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.

Security is also a problem. After two U.N. workers were killed in October while working in the countryside, the United Nations has confined its staff to Bujumbura. Taking up the slack are private agencies such as Catholic Relief Services, which on Monday ferried two truckloads of jerrycans and blankets to the 8,000 people mired in a camp dubbed Mukonko II.

"We are grateful for the blankets, because this is a cold place," said Gerard Mizuro, who walked five miles from the hillside camp, which is inaccessible to heavy trucks. On the paved highway where he paused, soldiers were stationed at one-mile intervals. But farmers said rebels now roam freely in the hills, joining soldiers in looting the fields the peasants can tend only two or three times a week, under military escort.

"It's infernal," said Cyrille Barancira, a veteran Tutsi politician known as a hard-liner. "They don't have enough food. They don't have any medical care. They can't farm their land. It's very dangerous. If the situation goes on, they will all die."

And the danger is also political. Clearing the countryside apparently has pushed the rebels away from the capital, higher into the mountains that Hutu forces use as corridors. And even the most severe critics of Burundi's military-led government acknowledge the importance of keeping Bujumbura at peace. When the Hutu rebels last infiltrated the capital, Tutsi militias battled back in an paroxysm of violence that killed tens of thousands of civilians and led to political chaos.

But any short-term military gains won by the camps may be overtaken by the resentment that builds with every day of forced confinement. "The people in these camps are very, very angry," said Louis-Marie Nindorera of the Burundian human rights group Iteka, which finds the Bujumbura roundup more odious than the 1997 campaign in the north. One aid worker reported: "People say, 'Give us guns and we will kill the people who put us here.' "

It all adds fresh urgency to a stalled peace process that got a jump-start in early December when Nelson Mandela agreed to serve as mediator. The former South African president brought not only his immense prestige, but also a more practical approach, inviting representatives of the Hutu rebel groups that his predecessor, the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, had refused to seat. However, the largest rebel group this week refused the invitation.

"If we Burundians cannot resolve our problems, he will help us," said Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, the Hutu who was serving as president when the current Tutsi president, Maj. Pierre Buyoya, seized power in a 1996 coup. "But Burundians have to find a solution."

In a country where the major political parties are formed on ethnic lines, Ntibantunganya saw hope in an alliance of prominent Hutu and Tutsi politicians arrayed against Buyoya. But diplomats and other observers dismissed the anti-Buyoya coalition (and a second pro-Buyoya alliance) as expedient and fragile.

The real challenge facing Mandela, they said, will be selling peace to power brokers who have manipulated ethnic fears--from a "selective genocide" against educated Hutus in 1972, and several rounds of ethnic killing since--to remain in their lush hillside villas. Peace might threaten their fortunes, and justice their freedom.

"There's probably 6 million Burundians out there who would really like to see truth and reconciliation, and there are probably 60 guys who don't," one diplomat said. "Unfortunately, the 60 guys have a lot more power than the 6 million."

CAPTION: A Hutu man sits outside a hut in Ruziba camp, where 18,000 Burundians are confined by government forces near the capital. Human rights groups reject government claims that the camps are meant for Hutu civilians' protection.

CAPTION: Michel Nurwimbeba, 50, and other Hutus stand on a hillside of shacks that make up the "regroupment" camp known as Mukonko II, about 20 miles outside Bujumbura.