Central African Conflict: Rwanda and Burundi Sink into Abyss of a Long War

Nyamiagabe, Rwanda — Recent killings by Hutu rebels in Rwanda and Burundi, and retaliatory attacks by the Tutsi-dominated army in each country indicate that the combatants are digging in for protracted war.

Such a development would scuttle efforts by African leaders and international mediators to bring stability to the East Central African region and prevent widespread bloodletting.

In recent months, Hutu rebels in Burundi and Rwanda have begun making the successful transition from a conventional to an insurgent force, increasingly hiding among the local populations rather than returning to camps in Zaire after attacks, observers say.

They are battling Tutsis who control the government and military in both countries, yet make up only 15 percent of each country’s population. The rebels sometimes coordinate efforts from their respective bases across both countries’ borders in eastern Zaire.

Last month, Hutu rebels massacred more than 300 Tutsi civilians in Gitega province in the heart of Burundi, leading to a coup.

Amnesty International accused the Tutsi-led army of retaliating by killing more than 200 Hutu civilians in the same region during a military operation lasting several days.

Similarly in Rwanda, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that Hutu rebels have killed more than 100 witnesses and other survivors of Hutu-led genocide in Cyangugu, Gisenyi and Ruhengeri provinces near the border with Zaire. In Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, the Tutsi-controlled army has killed at least 132 people suspected of supporting the rebels, the U.N. says.

“Civilians are completely caught in the middle,” said one international observer in Gisenyi. “If they report rebel activity, the rebels will kill them. And if they don’t, the government may kill them. ”

Most of the victims in Rwanda since 1990 have been Tutsis, although its president is a Hutu. More than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutus there in genocide that began in April 1994.

In Burundi, more than 150,000 Tutsis and Hutus have been killed since 1993, after Tutsi army officers assassinated the country’s first elected Hutu president.

The slaughter shows no sign of a letup as the rebel forces move from camps in Zaire to the provinces and assume the role of an insurgency. In recent months, Hutu rebels have infiltrated farther into each country, stoking Tutsi fears and cries for vengeance for the recent genocide, U.N. officials say.

More than 500,000 Tutsis who fled the Hutu regime in Rwanda have also returned, protected by an army of Tutsis that was unable to prevent the genocide against their brethren who never left Rwanda, but who, three frenzied months after it started, overthrew the Hutu government that was responsible for their deaths.

Changing their name from the Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrillas to the Rwandan Patriotic Army, these Tutsi fighters and their military commanders rule Rwanda today.

But deep distrust remains between the government and the governed.

A Tutsi going by the name “Francois” said he never left Rwanda and claimed to get along now with his Hutu and Tutsi neighbors.

As a truckload of soldiers drove by, toward Zaire and the site of recent fighting, Francois was asked what he thought of Rwanda’s new army.

“Bad,” he said in French, immediately raising his hands and extending his fingers as if he were holding a rifle: “They shoot too much. ”

And what about the Hutu rebels?

“No, I’m not with them,” he responded quietly without animation.

Hutus and Tutsis have a long history of enmity.

From the 16th century until independence, Tutsi kings and lords dominated the East Central African region, owning most of the land and cattle and treating the Hutu masses not unlike serfs in medieval Europe.

Tutsi kings had their own ways of dealing with resisters. One was to hang the genitals of their vanquished enemies on a symbol of divine power known as the Kalinga, or sacred drum.

Now the coals of hate are hot again.