Burundi today is standing on the brink of genocide. Now is the moment to prevent more bloodletting. Unless Burundian leaders reject extremism, rein in militias and runaway insurgents, and agree to a cessation of fighting and the onset of meaningful, broad political negotiations, they will propel their country toward national suicide.
The "ancient hatreds" often invoked by observers do not account for the terror gripping the country. In Burundi, as in Rwanda (and in Bosnia, for that matter), individual leaders are exploiting ethnic differences for narrow, violent, political ends.
Fear and suspicion run deep in Burundi, rooted in memories of past genocidal episodes, including the violent breakdown in 1993 of an attempted constitutional transition to majority rule.
Leaders are loath to take responsibility for the actions of their groups. Tutsi officials blame the rebels for the violence, ignoring the excesses of the military and the militias. Hutu rebels claim they fight to restore the legitimate rights of the majority, while credible reports accumulate of insurgent atrocities committed against innocent Tutsi civilians. Millions of Burundians of both ethnic groups are caught in the middle of this violent power struggle.
I visited Burundi recently and learned firsthand how the political violence has spread. On May 3, for example, Zaire-based Hutu guerrillas working to overthrow the constitutional government of Burundi attacked King Khaled Hospital in Bujumbura, killing and wounding patients and hospital workers. In apparent retaliation a few days later, a Tutsi militia machine-gunned a Hutu displaced-persons camp, killing eight people and wounding 32 others.
I visited both these atrocity sites. Windows in the hospital maternity ward had been shattered by rifle butts. On the floor in one room was dried blood where a patient had been shot by the guerrillas. In the courtyard was a charred area where another patient had been set on fire on her mattress.
The displaced-persons camp on the outskirts of Bujumbura is run by an elderly American missionary couple. There, I saw bullet-ridden tin shacks where men, women, and children were killed or wounded as they slept. Spent cartridges lay on the ground.
The refugees had come to the camp after being "ethnically cleansed" from a nearby Bujumbura suburb, which is now a ghost town, burned down and shot out in earlier, systematic attacks by Tutsi militias. The women and children at the camp who crowded around me burst into applause when I told them I was there to hear their stories.
Clearly, there are no easy answers here, but the place to start is to call what's happening by its proper name: mutual acts of genocide. The escalating violence is being directed by leaders who must be made to take responsibility for ending it. In a meeting with the Burundian prime minister, I welcomed his condemnation of violent militias but told him words are not enough.
The militias must be disarmed, the leaders must enter into political dialogue, and the international community must support African statesmen such as former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who is working to organize peace talks and restrain those who are supporting guerrilla raids into Burundi by Hutu extremists.
For its part, the US is increasing its diplomatic efforts in Burundi to encourage stronger leadership by moderate Hutus and Tutsis, both civilian and military. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, my colleague George Moose, and other officials have visited Burundi recently to urge an end to the violence.
We are engaging in contingency planning with our allies on how to prevent further bloodshed. We are exploring how to expand the UN human rights monitoring operation in Burundi as a preventive measure. And we are lending political support to the Nyerere talks, which can lead to a negotiated settlement of the conflict and finally end the violence.
Recently, exploratory talks led by President Nyerere failed, three International Red Cross workers were deliberately murdered, and signs appeared that the warring parties may be preparing an escalating round of killing. The chief armed protagonists - the Burundian military and Hutu insurgent leader Nyangoma - must enter into an interim cease-fire and negotiations, direct or indirect, that map a political way out of crisis.
Meanwhile, we will keep the international spotlight on developments in Burundi - to encourage the moderates, deter the killers, and keep the faith with the people in the camp, who made me promise I would tell their story.
* John Shattuck is US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.