The government of Burundi has rejected a request made by the European Community that it allow an international inquiry team to investigate regions that were the scene of massacres last week. The question that such a team would try to answer - and that everyone is still asking - is: What touched off the violence that left at least 5,000 people dead, 100,000 people homeless, and sent more than 50,000 people fleeing into neighboring Rwanda?
Initial reports by the Burundi government, which is run by the minority Tutsi tribe, said that exiled members of the Hutu tribe were stirring up trouble. The Hutus make up about 85 percent of the population.
But refugees in Rwanda, who are almost all Hutus, say that unannounced Army maneuvers prompted fears of an impending Tutsi-led massacre, spurring Hutu villagers to make a preemptive strike.
According to the refugees, the government then sent the Army in to quell the violence, but the Army itself began killing at random. Burundi officials concede that the Army was involved in reprisals during a bloodbath that began two weeks ago between the tribes.
Diplomatic sources in Rwanda suggest that the incidents may be related to the latest moves in an aggressive campaign to halt corruption launched by the year-old government of Maj. Pierre Buyoya.
What actually provoked the first outbreak of violence, and how many people died, may never be known by outsiders. Burundi has rejected the idea of an inquiry team. It is strictly controlling access to the areas where the cleanup and burial of bodies have begun.
``Burundi is an independent state which has the situation under control. There is no place for such a commission,'' said Foreign Minister Cyprien Mbonimpa after making an appeal at the UN for $15 million in aid for people left homeless by the violence.
Scores of interviews with frightened refugees, temporarily camped in schoolyards in the hills of Rwanda's southern Butare district, paint a complex picture of an ancient intertribal conflict. The interviews suggest that this hostility is being played out in bloody incidents among the civilians themselves, as well as between the Tutsi-dominated military and Hutu peasants.
The cause of much of the hostility lies in the fact that Burundi is one of the world's most densely populated countries, and competition for land is fierce.
In 1972, the ruling Tutsis killed at least 100,000 Hutus in one of the worst ethnic slaughters in post-independent Africa. The Tutsis sought to eliminate every Hutu who had an education or was in a position of influence. Without exception, that massacre came up in interviews with refugees.
Those from Kirundu Province told of being warned early this month of an impending civil war, which swiftly evoked memories of 1972. Hutu tribesmen, the refugees said, launched preemptive attacks on local Tutsi peasants. Refugees from neighboring Marangara Province detailed other incidents that may have fueled the terror.
One was the apparent arrest of 11 Hutus in early August by the military, recounted by a young farmer who says he was among those arrested. Dressed in dingy salmon-colored sweater and trousers torn at the pockets, he pounded his knees with clenched fists as he told, through an interpreter, how Hutus ``rose up'' after Tutsi soldiers came to his village looking for educated people.
The villagers detroyed a bridge to the village, trying to impede passage of the military trucks. He and 10 others were arrested the next day, beaten en route to a nearby brigade, then released the following day at the insistence of the interior minister.
The incident undoubtedly stirred the long-simmering bitterness among the Hutus, who have been the tillers of the land in a feudal society forged by the tall aristocratic Tutsi herdsmen who migrated to Central Africa from Sudan four centuries ago.
What appears consistently in even the sketchiest stories is the wave of rumors that began to sweep the two provinces in early August. One refugee pushed his way to the front of a crowd pressing around visitors to say that ``outsiders'' had come to his place in Marangara to rally the Hutus to fight the Tutsis. People began burning Tutsi huts; women and children fled to Rwanda.
But the young farmer who was arrested suggested that tensions were ignited as early as last May, when Hutus learned that a local mayor had a secret meeting with his fellow Tutsi.