Ethnic Turbulence in Burundi Creates Conflicting Reports, Blurring Reality

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HUTU politician Jean Minani is a moderate, an extremist, a great leader, a traitor, too soft, and too hard-line - depending on whom you speak to.

Similarly, Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi former president, is a great democrat, an opportunist, a coup plotter, a sellout, and a nationalist, according to conflicting views.

How one is perceived here is not a matter of vanity - in such a turbulent country, one's life often depends upon it.

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Forming an opinion and being informed in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, are tricky matters for an outsider. With political groups polarized, and many others with propagandistic agendas, the only thing that seems to be clear in Burundi is that nothing is clear.

The simmering conflict - some say it's a civil war, others say it's bordering on catastrophe, others say it's mere strife - has pushed people from the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups further apart in the political spectrum.

The strife has been on low boil since 1993, when the first Hutu president was assassinated. More than 100,000 have died since then.

But has the violence that claims hundreds of lives - some say 1,000 - a month gotten worse? Some say this month has been the calmest Bujumbura has been in ages. Others said the quiet was deceptive and that the country was never so close to cataclysm.

The more dialogue breaks down and freedom of movement is restricted, the harder it is to get a true reading of what is going on. Independent observers unable to venture outside the capital find it hard to get a firm grasp. No one knows for sure how many refugees are wandering through the forests. Once curfew begins at 9 p.m. in Bujumbura, only assassins and their victims know what happens when gunfire rings out after dark.

For instance, during one night earlier this month, there was a burst of shooting on the city's outskirts. It was in Kamenge district, a formerly Hutu area that is now a virtual ghost town occupied by the Tutsi-controlled Army after pitched battles last year with Hutu militias.

The military said the next day that Hutu militias had fired on one of their patrols, which responded. Sources close to the militias said the shooting was started by the government soldiers. There were no independent witnesses.

Kamenge is one of several parts of the town divided between Hutu and Tutsi, although there are some areas and times of day when they still mix. The unofficial segregation extends to the white foreign aid workers, who are confined to the capital and anxious after attacks on their compounds in the interior.

Many gather before curfew at the patio bar of the city's premier hotel, the Novotel, exchanging the scant information available, using euphemisms for the words Hutu and Tutsi as they look nervously over their shoulders at the locals eavesdropping at the next tables.

People are often scared to speak openly about what they believe. And one's true identity becomes an exercise of perception rather than reality. ''It doesn't matter who you are. What matters is how you are perceived,'' says Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, a former foreign minister who lives in exile in South Africa.

How he is perceived depends on who you talk to. Some see him as a Tutsi sympathetic to Hutus, others say he did nothing for them. Others say variously he was a traitor or pragmatic for leaving in June 1995 when the stakes got too high and the death threats too much.

Corroborating Mr. Ngendahayo's view that the inner man is not what counts is Mr. Minani, leader of the Hutu majority Front for Democracy in Burundi. Asked by a reporter whether he viewed himself a moderate, he parried back the question anxiously: ''No, but how do you see me? What do others say?''

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