TWO years ago, the international community stood by as ethnic fighting in the West African nation of Rwanda claimed more than half a million lives. Against a background of intensifying violence, officials at the UN and in the United States say a similar crisis could be shaping up in neighboring Burundi.
Last week, traveling special UN Sadako Ogata reported on the "terrible things" now occurring in the former Belgian colony. Brutal fighting between ethnic Tutsis, who control the Army, and majority Hutus, who control the government, is devolving toward civil war.
A senior US official says the Clinton administration is "gravely concerned" about the deteriorating situation in the tiny African nation of 6 million, adding that intervention by an international military force to stem the violence - the most extreme of several highly problematical options - has not been ruled out.
But given the intractability of Burundi's politics, the hazards of intervening in civil wars, the reluctance of the Western public, and the absence of obvious measures to deal with the situation, the likelihood of decisive international action to prevent a political and humanitarian disaster appears small, most experts agree.
"It is exactly the same hesitation we saw in Rwanda - genocide at full speed is unfolding before our eyes," notes a UN official. "But the international community is not prepared to intervene."
Somalia made West skittish
Africa's strategic significance has diminished since the end of the cold war, so its major disasters have become easier for Western nations to ignore. A largely unsuccessful UN mission to rescue Somalia from famine in 1993, meanwhile, has reinforced Western skittishness about getting involved elsewhere in Africa.
Intervening in Burundi, moreover, would be all but unthinkable for President Clinton, who is already deeply involved in a controversial peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Yet Mr. Clinton's leadership would be crucial to mobilizing international efforts to prevent further violence in the war-torn nation.
According to the UN, more than 100,000 people have been killed and half a million displaced in ethnic fighting that has occurred since Tutsi soldiers assassinated Burundi's first Hutu president in October 1993. Both Burundi and Rwanda are 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi.
The fiercest fighting has occurred on the border with Rwanda in the north, where 150,000 mostly Hutu refugees have fled from Rwanda to escape the carnage there. The Burundi government has been powerless to curb the Army or the Hutu rebels, and there is little prospect of negotiations between them.
Aid workers attacked
Meanwhile, most international humanitarian agencies have been forced to suspend operations because of attacks on aid workers. Some have pulled out entirely.
In a letter to the UN Security Council Dec. 29, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the situation in Burundi had deteriorated since May 1995 into a "smoldering civil war" characterized by a "genocidal trend" of "daily killings, massacres, torture, and military detention."
"In the existing circumstances, I fear there is a real danger of the situation in Burundi degenerating to the point where it might explode into ethnic violence on a massive scale," Mr. Boutros-Ghali warned.
Last June, a UN emissary recommended strengthening democratic institutions, reforming Burundi's judicial system, and establishing a national police force to stem the tide of chaos.
In the absence of such internal reforms, the secretary-general has renewed a call for international action, including the "preventive deployment" of security guards to protect humanitarian workers, human rights monitors, and a multilateral, Zaire-based rapid reaction force to intervene "in the event of a sudden deterioration of the situation."
So far, the plea has fallen on deaf ears. In the past, the UN has assigned security guards to protect aid workers. But protecting the protectors in the midst of a Burundi-type civil war is certain to be far more hazardous, experts say. The use of human rights monitors is fraught with similar hazards, complicated by the steadfast opposition of the Burundi government. Several human rights workers dispatched by the 53-member Organization of African Unity, which monitors human rights in a number of African nations, already have been killed in Burundi.
A rapid reaction force is also seen as a nonstarter. Zaire has not agreed to allow its territory to be used as a staging area.
More troublesome, says the senior US official, is that the mission and size of the proposed force remain ill-defined and that the Burundi government has pledged to attack any force that intervenes in the country's internal affairs. The official says the Burundi crisis has produced "a lot of thinking inside the US government" but that coordinated international action has been constrained by the reluctance of some Western allies to get involved. "There's a whole lot more we, with others, could do to mitigate the situation and keep the lid on," says the US official, citing sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions "with teeth in them" as examples. "What has been lacking is the willingness of others to discuss this with us further in any detail."
That could change, says the official, if forthcoming reports from two UN emissaries to Burundi - and from US Ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright, who visits the war-torn nation this week - underscore the note of urgency struck by the secretary-general. In the meantime, says the official, discussions continue in the administration on possible "preventive and punitive" measures, accompanied by "contingency planning preparing for the possibility that they don't work."
As officials in Washington and elsewhere deliberate, the situation in Burundi approaches "critical mass," asserts a senior UN official. "It's getting to the point where it's about to go over the edge."