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After 16 years of war, Burundi rebels start new lives

The last rebel group has laid down its guns, but land disputes are complicating their reintegration.

By Max DelanyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2009

New role: Former rebels assembled at a camp near Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, last month. Many are being integrated into the country’s security forces.

Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/ Reuters

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Rubira Assembly Camp, Burundi

After eight years as a foot soldier in one of Africa's bloodiest ethnic conflicts, former rebel Christophe Manana is being sent home with $40, two pairs of pants, and a cheap transistor radio. In a month's time, he will receive another $40. Then he will be on his own.

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"How am I meant to start a new life with this?" asked Mr. Manana after being handed a new Burundian identity card and herded toward a truck bound for his old home. "After everything I've been through, how can they give me so little?"

For Burundi, a tiny country of 8 million people wedged between Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is a moment of hope. In late April, Manana and thousands of other fighters from the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), the country's last rebel army, laid down their weapons.

It was the final act in Burundi's 16-year civil war, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and displaced more than a million people.

"The struggle continues," says Severin Ndabarushimana, a veteran member of the FNL's ruling council. "Only now, it is a political and not an armed struggle."

Of the 21,100 fighters the FNL declared, 3,500 combatants are being integrated into the Army and police force. And 5,000 will go through a lengthier demobilization process, including a week's worth of lessons on subjects from personal banking to AIDS, and a total payment of around $500.

Manana is part of a rump of 11,000 members who are being sent home with $80 and a deep sense of grievance. Unused to civilian life, they could form a powder keg of discontent.

A different path than Rwanda

Burundi is the forgotten twin of its neighbor, Rwanda. The countries share the same ethnic mixture: about 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi.

Since independence in 1962, they have developed as mirror images of each other.

While the Hutu majority seized power in Rwanda, the Tutsi-dominated Army snatched control in Burundi. During decades of dictatorship and ethnic apartheid, the Army reacted with genocidal ferocity to Hutu attempts at power. Following a failed revolt in 1972, 200,000 Hutus were systematically murdered and 300,000 were forced to flee the country.

In 1993, there was a brief glimmer of hope with the democratic election of Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. But within six months, Mr. Ndadaye was killed in a coup. By the time Rwanda exploded into genocide in April 1994, Burundi had already spiraled into civil war.