Burundi's President Maj. Pierre Buyoya marked his first anniversary in power this past weekend, but thousands of his countrymen were in no mood for celebration. More than 55,000 Burundians sat in rain-soaked refugee camps in the terraced hills of neighboring Rwanda.
The vast majority of the refugees are of the Hutu tribe. For two weeks they poured into Rwanda in the second flood, in 16 years, of people fleeing violence by the governing Tutsis. They tell a bitter history of ethnic discrimination some claim is similar to apartheid - the racial discrimination enshrined in South Africa's laws.
Many local Rwandan officials and independent observers say the current violence in Burundi - a country of 5 million people in the heart of the African continent - is another campaign by the minority government to eliminate any Hutu who might pose a challenge to Tutsi power.
Major Buyoya's Tutsi minority controls the government, economy, military, and education, although the Hutu - traditional cultivators - outnumber the Tutsi six to one.
In the wave of military assaults that ravaged Burundi's two northern districts of Marangara and Ntega two weeks ago, many Hutu were shot and bayoneted, and at least 5,000 of their friends and families perished.
In 1972 - just under a generation ago - the Tutsi slaughtered as many as 100,000 Hutus in reprisal for a Hutu uprising that left an estimated 10,000 Tutsi dead. In the reprisal, the Tutsis targeted students, teachers, and anyone in positions of influence. Tens of thousands crossed into southern Rwanda; many remained.
For 1972 refugees like Jean-Paul, a 36-year-old teacher in Butare, recent reports of massacres by Tutsi soldiers ignite harsh memories. He recalled his own experience:
``I left Burundi because I am Hutu and I was persecuted. I was twenty then, so I didn't know exactly what was happening. My brothers were killed with spears in the presence of my sisters. I myself saw my teachers die, and I saw whole lorries full of dead people.''
A Belgian missionary who also left Burundi in 1972, says his failure to save students and teachers killed at his school has burned in his conscience.
One of his students, said Brother Bernard, managed to escape from prison, and told Brother Bernard how every day, hundreds of Hutu men and boys were brought in, ordered to lie on top of each other in a crowded cell until they filled it to the ceiling and suffocated.
``The whole thing had been so easy for the Tutsi,'' said Brother Bernard. ``The people had been so docile ... exactly as the Jews believed to the last moment that they were going to work camps.''
For four centuries, since the tall Tutsi herdsmen migrated to central Africa from Sudan, they have ruled like a class of nobles over the Hutu farmers. But since independence from Belgium in 1962, a succession of Tutsi governments has tightened the minority's grip on power, creating what refugees, and the missionary, call an ethnic apartheid.
But Jean-Paul says that the idea of development - even separate development - for the Hutu is not accepted by the regime, as it has been in South Africa. The minority government denies the existence of ethnic discrimination that he says excludes the Hutu majority from political, economic, and educational opportunity.
``In Burundi, they lie to the world,'' said Jean-Paul. ``They tell the world that the country is one people.
``When there is a problem,'' he continued, ``they kill the enemy of the people.'' And, says Jean-Paul, a Hutu who knows how to read is often seen as the enemy.
The regime that ordered the 1972 massacres was overthrown by Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, who himself was deposed a year ago by Buyoya.
In the last years of his rule, Mr. Bagaza drew stinging international criticism for his campaign against the church, which he accused of encouraging the Hutus to stand up for their rights. Scores of clergy were expelled or arrested. Seminaries were shut down, and public worship was curtailed. In February l987, Burundi's repression prompted Amnesty International, an international human rights group, to issue a scathing report.
Since taking power in the bloodless coup last Sept. 3, Buyoya won initial praise for lifting the ban on the church. His aggressive crackdown on corruption - and in particular, Burundi's illegal ivory trafficking - earned more credibility with the international community.
But the structure of inequity in Burundi's society has remained largely unaltered. According to a Tutsi Protestant minister interviewed by a journalist in Bujumbura and other observers, the Tutsi minority fears that if it concedes an inch, it will be overcome by the majority.
For Brother Bernard, who has lived in various towns in this region for 25 years, the Tutsi employ a diabolical logic and force that he compares with South Africa.
``I am against apartheid. For me, the apartheid of South Africa is a system of indignity for human beings,'' he says angrily. ``But when I see what happens in countries like Burundi, this is for me, a thousand times worse than what happens under apartheid.''