"He was my best friend," Claude would tell his son when the boy asked about the smiling man in the photo album. He did not add, "And I killed him."

Shame was part of it. But reticence is the minimum requirement for survival in Burundi, a very small, very bloody country in Africa's Great Lakes region, known for its stunning beauty and even more stunning culture of denial: In the 1990s, roughly a million people have been slain in ethnic violence there. And until now no one has admitted to killing any of them.

So when Claude volunteered to tell a video camera what he would not tell his son, the journalists behind the camera recognized that something extraordinary was going on. And still is.

The chilling confession Claude delivered would be matched in graphic detail by a handful of other young men on both sides of the ethnic divide: Hutu and Tutsi. By their own account, the speakers carried out some of the worst atrocities in Burundi's decade-long civil war. And now, they agree, the best way to break the cycle of violence is to admit their deeds.

"You get hate when someone is not open with you," said Celestine, a Tutsi. "But once you talk openly, you don't have any hate for each other." The result is both a groundbreaking documentary and an incipient grass-roots reconciliation movement. And in a region where experts recall no instance of any confession emerging without coercion, the videotaped admissions are being received with a wonder that borders on incredulity.

"You have people who told you this?" Burundian President Pierre Buyoya asked, clearly stunned, when one of the makers of the documentary, titled "Breaking the Code," described the footage.

What Claude, a Tutsi, recounted, in cool, methodical tones, was finding his boyhood chum on a bus at a time in Burundi when a gang of young Tutsi men considered a bus full of their Hutu countrymen "a real opportunity." He told how his friend, being pulled onto Sixth Avenue, was incredulous -- "Even you, Claude? Even you?" -- and in the end defiant, daring Claude to kill him personally.

He spoke with wonder of the sound when he pushed a knife into his friend's abdomen: "It was like a tire deflating."

When he concluded his account, the admitted killer said he not only felt relieved of his burden, but oddly hopeful that, because the people he had considered enemies have broken their silence as well, both sides might be moving beyond denial, toward reconciliation.

For neighboring Rwanda, a U.N. war crimes tribunal is addressing the issue of atrocities committed there, but no such body has been established for Burundi.

Seeking Genocide's Roots

The documentary, which is now being edited, is the work of two journalists with deep roots in Burundi, a country of 6 million just south of Rwanda. Bryan Rich, an American, and Alexis Sinduhije, a Burundian, helped found the country's first independent news outlet, the acclaimed Studio Ijambo, with backing from a Washington-based group, Search for Common Ground. Covering the slaughter that has claimed as many as 200,000 Burundian lives since 1993, they knew only too well the customs of secrecy and deception that made gathering even the simplest information a challenge.

And the documentary, an independent project, was not a quest for simple information. The goal was an understanding of the sources and mechanics of the conflict, from the point of view of those who carried it out.

"We wanted to do `roots of violence,' " said Sinduhije. "We didn't think they would talk openly like this. We were surprised."

The appetite for candor emerged during the roughly two years that relative peace has held in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital -- a calm endangered in recent weeks as violence in the countryside has moved closer. Over the weekend Hutu rebels were blamed in the killings of 26 people. By speaking out, the self-described killers said they hope to break the cycle of misinformation they said did much to fuel their own actions, and so derail a return to violence.

But in a society historically driven by revenge, the risk of going public remains profound.

President Buyoya grew animated describing Burundi's culture of "negative solidarity: Within a family, a clan, an ethnic group, there is a mutual will of covering up what has been done."

A respected independent expert called the confessions "astonishing."

"If you have people who have actually done the killing saying this has to stop, then that is absolutely revolutionary in the Great Lakes context," said Alison Des Forges, a consultant to the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch. "Revolutionary, but not incomprehensible," she added. "In the past it's been ambiguity and deception that has contributed to the conflict. Here are people saying, `Let's try openness and trust.' "

Rich and Sinduhije say it was not hard to find the subjects. Sinduhije, who is a Tutsi, had friends who served as go-betweens for two young men well known as paramilitaries in Bujumbura when fighting raged there from 1993 to 1997. A Hutu journalist helped locate two young men from the Hutu side.

Bold Declarations

What stunned everyone was that all four volunteered to talk on camera. Brushing aside offers to be shown only in silhouette and other devices to obscure identity, they insisted that only total candor would prevent a return to the cycle of violence that made them killers.

