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Burundi's Hutus, Tutsis Search For Peace Amid Bloody Historic Conflict - 2001-12-08

Since the beginning of November, Burundi has had a new transitional government.

Its most urgent priority is to end eight years of civil war that has led to the deaths of about 250,000 people. But to end that war, the new government will have to find a way to reconcile Burundi's two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi.

If it is going to be a success, the government of Pierre Buyoya will have to do one thing - persuade the Hutu and Tutsi to stop killing each other.

Though outnumbered by the Hutu, the Tutsi have dominated the Hutu ever since Burundi gained its independence almost 40 years ago. The civil war besetting the country pits Hutu guerrillas against the Tutsi-controlled army.

Mr. Buyoya leads a power-sharing government that is committed to closing the divide between the two tribes. He is a Tutsi, but the vice president, Domitien Ndayizeye, is a Hutu, and a Hutu will assume the presidency in a year-and-a-half.

The power-sharing government was installed on November 1, in accordance with a peace plan signed in the Tanzanian town of Arusha last year. The peace accord also provides for a national truth and reconciliation commission and a United Nations international tribunal.

The commission and the tribunal are similar to those formed in neighboring Rwanda after the massacre there in 1994, in which Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 people, most of them Tutsi.

Jan van Eck, an analyst at South Africa's University of Pretoria, believes the 17 parties in Burundi's government will be better able to work together, once they find those leaders responsible for igniting the violence between the two tribes. He focuses on two particularly bloody years in Burundi's history.

"They need to know who are the main actors who created the disasters of 1972? Who are the main actors who created the two disasters of 1993? Unless that is resolved, the distrust continues," he said.

In 1972, more than 100,000 people were killed when the Tutsi-dominated army put down a Hutu uprising. Besides ending the uprising, the army wiped out a generation of educated Hutu, and sealed Tutsi control of Burundi's government and army.

In 1993, the army murdered Burundi's first-ever Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. In revenge for his death, Hutu politicians ordered massacres of Tutsi.

This led the army to carry out its own reprisal killings. An estimated 50,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, which sparked the civil war that continues today. Burundi's new government was given six months to set up the truth and reconciliation commission.

But Louis Marie Nindorera of the Burundian human rights group, Iteka - which means "dignity" in Kirundi, the language of Burundi - believes it will be impossible to establish a reconciliation commission in so short a time, especially when the two main Hutu rebel groups are still carrying out attacks.

Mr. Nindorera says people will be too scared to give evidence while the war is going on.

"We think, to have this national commission for truth and reconciliation really working with effectiveness, we have to reach this cease-fire before. That would be meaningless to try to set up this commission, without any cease-fire. Because people will fear for their [lives]. How am I going to [be a] witness, when the people who killed are still killing? The people that killed are still in charge. We have to make sure that I will be protected. I will not have to fear some kind of threat from those people," he said.

Even if a cease-fire is achieved, Mr. Nindorera says, it is vital to create an atmosphere of trust, so that the truth and reconciliation commission does not become a tool for propaganda and revenge.

Mr. Nindorera believes Burundi's new private radio stations have an important role to play. He says they can pressure Burundi's politicians to focus on nation building, rather than political infighting.

"We must expect more from the civil society than from the government itself. We have to force them to behave better. And that's a big task. One thing that is different from the situation we have had, I always come back to this - radios. We now have seven radio [stations]. We never have had more than two radios before. That's a very huge and big potential for peace. Here we don't have newspapers. People listen much more to radios. And that's a great opportunity for people to [speak out against] the wrongdoers and the hardliners," he says.

One such force for peace is the independent radio called Studio Ijambo. Ijambo means "wise words" in the Kirundi language. Studio Ijambo tries to promote dialogue among Hutu and Tutsi as a way to foster peace and reconciliation.

Aloys Niyoyita, a journalist and producer at Studio Ijambo, describes one of the station's programs, Heroes. He says it aims to break down the negative stereotypes that Burundi's Hutus and Tutsis have about each other.

"Maybe a Hutu did this, but not all Hutus. Or maybe a Tutsi did this, but not all Tutsi. So we take the examples from Hutu, from Tutsi, who did the other way around. Let's say in a district where you had Hutus making the majority and where Tutsi were killed during the ethnic cleansing or vice versa," he said. "But we know there is a Tutsi or a Hutu who saved the other person from the other different ethnic membership. We hand him the microphone and he tells the story. I particularly like this program, because it is showing that, within Hutu or Tutsi, there are some people who are models, and on whom we can count for a better future."

While most Burundians are desperate for peace, peace will not come, unless the rebels agree to a cease-fire. But if anything, rebel attacks have intensified since the inauguration of the new government, making reconciliation that much harder in Burundi.