Burundi: A Sense of Dread

January 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: President Clinton sent Amb. Albright to Africa two weeks ago on a fact-finding mission. The countries she visited were some of the most troubled on the African continent: Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, and Burundi. In Angola and Liberia, two countries involved in long civil wars, Albright warned that the international community would not indefinitely give aid to African nations that could not resolve their own conflicts.

Albright visited a mass grave in Rwanda, where the Hutu and Tutsi tribes fought a vicious and bloody war that left more than 1/2 million Tutsis dead. That conflict was triggered by the assassinations of the Rwandan and Burundi presidents who were killed in a rocket attack on their plane in the Spring of 1994.

Rwanda and Burundi have the same ethnic mix: 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis. And many fear that Burundi is on the brink of a genocidal war between the two tribes much like the one fought earlier in Rwanda. In Burundi, Albright’s first stop was an orphanage which provides shelter for some of the youngest refugees from Rwanda. After the massacres in Rwanda, thousands of refugees fled to nearby countries like Burundi.

Many of the Hutus have been unwilling to return to Rwanda, because they fear reprisals from the Tutsis. During her Burundi visit, Albright expressed concern to officials about escalating violence. Hutu rebels have attacked the Tutsi-dominated army, and the Tutsis have been accused of ethnic cleansing in Hutu villages. UN Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed stationing peacekeepers in nearby Zaire, but so far, there has been little support for that idea.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: On Monday, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for restraint, reconciliation, and the rule of law in Burundi, but it also called on Boutros-Ghali to come up with a plan for international action by February 20th to de-fuse or contain the crisis. Joining us now to discuss Burundi, Rwanda, and the other stops on her trip is Amb. Albright. And welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Glad to be with you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Just how serious is the problem in Burundi as we speak?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: I think it’s very serious. What I said to the leadership in Burundi is that that nation is on the verge of committing national suicide. Charlayne, I took this trip, the whole trip, because President Clinton asked me to go and assess these most horribly difficult situations in Liberia, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi, also because I’m going to be president of the Security Council starting February 1st, and these subjects, as you mentioned, Burundi is going to be very much a subject of discussion, and the mandate for Angola will come up also during the month that I’m president. So I went to assess all this.

The hard part as you look at all these terrible killings and the remnants of, of the horrible civil wars there is to remember that this isn’t all of Africa, that there are wonderful places to visit.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But in terms of Burundi, what exactly is the problem there?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, the problem there is that, as you mentioned in, in this set-up piece, was basically that some of the leadership that had been elected was, in fact, assassinated, and there had been a political vacuum.

Now, what is happening, the Tutsis, who are the minority, have combined in a government that actually has also a Hutu president but basically the Tutsis are in the minority and they are trying to figure out how to run a country that is majority Hutu, and at the same time, there are an awful lot of loose bands, a lot of killing that is going on, and the desire of the Hutus not to be suppressed by this Tutsi minority, so there is no dialogue, or not enough dialogue going on between the various factions.

And the problem is that they can’t seem to see that their future lies–could look just like Rwanda or Angola or Liberia, and they are at this very crucial moment where they’re kind of on a knife’s edge as to whether they’re going to have a Rwanda-like genocide, or maybe a slower deterioration, but some way for the moderates to try to come to some agreement about how to end this kind of strife.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. The members of the Security Council have rejected Boutros-Ghali’s call to station peacekeepers there. What are the options that could be pursued that, you know, that can be developed by the 20th of February?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: What we have to do is first of all there are a number of ways to look at what the international community can do, and I started doing some of this, shining the light on what is going on there. Part of the problem with Rwanda was that there was not enough attention paid early on. Then the international community can also help promote dialogue between these various groups to try to resolve the problem internally.

There also is a way to look at mechanisms that can be set up. They have signed, these parties of government, a convention of government to try to develop power sharing but ultimately what we have to do is begin to see whether there’s the possibility and these are the options on the table of some kind of a stand-by force outside of Burundi that would be prepared to go in to try to stop or protect the civilians and the non-governmental organizations if something broke out.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there any sentiment for that?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, this is what we’re exploring. I think that any Security Council discussions, there really is the sense that we, that the international community must apply itself to the problem, and also, and I talked about this with the leaders there, is to try to make sure that there are security guards for the–there’s a commission of inquiry there about the assassination of the President and also that the non-governmental organizations that are trying to feed the people, trying to assist on seeing how many human rights violations are, that they are protected, but frankly, there are not a lot of outside options, and my message not only in Burundi but other places is that the leadership of that country has to accept responsibility for what’s going on in it.

What I found, Charlayne, was that they were constantly saying it’s the fault of outside forces, it’s the fault of those guys over there, and not enough acceptance by the leadership and the military there of their responsibilities to try to get their country on track.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Did you find the same thing in Rwanda, which, after all, everybody is saying is where Burundi is headed–

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, to some extent–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What’s the situation there now?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, in Rwanda, they are dealing with the only way to describe it is the African version of the neutron bomb. The buildings there are standing and somewhere between five to eight hundred thousand or up to a million people were murdered, and so they are trying to deal with the horror of that kind of national trauma and they are–they don’t have as many problems with their infrastructure because that was not destroyed, so they are trying to deal with the refugees that are still outside the country, and I think are doing a pretty good job. I mean, you have to understand if they’ve gone through the trauma of being murdered by some of the people that are now in these camps or in prisons, they are concerned about bringing them back and they are, I think, taking more responsibility for their lives.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was the message there from the United States and what can the U.S. do?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: The message there was basically–they’re very distrustful of the international community, and, and the message that I gave there was that the international community is trying to view–for instance, the United Nations refugee organization is trying to help them bring the people back from the camps, or that despite the horrible things that happened to them, they cannot have human rights violations in these prisons.

