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Burundi Marks Independence Day Amid Violence - 2004-07-01


Burundi celebrated 42 years of independence Thursday, but for many Burundians the festivities are tinged with frustration. The tiny Central African nation is still mired in a civil war that has already claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people.

By 10 o'clock Thursday morning, the humidity and the heat were already wilting. About 400 people, mostly young men, gathered near Bujumbura's City Park to watch the start of Independence Day celebrations. The festivities included traditional drumming and dancing, a marching band and military parade, and speeches by leading politicians, including former rebel leaders.

More than a 100 soldiers, some of them former rebels who joined the national army, were deployed around the park in their green camouflage uniforms and black boots, their AK-47 automatic rifles patched with duct-tape.

The Independence Day festivities were held in the shadow of the eight-story building where the new United Nations peacekeeping mission in Burundi is headquartered.

For many Burundians, it's a reminder that this otherwise joyous occasion is overshadowed by the fact that this country is still reeling from 11 years of civil war. Many Burundians resent the presence of so many foreign troops, most of them from South Africa, Mozambique and Ethiopia, which made up the 3,000-strong African Union (AU) peace mission. An additional 2,600 troops have started arriving in Burundi, mostly from Pakistan and Nepal, as part of a new United Nations peacekeeping force, which took over the AU peace mission last month.

Twenty-four-year-old student Elvis Karubu is an ethnic-Tutsi who served for a year and a half in the army before returning to college to study English.

"People are saying they can't go to the manifestation of the First of July, the Independence Day. Why? There's international troops in their country. Hutus and Tutsis do agree on that, I'm sure," he said.

Burundi's civil war, framed largely as an ethnic conflict, was sparked by the 1993 assassination of Burundi's first popularly elected ethnic-Hutu president by fighters from the former ruling Tutsi minority.

Despite numerous peace treaties and cease-fire agreements between the government and several rebel groups, the conflict persists in several parts of the country, where rebels have been ransacking villages and ambushing convoys of government troops.

In the farming village of Kabezi, only an hour's drive south of Bujumbura, Mayor Felicieau Ntahombaye says rebels have attacked his town in recent weeks. He says they have raped dozens of women and girls, burned and looted houses, and have kept farmers from planting and harvesting their crops. Many people in Kabezi are malnourished.

Mr. Ntahombaye, himself wounded in the leg by a rebel mortar attack a month ago, said he had no plans to attend the day's celebrations because so many people in his village still live with constant fear and the threat of starvation.

But the mayor did say he found a reason to hope that peace is on the horizon. He said he has noticed a change in people's attitudes toward the army and toward the National Liberation Forces, the only rebel group that has not joined the national unity government.

"Indeed, it's a great change because the attitudes of the army changed," he said. "Before, the population couldn't go to the military side because they were under risk to be shot at. Before that, they were protected by the rebels. Now the situation has changed as far as they [government soldiers] are not shooting at them."

Burundi's Independence Day celebrations continued throughout the day. In some ways, they were a welcome distraction for Burundians from the persistent violence. But when the celebrations are finished, the country will have to return to confronting the difficult problems of building peace after so many years of war.

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