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Burundi Struggles to Move Forward From War

Efforts are under way in Burundi to recover from more than a decade of civil war. The government and the United Nations recently agreed on the terms of two post-conflict commissions to address wartime crimes. But the formation of these commissions is proving to be controversial, and the government and country's last remaining rebel group have yet to achieve peace.

Encircling Bujumbura are rolling green hills on one side and the cool waters of Lake Tanganyika framed by the misty mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the other.

It is hard to imagine placid, picturesque Bujumbura and rural Burundi being rocked by the brutal civil war that erupted in 1993, killing 300,000 people.

A peace process beginning in 2000 culminated in democratically-held elections last year. According to the terms of the peace process, the new government must now work towards post-war reconstruction.

At the end of March, United Nations and government officials agreed on the terms of two new bodies to help the country move forward: the truth and reconciliation commission; and a justice commission that would prosecute crimes against humanity committed in Burundi since independence in 1962.

Salvator Ntacobamaze, Burundi's chief of state protocol and former interior minister, describes to VOA the purpose of the truth and reconciliation commission.

"Burundi has undergone a series of violences since independence. We do not know who did what, how, and why. We have started making a kind of mixture of stories condemning each other without really knowing who did what and why for what objective," he said. "We have to re-write the history of Burundi so that even our future generations get the real information and know really what happened to Burundi so as to be in a position to build their country by avoiding what happened to their ancestors. Then, from that, people might be in a position to request forgiveness."

He says the government team that met with the U.N. officials plans to collect views from Burundians as to how the activities of the two commissions should be carried out.

Many atrocities such as murder, rape, destruction of property, and other crimes occurred before and during Burundi's civil war, which was the culmination of long-simmering tensions between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis.

Tutsis make up around 15 percent of Burundi's population, yet until recently they dominated the army and the political sphere.

War broke out in 1993 after the Tutsi-dominated army assassinated the country's first democratically-elected president, who was a Hutu.

Annociate Ndikumasabo, the executive director of Observatoire de l'Action Gouvernementale, an advocacy group that analyses government policies, applauds the idea of having mechanisms to expose and resolve pre and war-time crimes, but says the commissions are made up mostly of politicians and others from the government, an imbalance she says appears to be compromising the commissions' objectivity.

"We do not think it would be possible to have an independent commission so far as it would be set up by the government, which is a government that is mainly made by people who were in the rebel movement," said Ndikumasabo. "They should consult the grassroots, because the orientation today is much more offender oriented. We see that there is very low regard to the victim and we say they should find a balance between the offender orientation and victim orientation, and they should also make a balance between the political needs and the justice needs."

But perhaps an even greater stumbling block to peace efforts is continued attacks by the National Liberation Forces, known as FNL.

The group is the only major rebel movement that was not integrated into a power-sharing government and army during Burundi's transitional period from the signing of the Arusha Accord of 2000 until last year's democratic elections.

A major opposition party leader, Leonard Nyangoma, of the CNDD, accuses the government of dragging its feet in peacemaking efforts with the FNL.

"The government is responsible really to bring FNL to the table of negotiations," said Nyangoma. "I think the government has a strong responsibility to start the negotiations. The government does not want really to start negotiations. I think they do not want to share power with a new party like FNL."

He says a peace agreement with the FNL should have taken place last year before democratic elections were held, so that the country could start a new era of peace.

Chief of state protocol Ntacobamaze, who is also head of the commission in charge of negotiations with the FNL, tells VOA the government is leading the way in talks with the rebel group.

"Since they [FNL] are massacring the population, therefore the government has to take care of it and see how to minimize the impact and bring them, if they will, within the process," said Ntacobamaze.

VOA could not reach the FNL for comment, but media reports quote FNL officials as saying they are ready to negotiate directly with President Pierre Nkurunziza. Talks were supposed to occur last month, but were canceled.