After the Blood Dries, Life Returns

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By AFRICAReview by Tracy Kidder
Sunday, March 1, 2009; Page B07


A People's Story of Burundi

By Peter Uvin

Zed. 211 pp. Paperback, $20.95

When we get wind of violence in faraway places, especially mass violence in Africa, we tend to imagine a human landscape that is utterly alien and insane. In "Life After Violence," Peter Uvin gives us something much more realistic: a picture of a complex society, with many virtuous people, that nevertheless descended into vicious mayhem.

The object of his fascination is Burundi, one of Africa's smallest and poorest nations. It is roughly the size of Belgium -- its colonial ruler from 1919 to 1962 -- but Westerners didn't draw its borders. Long before the colonial era, Burundi was already a kingdom, a coherent political entity, and its current boundaries very nearly conform to its ancient ones. It's a mostly hilly, landlocked country in East Central Africa that exports excellent tea and coffee, though not much else. To the extent that it is known internationally, it is known for violence: An ethnic civil war from 1993 to 2006 helped incite the notorious genocide in neighboring Rwanda and killed something like 300,000 Burundians.

Uvin, the academic dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, traveled across the country in 2006 and spoke at length with several hundred Burundians in the aftermath of their long war. Current scholarly theory, he tells us, cites "frustrated masculinity" as a main underlying cause of mass violence in Africa -- as if there were a single place called Africa. Uvin acknowledges that it was mostly young men, "not grannies," who served as "the shock troops" in Burundi's war. "And yet," he writes, "when you talk with them, how different they are from these simplistic images -- how filled with perseverance and hope." In fact, he notes, less than 3 percent of Burundi's young men joined any armed movement during the war, and the Burundian ideal of masculinity continues to rest on responsibility -- on taking care of one's family -- not on violence.

One promise implicit in this book is that it will make Burundi's war comprehensible. Uvin comes near the mark, explaining how competition among national leaders (politicians, bureaucrats, military officers and rebel commanders) spread to their allies in the countryside, the people in charge of local government, schools and hospitals. It is these "local elites," he writes, who "distribute machetes and beer if serious violence needs to be organized." What may look like mass hysteria actually was incited by an educated few: "In societies where the rule of law is close to non-existent and security forces are neither effective nor trusted, small groups of people willing to use violence can create enough chaos and fear to force everyone into making violent choices."

But the central question of this book, it seemed to me, is not what caused Burundi's violence, but how foreign aid might serve as an instrument of peace. Uvin has a long résumé in this field, first as a worker for various international aid organizations and later as a critic. In 1998, having quit aid work in dismay if not disgust, he published "Aiding Violence," an influential book that showed how the incompetent, uneven administration of foreign aid abetted Rwanda's descent into genocide by compounding inequality. "Life After Violence" seems to be based on the hope that foreign aid workers won't commit the same mistakes, and on the fear that they may. Uvin offers high praise for the international diplomatic effort that brought a fragile peace to Burundi. But he has tart words for international relief efforts since then. In 2006, foreign aid to Burundi came to about $300 million a year, fully 39 percent of the country's gross domestic product. But most of the money was going, he writes, to "experts, consultants, managers." Only a few of the Burundians he interviewed had received direct assistance, all of it minor. Most had gotten nothing, and all assumed, not always incorrectly, that politicians stole the money.

Throughout "Life After Violence," Uvin compares the assumptions that guide international aid with the ideas and hopes of Burundians. Usually the two don't quite match. It is generally assumed, for instance, that truth commissions and trials serve a salutary purpose in the aftermath of long violence, as they seem to have done in South Africa. But while many of the Burundians Uvin interviewed said that they'd like to discuss the war with people who had been on the other side, most did not want a formal accounting. Many feared that trials and commissions would break the peace. Some no doubt were afraid that they might themselves be put on trial. Mainly, they felt that formal attempts at justice would turn out to be unjust. They understood the seminal role that national politicians and local elites had played in inciting the war. They felt that ordinary citizens who had committed violent acts should not be tried, because most of them had acted out of fear. As a Burundian friend of mine once put it, speaking of his compatriots, "They were not themselves. They were something else."

The people Uvin interviewed all talked in one way or another about their hopes for good government, but none spoke in a way that fits the assumptions of aid agencies, which invariably try to implant Western-style institutions of democracy and usually end up creating hollow shells. Burundians, it seems, want security and jobs far more than elections. To Uvin, they expressed hopes not for better institutions, but for "better people," for something like the pre-colonial system of "bashingantahe," under which local justice was meted out by individuals recognized for their virtue and fair-mindedness.

Though far from Panglossian, "Life after Violence" is a hopeful book, one that makes a strong case for what would seem an elementary notion: If you want to launch a long-term effort to improve a society, you ought to know something about it. Burundians were not consulted when Europeans claimed them and their land more than a century ago, and they haven't been consulted much since, not by their own leaders or by international experts. In this fascinating and potentially useful book, the citizens of a small, desperately impoverished country have for once been granted that fundamental human right: They have been allowed to speak their minds.

Tracy Kidder's latest book, "Strength in What Remains," set partly in Burundi, will be published

in August.

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