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Burundians Show Mixed Reaction to African Union Peace Mission - 2004-07-05


Helping to end the 11-year civil war in Burundi was the African Union's first major peacekeeping operation, and it became an important test case for the proposed continental force. The A.U. mission, led by South Africa, was handed over to a United Nations force last month. So far, the results of the A.U. mission in Burundi appear to be mixed.

Over the past year, hundreds of families have come to this feeding center in Gatumba, only a half-hour's drive north of Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. Many of the children are emaciated, the mothers themselves undernourished and unable to breast-feed their babies.

If they sound happy, it's because they've managed to escape, for the time being, the persistent violence, the raping of women and children and the looting of homes, in the rural areas surrounding Bujumbura.

The continued attacks have kept them off their farms. Unable to plant or harvest their crops, they are now forced to depend on aid groups for food and shelter.

For these mostly rural Burundians, who bear the brunt of attacks by both rebel and government forces, it's difficult to measure the effectiveness of the African Union's mission in their country.

Despite the presence of nearly 3,000 AU peacekeepers in Burundi this past year, most of them from South Africa, Mozambique and Ethiopia, more than 50,000 Burundians have fled their homes, government and rebel militias have killed and raped dozens of civilians and looted and burned their houses, according to a Human Rights Watch report issued last week.

In Bujumbura, A.U. soldiers are often scorned by ordinary Burundians. Major Modisame Masebe, a commander for the AU's South African force, says some of his soldiers have had to fend off both verbal and physical attacks by civilians.

A 37-year-old woman who gave her name only as Maria says she was forced to flee with her five children, as rebels attacked her village of Masama last month. They now live in a small hut made of dried banana leaves near a feeding center in Kabezi, a village protected by a small contingent of government troops.

Maria says, "it doesn't matter if the African Union soldiers are here. They don't do anything for us. The rebels are still attacking us."

Like Maria, many rural Burundians say they have never even seen a single A.U. soldier, much less felt protected by them.

But that wasn't their job, says Carolyn McAskie, the head of the 5,600-strong United Nations mission in Burundi, which took over the A.U. peace mission last month.

Ms. McAskie says the aim of the A.U. mission was not to defend the population, but to protect the president's house, the parliament and government and rebel leaders who are part of the 2001 Arusha peace talks to set guidelines for Burundi's new unity government.

"The AU force was brought in because the parties signatory to the accord were afraid to come home," she said. "A lot of these party members have been in exile, either in the region, in Europe or around the world, for years. So the agreement was that the African Union would provide a protection force that would allow them to come back in safety and start the [peace] process. Now, once you have foreign troops on the ground, everybody wants them to do everything. They did the job they were supposed to do."

The A.U. handed over the Burundi mission to the United Nations, mainly because of dwindling resources. But most of the A.U. troops are to remain in Burundi, re-hatted with the blue berets of the United Nations.

Under the U.N. mandate, these soldiers, now part of a 5,600-strong peacekeeping force, are authorized to use force to protect civilians.

That's a big relief to many of the families here. It means that they can go back to their war-shattered villages soon, where they can start rebuilding their lives. That, to them, is the true measure of peace.

Some analysts and political observers say the A.U. mission here was a vital step in this country's difficult path to ending a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. Now, it is up to the United Nations to finish the job of fostering a sustainable peace.

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