"When they would admit something very terrible," Rich recalled, "we said, `Don't worry. We've heard the same from the other side.' "

And they heard some truly terrible things: Descriptions of burning a priest alive, butchering a teenage girl at her breakfast table. But in the 40 hours of tape -- several hours of which were screened by The Washington Post, which agreed to identify the subjects only by first name -- and in interviews weeks after the taping, the self-described killers strongly emphasized what both sides called "the context for killing." Not as an excuse, they said, but as an explanation for the circumstance in which Claude eventually found himself with his best buddy:

"It happened one day that I couldn't conceive of him as my friend."

The "context" begins -- but only begins, the killers said -- with lopsided demography and undeniable history: Hutus are the overwhelming majority in Burundi, yet the Tutsi elite historically has held power, largely through control of the army. In 1972, the army slaughtered 100,000 to 200,000 Hutus.

"I grew up hearing what happened in '72," said Jean, a Hutu.

So in October 1993, when Tutsi troops killed Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, "I thought immediately it could be the same as '72," Jean said. "They could come and take us from the school and kill us."

He reacted by going "into the bush," joining the armed resistance that defended Hutus in large part by attacking Tutsis.

Only the worst was assumed of the other side. In the capital city, "youth groups" were urged to gather machetes and spears, drilled as paramilitaries told to kill the one who was at any given moment certainly planning to kill you.

"There was not any structure of information," said Celestine, who headed one such group in a Tutsi neighborhood. "The rumors were starting everything."

Forbidden Friendship

In time, any member of the other ethnic group was assumed to be a spy. Personal relationships that crossed the divide were forbidden.

Celestine, for example, had regularly visited a Hutu friend named Bosco, venturing into his neighborhood even when he found Bosco with other Hutus learning to use guns. The friendship was a secure bridge between them until "some politician" told Bosco to end the visits.

"The last truth Bosco told me was, `Don't come here any more,' " Celestine said. "Once we cannot talk to each other, then the tension can lead to violence."

It did. When fighting erupted in the capital, Celestine and Claude took up positions in their neighborhood. They felt defiant, Claude said.

"The Hutu who dares to come here, even if he is the size of [Mike] Tyson . . . he will kneel down," he recalled thinking.

They led the camera to three mass graves. One, they said, contained about 40 bodies, another 60, in an abandoned house, the third perhaps 200, including the 60 people caught on the bus with Claude's friend. "They were laid to rest only after dogs began gnawing the corpses," Claude said.

A few miles away, a personable young student named Emmanuel was doing the same in his predominantly Hutu neighborhood.

"We called it patrol," he said.

He had joined the Hutu rebels after being advised by a physical education teacher to "protect yourself." He recalled the day a commander ordered, "Everybody who's never killed, come here." Emmanuel took his place and pulled a mask over his face -- lacking, he said, the "courage" to hear what his victim would tell him.

"It was very, very bad. The blood shed like a faucet," Emmanuel said. "He ran with my knife in his stomach. I knew him very well. He was a good friend of my father."

The memory of the murder haunted the killer, 18 at the time. He saw his victim in his dreams.

"But step by step, as I continued to kill, the fear went away," Emmanuel said. "At that time I was a really very bad person. . . . I became a real killer."

Bujumbura settled into relative peace in 1997, after Buyoya, a moderate Tutsi officer, took power in a bloodless coup. Massacres continue in the countryside, however, including a reported slaughter of 200 near Bujumbura this month. Fears that "the context for killing" will return to the capital did much to spur Emmanuel, Jean, Celestine and Claude -- as well as others, who do not appear in the documentary -- to open up, they said.

`Talk the Truth'

They talked first in interviews, then in a studio round table organized by the producers. Three months later they are meeting still, nurturing a grass-roots reconciliation based on acknowledging the worst.

"I recognize myself in what Emmanuel is saying," Celestine said.

"I feel the same way," said Emmanuel.

While groping for a way to share their experience, they have admitted to more than killing. As leader of a youth group, Celestine said he sees himself as middleman between politicians -- the only people in Burundi living in luxury -- and a band of uneducated, unemployed young men with no prospects.

"When mass killing started, you never see rich Hutu and Tutsi fighting each other," he said. "The people fighting each other are poor Hutu and Tutsi. That's why I decided to tell the truth."

Celestine said he is prepared to live with the consequences of speaking out, even if it means his life.

"For me, the solution is to communicate, everybody, together," he said. "If we talk the truth to each other, that can be the example for our children, for our younger brothers to live together peacefully."