Burundi: On the Knifes Edge

March 28, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Two years ago in Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi tribes fought a vicious and bloody war that left more than 1/2 million Tutsis dead, a massacre that shocked the world.

More than 1/2 million people, mostly Hutus, fled Rwanda into the nearby countries of Burundi, Zaire, and Tanzania. Many of the Hutu refugees have refused to return to Rwanda, fearing reprisals from the Tutsis, who gained control of the government in 1994.

The Tutsi-led Rwandan government has imprisoned more than 60,000 Hutus on charges that they participated in the killing. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, spoke to the NewsHour after returning from Rwanda two months ago.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, US Ambassador to the UN: (January 30) 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.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Rwandans who went to Burundi for refuge found themselves in a country with severe problems of its own, a place many fear is on the brink of a genocidal war much like the one fought in Rwanda. Burundi has the same tribal ethnic mix as Rwanda, 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis. Hutu rebels have attacked the Tutsis-dominated army, and the Tutsis have been accused of ethnic cleansing in Hutu villages. Amb. Albright also met with Burundi officials.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, US Ambassador to the UN: (January 30) And the problem is that they can’t seem to see that their future life could look like just Rwanda or Angola or Liberia. 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.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The escalating violence in Burundi is threatening to further de-stabilize an area already plagued by a severe refugee crisis. Two hundred and fifty thousand Burundians have fled their country, mostly to Zaire, joining the more than million and a half Rwandan refugees already in the camps.

U.N. and Zaire authorities have made repeated attempts to close down the Rwandan refugee camps but with little success. Last month, this bus returned to Rwanda was almost empty, very few people taking the gamble to return home. For those who stay, there are meager food rations and rugged living conditions.

Thousands of babies are born in the Rwandan refugee camps each month. Aid workers attribute the birth explosion to different factors. One of them is what the young mothers say in interviews, that the genocidal civil war decimated their numbers and that the dead children must be replaced.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, we get the observations of a relief official recently in the area. Geraldine Sicola is now director of Catholic Relief Services’ emergency coordination unit and traveled to Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire. From 1980 to ’92, she was an aid worker in East Africa. Ms. Sicola, thank you for joining us. You were just in those camps. What shape were the people in?

GERALDINE SICOLA, Catholic Relief Services: The people have settled. They’ve been there now for two years. They’ve engaged themselves in small ways of survival. What comes to mind, though, is that while I was there, it was announced by UNHCR that by the end of this month they would no longer have funds.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The United Nations High Commissioner–

MS. SICOLA: That’s right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: –for Refugees, which is sort of overseeing the refugees.

MS. SICOLA: That’s right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what does that mean?

MS. SICOLA: Well, that means that by the end of this month people are going to have to make a choice between survival and having their basic needs met, perhaps by returning home to Rwanda, or would they stay at the threat of not being able to survive and having their basic needs met because of the fear of going back to Rwanda–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the fear is still very much alive?

MS. SICOLA: The fear is still very much alive, and what is striking, or what struck me as I drove through those countries is that for, for a minute, I never forgot what happened there two years ago. I never forgot the genocide, and I realize that these people are living with that every day. And yet, somehow in Rwanda, you see people getting on with their lives and attempting to survive.


MS. SICOLA: Well, in Rwanda, itself, but certainly in the camps. As you said in, in your piece a few weeks ago, people are having children. They feel that they have to repopulate their, their group, their ethnic group, their home, and so they do go on; people do go on.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But the word isn’t getting back to the people in the camps from the Rwandans in Rwanda that it’s okay to come home?

MS. SICOLA: I think that are efforts being made to convince people that, that it is all right to go home. Perhaps more has to be done to do that, for them to be convinced. But fear is, is a debilitating thing. Uh, if you’ve ever felt afraid of anything, yourself, you know it’s very hard to move on beyond that fear.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So how much of the problem–excuse me–is psychological now, and how much of it is physical?