They are holding up to 60,000 prisoners now, people accused of having been part of the genocide, so our message to them is that they need to get their institutions in to shape, they need to somehow get the system so that they can deal with this past trauma.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When you left Rwanda, did you have any sense of optimism that this was, could be fixed?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Some, because I think that the leadership there is really trying to work on it, but I also had a sense there’s been a lot of discussion about the war crimes tribunal in Bosnia. The war crimes tribunal in Rwanda is also going to play a crucial role, because that will be the way to assign individual guilt so that the collective guilt of all the people will be not–they won’t hate everybody, they will just know that there were certain very specific people that were guilty.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, in Liberia and Angola, you still have civil wars that are ongoing and you went to both of those places.

AMB. ALBRIGHT: They are in slightly different phases. In Liberia, according to my estimation, I thought they’d kind of hit rock bottom and ought to be a moment ripe for peace, but they are still contending and there are some factions that are not under the control of this council of state, a collective presidency, and they are delaying in fulfilling some of the requirements of their peace processes called the Abusha Accords, and so there my message to them was do not delay any longer, you’ve got a chance now to make peace and try to make it, but I’m not fully convinced that the leadership understands that for instance Charles Taylor, one of the leaders that is part of the fighting said in a meeting, I started this war and now we don’t know how to stop it because there’s a momentum of this kind of a war and extremists who always have more of a stake in chaos, and then the horrible part of about Liberia, Charlayne, is they have four to six thousand of what are known as these child soldiers, children under the age of fifteen who know nothing but carrying guns; they’re on drugs; they are drunk off the sugar cane juice; and they need to reintegrate them. In Angola, they seem readier that that moment of peace, they’re practically ready to seize it, and we were trying to push it over the last edge here.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You said that the President sent you there to assess the situation. Why is that? What is the–does the U.S. have interests in Africa?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that the U.S. obviously is a country that cannot deal with everybody’s problems. We cannot be the world’s policemen, but we do have interests, we care about the people of Africa, we care about regional stability, we care about making sure that they’re not horrific kind of events like the genocide in Rwanda again, but we need to measure very carefully where we can make a difference, and where there is this moment where it is ripe for peace, as it is Angola, we can exert leverage, we can assist the leaders there to get involved in power sharing, we can also–we along with other members of the international community, help the moderates in all these countries who are beginning to take responsibility for what is going on and help them have some kind of a package to get the people to stop fighting and give up their weapons for a normal life.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is anybody else doing anything in Africa other than the kind of trips that you took and the things that–

AMB. ALBRIGHT: You mean–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Any other country?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: A lot of countries–what I also went to assess were the peacekeeping operations, and I must say that let’s take Angola for instance, it’s the largest peacekeeping operation that exists now, about 7,000 troops, from 35 different countries, and so other countries are doing a great deal there, and that is important, and, and other–it’s true also throughout other parts of Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how do you respond, and you alluded to it earlier, to critics, including Boutros-Ghali, who, who say that the international community and the U.S. is not doing enough before these countries get to the point of committing, as you say, national suicide?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that this is what I was looking at, was to try to figure out whether in Burundi, for instance, it was possible to practice some kind of preventive diplomacy. We aren’t doing enough, but the mechanisms, the international community has a hard time kind of getting a handle on when the right moment is.

In Burundi, what I found was the leaders there do not want the international community to come in and help, and I say, you know, you are drowning, we are reaching out a hand to you, don’t bite the hand, because they see it as weakness if the international community comes in and tries to assist in some kind of dialogue.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But those who compare the international community’s reactions say to Bosnia, where some say you know, $1.8 billion was raised in one week for reconstruction, say there’s a double standard, that Africa is off the international community’s consciousness.

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think first of all, there was an awful lot of criticism about the fact that nobody was paying attention to Bosnia until the moment was ripe, and I think that what–as I said, the United States cannot pay–cannot be the world’s policemen, but I do think that we have paid a great deal of attention to Africa.

For instance, over a billion dollars, more than a billion, were spent bilaterally, multilaterally, by the United States and Africa in the year 1995, but I do think that we need to look at these on a case-by-case basis and where we can do some good, we must add, but we cannot resolve it all.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me just ask you in the final minute that we have, turning to another part of the world, Iraq–what’s happening there in terms of the sanctions and their requests to allow some oil to be sold so that they can use the money to–for humanitarian aid?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Well, the issue has been, is that with the sanctions regime, Iraq has been semi-isolated for quite a long time. Even early, when all these resolutions were passed, the United Nations made an agreement whereby Iraq could sell oil to buy humanitarian goods.

Saddam Hussein didn’t like that, and so we have created a new resolution in which they can sell up to $4 million of oil a year in order to buy goods, and they want to make sure that it’s done in a way that does not intrude with their sovereignty, and we are trying to work out a way that the people can eat.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you think that something will be worked out?

AMB. ALBRIGHT: I think so. What’s happened is that the parties have now–the Iraqis have named a negotiating team, so has Boutros-Ghali, and starting February 8th in New York, they will start talking about it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Madame Ambassador, and Madame President of the Security Council to be, thank you for joining us.

AMB. ALBRIGHT: Thank you very much.