UNITED Nations peacekeeping missions usually conjure up images of blue helmets, flak jackets, guns, and plenty of troops in places such as the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and, increasingly, Rwanda.
But those descriptions don't apply in Burundi, Rwanda's southern neighbor, which has the world's smallest peacekeeping operation: a team of two diplomats. Instead of soldiers' uniforms they wear business suits. They pack no armaments more threatening than a fax machine. And instead of operating from sand-bagged bunkers, they work from their hotel suites and a nearby office.
With no troops to marshal, they help gather politicians of rival ethnic groups into the same room for peace talks.
Although the UN team is small, the stakes are high. ``If the talks fail, there will be civil war,'' says Jean Marie Ngendahayo, Burundi's foreign minister.
When the two-man team arrived last year, the first Hutu president of the country, Melchior Ndadaye, had just been assassinated with some other high-ranking officials.
Ethnic massacres had broken out between angry Hutus and Tutsis. In return, the Tutsi military unleashed attacks against Hutus. Some 50,000 to 100,000 have been killed in Burundi since the assassinations, according to UN officials.
In Burundi, just as in Rwanda, Hutus account for roughly 85 percent and Tutsis 14 percent of the population, according to government records. But unlike Rwanda, Burundi has been ruled by Tutsis for most of the time since independence from Belgium in 1962.
Although Hutus gained control of the presidency after winning last year's first democratic presidential elections, Tutsis remain in charge of the military.
By early February this year, a new Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was sworn in and the worst of the ethnic massacres appeared to end.
``We asked to leave, to show that the UN had not been stuck in a long-term problem,'' says Ould Abdallah, a Mauritanian UN diplomat who heads the two-man UN peacemaking mission here. But UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali renewed their mandate.
Though their mission was officially changed to one of ``technical assistance,'' they continue the same peacemaking work.
``We're only two, but we work with the whole diplomatic community,'' says the other half of the team, Hany Abdelaziz, an Egyptian UN diplomat and retired military officer.
He recounts several examples of the unorthodox peacemaking steps taken by the team to try to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis:
* In April, they organized a half marathon (about 13 miles) involving Hutu and Tutsi runners. The United States Agency for International Development supplied T-shirts printed with the slogan ``Peace = Life.'' A military band played as part of the day's events, which for some Hutus might have been the first time they had seen the Tutsi-dominated forces in a peaceful role.
* The UN team encouraged military engineers to begin building roads in a mostly Hutu neighborhood of Bujumbura where violent clashes broke out between Hutu civilians and the Tutsi military.The aim of such diplomatic moves is ``changing the mentality'' of Hutus and Tutsis toward each other, Mr. Abdelaziz says.
Ambassador Abdallah says the UN team has also sponsored numerous receptions where Hutus and Tutsis have been brought together informally to help build confidence on both sides.
And the UN team has been closely involved with the current round of negotiations underway between Hutu and Tutsi political leaders over government policies.
The Burundi UN mission ``is the world's smallest peacekeeping operation ... and the most cost effective,'' Abdallah says. ``I think the mission has been not only positive, but successful.''
Foreign Minister Ngendahayo calls the UN team ``the eye of the world here.''
The two-man UN mission ``aid as much as they can,'' says Burundi's interim President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, whose confirmation in office depends on the successful completion of current negotiations between Hutus and Tutsis. He says he would welcome more civilian UN observers to help keep the peace.
But while praising the dedication of the two-man team, neither government nor opposition leaders credit the UN mission with any particular achievements. Proving the link between cause and effect in politics, especially reconciliation politics, is difficult.
Charles Mukasi, a leading Tutsi political opponent to the Hutu government, says the two UN diplomats ``do very correct work.'' No one suspects them of taking sides, he adds.
But Vrand Bakevyumusaya, minister of works and professional training, says the UN team spends too much time in their hotel and too much time socializing with the more affluent politicians, which, he says, are usually Tutsis.
He says the UN team should get out more and spend more time with the average Burundian.
Yet everyone praises the team for working hard. Abdallah, for one, seems to thrive on it. ``I never get tired [working],'' he says. ``I only get tired when I stop.'' But, he adds, there are challenges.
``I haven't seen my only son for a year. I don't go out. I don't go to the bar. It's not easy.''