MS. SICOLA: I think a great deal of it must, must be psychological, and I, I wondered, as I traveled and saw so many children who have seen more death probably than they’ve seen life, in, in their young lives, so many children whose families have been killed–uh, I spoke with a young woman who came from a family of twelve, and nine of her relatives, her brothers and sisters and her parents were killed. And I thought to myself, if something is not done soon to assist young children with the reformation in a sense of their values and to look into their future to see a different possibility, a hopeful possibility, that the cycle of violence can easily be perpetuated.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because they won’t know any different?

MS. SICOLA: Exactly, yes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you also say that the women can’t–I mean, can the women do this, given the kinds of new things that, that–the new tasks that they’ve had to take on? Tell me a little about that.

MS. SICOLA: Yes, certainly because of the genocide and because of the exodus of people out of Rwanda, it seems that the ratio, the gender ratio, is–has now–has now switched. There are definitely more women and children and old people than there are young, young men. And so women are now having to take on, in addition to their already heavy work loads, they’re having to take on the burden of the heavier work load that men often did.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because the men are either dead–

MS. SICOLA: Exactly.


MS. SICOLA: Exactly.


MS. SICOLA: That’s right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So that the women are having to do what?

MS. SICOLA: Well, I think they’re doing more of the heavy agricultural work perhaps than the men used to do. Uh, many houses were destroyed. That’s going to be a critical situation as the refugees return.

Women are going to have to be engaged in that kind of labor as well in rebuilding homes. And I think we have to be–to think ahead of what effect that’s going to have on, on the health and development of the children as well.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is the same–now, Burundi hasn’t had the kind of genocide and civil strife that Rwanda had, but you went there. What is different about it?

MS. SICOLA: Well, some people would say that there’s a slow genocide taking place perhaps outside of the capital, the city of Burundi, but the difference is at this stage in that crisis, it’s very clear that there are peace builders and peace makers in that society, that people are very much trying to prevent a crisis of the magnitude that happened in Rwanda.

The Catholic Church has been very active, for example, our local partner, in trying to work with people at the community level in processes that bring them together in dialogue, in reconciliation.

And you see projects going on where Hutu and Tutsi together are working in those development projects. And we feel that as long as that can be supported and at the international level, that attention can be kept on that crisis, uh, and that there are facilitators of peace building at all levels, at the international level, at the national level, and the community level in Burundi. We really are hopeful that that situation can be improved.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Did the experience in Rwanda give you any lessons for Burundi, and is Burundi giving us any lessons for how you prevent these kinds of things in the future?

MS. SICOLA: I think the, the conflicts that we’re seeing in many places in the world, in many places in Africa, certainly the situation in Bosnia, is indicating to us that our role in relief and development has to now always be done with, with a lens of looking how we contribute to peace and reconciliation with people. Uh, whether we’re doing projects that improve people’s economic situation or strengthening local institutions so that they’re building a civil society, themselves, we have to look at that in terms of our role of peace building.

But we have to look at the cleavages within society and always be trying to bring, bring people together, whether it’s an economic development or social development, uh, and we’re beginning to see our role in that much more clearly than I think we perhaps ever did before.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you build support for that? Because I remember when Amb. Albright was on the program, she said that, you know, that the people have to take responsibility for themselves and that the only way that there’s going to be any kind of enduring peace in the future is for the people to kind of get it together.

MS. SICOLA: That’s absolutely true. I mean, no, no development or peace will be lasting unless it’s people, themselves, who own that problem, are dealing with it themselves, but we feel that we, uh, must be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, wherever they are in the world.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why is it? Why should Americans care?

MS. SICOLA: I believe it’s a moral imperative. I think it’s a moral and ethical imperative, and I think it’s a practical imperative.


MS. SICOLA: Practical in the sense that this is an increasingly interdependent world. A problem 10,000 miles away affects us. Just the fact that I’m on this program tells us that American people do have an interest, that we are connected to people outside of our own borders. And when there is a problem somewhere else, it’s going to affect us here.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Geraldine Sicola, thank you for joining us.

MS. SICOLA: Thank you very much for your interest.