On the edge of peace in the heart of Africa

'Amahoro!" shouted the children, waving excitedly at our passing vehicle. "Amahoro" means "peace" in Kirundi, the language of Burundi. Sadly, in this small central African country, peace has been elusive for too long.

Burundi has been torn by a brutal ethnic conflict reflecting shades of neighboring Rwanda. As in Rwanda, the 6.8 million people of Burundi identify primarily with two ethnic groups: 85 percent are Hutu and 14 percent are Tutsi. A civil war that pits Hutu rebels against the predominantly Tutsi army has raged for 10 years. More than 200,000 people have been killed. A million are crowded into refugee camps in neighboring countries or are internally displaced.

There's no denying that Burundi is in bad shape. The hard-fought gains of the early '90s are gone. Whole communities have been burned to the ground; livestock have been decimated. Life expectancy is now 46 years, with 1 in 10 people HIV-positive or living with AIDS. Few countries in the world are so forgotten or isolated. Still fewer need the support of the international community more than Burundi.

But Burundi is not hopeless. The country is poised, albeit precariously, on the threshold of peace. I visited Burundi in April, and was struck by the hopefulness of Burundians of both ethnicities that a peace can be brokered.

People long to rebuild their lives. In Ngozi Province in northern Burundi, Manisha, a mother of two, told me how Hutus and Tutsis coexist in her rural community. Hutus and Tutsis labor side by side, she said, to rebuild houses destroyed in the war. Manisha saw her husband's parents die in the fighting in 1993. She wants nothing more than a peaceful future for her children.

There is good reason for hope. On the political front, the peace process led by South Africa and Tanzania – negotiated by Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa – resulted in many of the warring factions' signing the Arusha Peace Accord in 2000. A transitional power-sharing government was established last November and has tried to advance an inclusive peace. If all goes well, free elections will take place in two years. An end to military hostilities may be close.

Yet the recent progress remains fragile. Two key rebel groups continue to fight the Army. Extremists on both sides seek to block the prospects for a lasting peace. Desperate poverty and exclusion remain tinder that can be ignited into a raging conflict.

Why should Americans take an interest in Burundi, when it is a challenge even to find the country on a map?

First, inadequate American and international attention to Rwanda allowed genocide to go unchallenged in 1994. The international community must do everything it can to prevent similar atrocities anywhere in the world.

Second, American support for the peace process would make an important difference – in some cases, between life and death – for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Burundians, whose plight has long been ignored. It is simply the right thing to do.

Finally, the situation in Burundi is closely related to those of its neighbors. The warring parties in Burundi are linked to opposing factions in neighboring Congo. What happens in Congo's civil war affects Burundi and vice-versa. Ending conflict in Burundi could positively influence the peace process in Congo and, in turn, have a stabilizing effect on a large swath of Africa.

The US and other governments are providing assistance for Burundi, but their support is largely emergency aid. While such assistance is needed, long-term support – for economic development, democracy and justice, community-level conflict resolution, and lasting solutions to poverty, such as basic education – is vital to promote peace and reconciliation.

The international community can help the peace process take root. When the Arusha Accord was signed, Western governments – including the United States – pledged significant support for Burundi, but little has materialized. If Western governments expect warring parties in Burundi to respect the Arusha Accord, then they must be prepared to live up to their own commitments in Arusha.

Despite the deep wounds of war and dire conditions of poverty, I left Burundi more hopeful than when I arrived. The shout of "Amahoro!" still rings in my ears. We must not ignore that expectant, resilient call.

• Peter D. Bell is president and CEO of CARE USA.

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