Hutus and Tutsis Show Tolerance In a Neighborhood of Bujumbura

In Buyenzi, one of the oldest communities in Burundi's capital, ethnicity is not so blatant

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DESPITE the waves of ethnic killings in Burundi in the last year, at least one neighborhood here, Buyenzi, has remained peaceful. Residents offer a variety of explanations for this island of peace in a city where many neighborhoods are ethnically segregated.

Some say one positive influence is the high percentage of Muslims in Buyenzi, which is unusual since the country is only 1 percent Muslim. Others cite the presence of many refugees, primarily from Zaire, who may be adding a calming effect in Buyenzi, having fled previous ethnic strife themselves.

Perhaps a combination of religious tolerance, the experience of those who have seen violence elsewhere, and the fact that Buyenzi is the oldest neighborhood in this capital account for the calm. Hutus and Tutsis, Burundi's main ethnic groups, have lived together here for a long time.

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A walk through Buyenzi's streets leaves one with the impression that ethnicity is not as blatant here as in many other parts of the city or country. Most homes are modest mud-wall structures, typically crowded with displaced relatives from other parts of the country.

In Burundi's only democratic election, which took place last year, voters chose their first president, Melchior Ndadaye, from the Hutu ethnic group. The Hutus make up about 85 percent of the population, the Tutsis about 14 percent.

The new president was assassinated in October in an attempted coup by the Tutsi-dominated military. Angry Hutus retaliated by slaughtering possibly tens of thousands of Tutsis before the military unleashed its response and killed large numbers of Hutus. United Nations officials estimate up to 100,000 people were killed in the clashes.

Talks resumed here yesterday to find a consensus candidate for the presidency. Nine of Burundi's 13 political parties signed an accord Saturday that provides for a 25-post government, 55 percent drawn from the Hutu majority, to be named by the president.

Despite such progress, ethnic tensions are still high in Burundi - except in places like Buyenzi.

``I don't know if they are Hutus or Tutsis,'' says Musa Kikwemo, a teenage resident of Buyenzi as we walk by a small schoolyard jammed with displaced Burundians from another Bujumbura neighborhood, where militant Hutus and the Tutsi-dominated military have clashed recently.

Michelle Nombe, another local resident, says Hutus and Tutsis ``work and talk together [in Buyenzi]. They have grown up together. They pray together.''

A local tailor says: ``People here aren't into politics. They are into prayers and business.''

Majid Sadat, an Iranian teacher of the Koran and Arabic, sits on a wooden bench in the one-room library of the Ahlulbait Islamic School. Buyenzi is ``a mixed neighborhood - Hutu and Tutsi. Islam teaches no difference between white, black, red,'' he says.

Said Ngoyilunga, a Zairean refugee who teaches at the school, says Islam stresses ``the unity of all persons. There's no importance in ethnicity. Loves plays a great role.''

But economic differences exist between many Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi, Mr. Sadat notes. ``In Bujumubura, there aren't enough jobs; there isn't much business. Too many Hutus don't know French or English,'' compared with Tutsis, he says. Under colonial rule, the Belgians favored Tutsis and provided them with more educational opportunities.

Mr. Kikwemo, a student at the Islamic school, offers another assessment of why Buyenzi has avoided ethnic killings. ``We know our neighbors. You can't kill your neighbor.''

That, however, is what happened this year during the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. And it has happened in Burundi as well, says Hawa Hassan, a Hutu who fled ethnic killings with her family in March in northern Burundi after the assassination of Ndadaye.

``They were neighbors,'' she says of some who attacked her village along with Tutsi military and even some Tutsi civilian refugees from Rwanda. The family now lives with several dozen other people in Kikwemo's crowded home here.

How will children today grow up viewing ethnic relationships - even in this neighborhood? ``Before, the idea of a Tutsi as an enemy was rare,'' says one young man who identifies himself as a Hutu. ``But now, even the little children are intoxicated with the idea of Tutsis as enemies.''

A young Hutu named Hadjous, whose nickname is ``Jimmy,'' says the youths of Burundi ``can help us get out of this [ethnic] problem.'' He offers no specific ideas on how the youths can help, however, except by their own example of ethnic tolerance. He discusses the news with a Tutsi friend each day, he adds.

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