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Letter from the North

Cameron Duodu
Letter from the North
I know it is almost impossible to say something nice about former president Nelson Mandela without sounding like a member of the brigade of sycophants that has canonised Madiba over the past few years. Nevertheless I am going to say that his statements on Burundi are the most important I have ever read on the subject.

For a whole year, the world has known that the government of Burundi, led by a self- serving military adventurist called Pierre Buyoya, has rounded up some 320E000 members of the Hutu ethnic group and herded them into about 60 concentration camps dotted on Burundi's hillsides. Buyoya calls them "regroupment" centres.
Have you noticed how every single one of the modern butchers who puts people in concentration camps invents a euphemism to name the camps?

Sanctions were imposed on Burundi when Buyoya seized power in 1996. But that was only because his regime came to power by force. So abstruse are the standards by which the international community views political behaviour that, ironically, the sanctions were being progressively lifted at precisely the time they should have been imposed: when Buyoya was following the Nazis by herding 320E000 of his fellow citizens into concentration camps.

The same "international community" which couldn't stomach the Bantustans of the apartheid regime in South Africa just stood by and watched unconcerned. Just as it had stood by and watched unconcerned as thousands of Hutus were imprisoned in Rwanda, on suspicion of having taken part in the horrendous massacre of 800E000 Tutsis in 1994.

Don't get me wrong now: the Hutus are not to be taken for a "victim" ethnic group. Oh no. Some Hutus are the nastiest bit of work God ever put on the Earth. The question, however, must be asked: are the Hutus in Buyoya's concentration camps the nasty ones? Are those dying of cholera and other diseases in Rwanda's over-crowded prisons necessarily those who took part in putting 800E000 of their fellow citizens to death in 1994?

You see, most of the real murderers have military or militia training of some sort and are therefore able to take evasive action whenever their "enemy" is around. Those who are left to be picked up by the Tutsi revanchists are the women and the children, the old and the infirm; or those able-bodied persons who are gullible enough to believe that if they are not guilty of any crimes, they won't be punished.

The Hutu murderers proper, members of the interahamwe, are in hiding, hoping that the Tutsis will make so many mistakes punishing innocent Hutus that when the interahamwe gives the word again, all Hutus will rise up and follow them.
In Rwanda, as indeed in Burundi, most politicians seek power through the barrel of a gun. They call people to arms on an ethnic-based rallying of forces. Recitations of past massacres form their catchwords. Is there ever going to be an end to the hatred?

Not if one ethnic group thinks the other is out to exterminate it. There were massacres of Hutus by Tutsis, and of Tutsis by Hutus, before 1994; indeed, the cyclical killings in the two countries are so multifarious that they become baffling. Yet, after each massacre, the same revenge-seeking goes on, sowing the seeds of yet another terrible massacre for the future.

The Tutsis now control both Burundi and Rwanda. Do they intend to exterminate the Hutus to prevent the Hutus from seeking ways to overturn the tables?

This is the reality of Rwanda/Burundi politics today. The Hutus and the Tutsis are in mortal fear of each other. And, unfortunately, history teaches that they should be. If the international community is to save them from each other, it's got to be tough with both sides. And it must offer practical means of ensuring that any measures taken in furtherance of reconciliation will stick.

The Hutu/Tutsi situation is not the sort in which diplomatic pussy-footing of the sort favoured by the Organisation of African Unity and, to a lesser extent, the United Nations, can work.

Enter Nelson Mandela. Named in December as the new mediator in the Burundi civil war, in place of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, who died in October, it took Mandela only one month to suss out where the Burundians were coming from. Speaking to a meeting of Burundi government and opposition leaders in Arusha, Tanzania, on January 16, Mandela blamed all of them for showing no urgency in their efforts to end the "senseless slaughter" in their country.

"Please join the modern world," he told them. "Why do you allow yourselves to be regarded as leaders without talent, leaders without vision? The fact that women, children and the aged are being slaughtered every day is an indictment against all of you," he added.
"When people in the West hear these things they say `Africans are still barbarians - no human being could do what they are doing.'"

The listening Burundi politicians responded to Mandela's speech with a standing ovation. The Burundi government described the remarks as fair and understandable. "He called us to order," a former president of Burundi, Silvestre Ntibantunganya, said. "It is our duty to respond."
But the applause the Burundi politicians gave to Mandela's speech did not save them from another tongue-lashing just a week later. After addressing the UN Security Council in New York, Mandela told reporters that the Burundi bloodshed was a "self- inflicted tragedy". The international condemnation of Burundi's Nazi-style concentration camps was justified, he stated.

Mandela has since enlisted the assistance of some world leaders - including United States President Bill Clinton - to help him knock some sense into the heads of the Burundian leaders. We can only pray that his effort succeeds. Africa is tired of "senseless bloodshed".