Burundi peace in African hands

Last week, the African Union deployed its first peacekeeping force, aimed at ending a 10-year civil war.

As a cool breeze softens the fierce sun, Cpl. Lilo Africa stands at Tango Station and looks down over fields of ibijumpu, or sweet potato, and out across a land in turmoil. For almost 10 years now, this tiny nation squeezed between Rwanda, Tanzania, and Congo has been gripped by civil war, but forgotten by the world.

The United Nations will not deploy a multilateral peacekeeping force here, saying there is yet no peace to keep. And no world power has a big enough stake to come here, as the French did in Congo and the Americans did in Liberia.

So sorting out Burundi's problems has been left to Africa and the men at Tango Station. With war still raging in much of the countryside and even on the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura, their task is unenviable. One main rebel group has still not signed onto the peace process and a second continues to violate its terms.

The force's mission is a test case for the African Union (AU), which promised to usher in a new era of peace and good governance for the continent, along with a new paradigm for African peacekeeping. Although African armies have participated in peacekeeping efforts before, such efforts have been led by the UN or a regional group with vested interests, dominated by a single strong nation like South Africa or Nigeria. Not this time.

"The UN says that the conditions here are not ripe for them to intervene. We are saying that, of course, we are Africa, so we cannot let it go on like that," says Mamadou Bah, the African Union ambassador to Burundi, who likens the continent's relationship to Burundi to that of a mother who has given birth to a snake. "We know that the situation is very difficult, volatile. But we have to try."

In recent weeks, troops from Mozambique and Ethiopia trudged off of airplanes lugging camouflage backpacks and mosquito nets, joining about1,500 South Africans already established here in green tents. Together, the nearly 3,000-strong force is charged with protecting government installations like the president's house and parliament, facilitating demobilization of the rebels, and paving the way for elections next year.

Eventually, African leaders say they would like to have a standing peacekeeping force, although experts say that considering the current state of most African armies, such a force is at least a decade away. For now, the peacekeepers, who are receiving financial support from Britain and the United States, operate much like a UN force, with each country controlling its own soldiers.

Currently, the peacekeepers are deployed only in the capital and a demobilization center at Bubanza. The Ethiopian contingent plans to open a second center soon.

Despite the conflict raging around Bujumbura, residents are as likely to meet and greet the peacekeepers at a local club on a Friday night as on duty. But Burundians also know that when trouble does come to Bujumbura - as it did last July when rebels temporarily took much of the city - there is little the small contingent of peacekeepers can do to protect the populace.

The situation in Bubanza further illustrates the challenges for the new peacekeepers. Since May, about 400 South African troops have been headquartered around an old colonial house, a few miles outside the city in what is supposed to be Burundi's first demobilization center.

Almost 200 rebel troops from two small breakaway factions, most just barefoot boys, voluntarily handed over their weapons to the South African peacekeepers, just after the inauguration of Burundi's new president, Domitien Ndayizeye.

Initially, the rebels were to spend only a few nights in the camp's tin shacks, before being moved to a more permanent facility where they would be retrained to be part of the national army or rehabilitated into society. Almost six months later, they are still here and chaffing at the confinement. Members of one faction even temporarily ran away recently.

With the political process stalled over issues like the makeup of the national army, the peacekeepers cannot move forward with reintegration programs. Hopes are higher following a peace deal brokered by South Africa earlier this month between the Burundi government and one rebel group.

However, prospects for a comprehensive peace still look dim, as a second rebel group, which has attacked Bujumbura several times in recent months, remains outside of the peace talks. In recent months, much of the fighting has also taken place between the two main rebel groups.

Initially skeptical about the arrival of foreign troops, most Burundians are now happy for any sign that peace may be on the horizon. An estimated 300,000 people have died during 10 years of an ethnic war, sparked by the assassination of a popularly elected Hutu president by fighters from the previously ruling Tutsi minority.

"I don't really know whether it will be helpful, but I do know that government is trying to make sure that there is peace one day," says refugee Terrance Barakamfitiye as he waited for food aid from the UN's World Food Program. "But all we can do is continue to pray to God and hope that peace will come soon."

Back at Tango Station, Corporal Africa is a long way from the beaches of his home on South Africa's east coast, but he sees a similarity in the conflict in Burundi. Here, as in South Africa a decade ago, the fight is between the country's minority and majority groups. That the difference in Burundi is ethnic rather than racial matters little.

"I'm proud, proud to be helping here as part of the first African Union peacekeeping force," he says.

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