she nursed 5-month-old Kevin on a path in the Ruziba camp, where 18,000 people are crowded along the lakeshore just north of Bujumbura. "There was complaining: 'Why are you telling us to leave our homes?' "

The answer lay in the central tenet of any guerrilla insurgency: A rebel's best cover is the civilian population he moves among. "They told us, 'We are looking for rebels,' " Ndayisenga said. " 'So you people who are not rebels, come with us.' "

The idea is to empty the countryside of all but Hutu insurgents, which the army could then hunt at will. Burundi used this strategy in its remote rural north two years ago. Neighboring Rwanda, which has a similar ethnic problem and which saw 500,000 massacred in 1994, employed it in its volatile northwest a year ago.

Critics acknowledge that, in a backhanded way, the strategy can be seen as compassionate. In Burundi, where almost all of the perhaps 200,000 people killed during the 1990s were civilians, many died in spasms of ethnic violence, neighbor butchering neighbor. But a great number fell under the sights of a Tutsi-led army that human rights groups and diplomats call notorious for its indifference to whether a soldier's bullet finds a Hutu rebel or a Hutu civilian.

"Security-wise, I think it has proved to be very successful," said Col. Longin Minani, an army spokesman. Dismissing increasingly pointed criticism from the United States by invoking the Japanese internment camps of World War II, Minani insisted that Hutu peasants had asked for such "protection."

"We've done it before," he said. "It's proved to be very efficient."

Few, however, would mistake the camps for a refuge.

Slapped together with virtually no consideration for clean water or sanitation, the camps are typically shantytowns of leaky banana-leaf shacks perched on the muddy faces of Burundi's signature hills. The locations and sheer numbers pose a horrendous logistical challenge to the international aid agencies the government insists must provide food, medical care and other basics of survival.

The relief community feels it is on the spot.

The Paris-based Doctors Without Borders, which won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for its human rights work, pulled out of the camps in mid-November rather than serve as "the army's logistician," as one aid worker put it. The group returned within a few weeks as promised, however, after cholera broke out, killing 30 in Ruziba camp alone.

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