After 16 years of war, Burundi rebels start new lives

The last rebel group has laid down its guns, but land disputes are complicating their reintegration.

Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/ Reuters
New role: Former rebels assembled at a camp near Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, last month. Many are being integrated into the country’s security forces.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

After eight years as a foot soldier in one of Africa's bloodiest ethnic conflicts, former rebel Christophe Manana is being sent home with $40, two pairs of pants, and a cheap transistor radio. In a month's time, he will receive another $40. Then he will be on his own.

"How am I meant to start a new life with this?" asked Mr. Manana after being handed a new Burundian identity card and herded toward a truck bound for his old home. "After everything I've been through, how can they give me so little?"

For Burundi, a tiny country of 8 million people wedged between Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is a moment of hope. In late April, Manana and thousands of other fighters from the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), the country's last rebel army, laid down their weapons.

It was the final act in Burundi's 16-year civil war, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and displaced more than a million people.

"The struggle continues," says Severin Ndabarushimana, a veteran member of the FNL's ruling council. "Only now, it is a political and not an armed struggle."

Of the 21,100 fighters the FNL declared, 3,500 combatants are being integrated into the Army and police force. And 5,000 will go through a lengthier demobilization process, including a week's worth of lessons on subjects from personal banking to AIDS, and a total payment of around $500.

Manana is part of a rump of 11,000 members who are being sent home with $80 and a deep sense of grievance. Unused to civilian life, they could form a powder keg of discontent.

A different path than Rwanda

Burundi is the forgotten twin of its neighbor, Rwanda. The countries share the same ethnic mixture: about 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi.

Since independence in 1962, they have developed as mirror images of each other.

While the Hutu majority seized power in Rwanda, the Tutsi-dominated Army snatched control in Burundi. During decades of dictatorship and ethnic apartheid, the Army reacted with genocidal ferocity to Hutu attempts at power. Following a failed revolt in 1972, 200,000 Hutus were systematically murdered and 300,000 were forced to flee the country.

In 1993, there was a brief glimmer of hope with the democratic election of Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. But within six months, Mr. Ndadaye was killed in a coup. By the time Rwanda exploded into genocide in April 1994, Burundi had already spiraled into civil war.

Now, the two countries have chosen divergent paths to deal with their ethnic issues. While Rwanda has opted for a policy of ethnic amnesia, prohibiting use of the terms "Hutu" and "Tutsi," Burundi has institutionalized the ethnic distinctions. The Army, once the bastion of Tutsi dominance, is split 50-50. The cabinet is 60 percent Hutu, 40 percent Tutsi.

This policy of ethnic openness means that tensions between the communities have subsided, says Joseph Ndayizeye, vice president of local human rights group Iteka.

But if ethnic differences can be put on the back burner for the time being, then other problems are less soluble.

Ranked one of the poorest countries in the world, with average annual incomes at around $100, Burundi is still awash with as many as 300,000 illegal firearms. Outside the capital, Bujumbura, roads close when darkness comes. Across the country, banditry and violence is rampant. The murder rate in 2008 was nearly twice the international average, according to the annual Small Arms Survey done by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.

"Now the war is over and peace has come, but this is the dangerous period," Mr. Ndayizeye says. "This is the time when the real work has to begin."

Returning refugees could pose problems

Complicating these issues is a major influx of returnees: hundreds of thousands of Burundians who sought refuge in neighboring Tanzania during the 1993 fighting and tens of thousands more who fled in 1972. Homes they left in haste were claimed long ago by countrymen.

Nearly 400,000 Burundians have been repatriated from Tanzania since 2002. Tanzania plans to send the 40,000 remaining Burundians home by July 1 – by force, if necessary.

"[Tanzanian and United Nations authorities] say: 'You're all Burundian, and Burundi is peaceful now,' " says Jean-Paul Rukundo, who fled Burundi with his wife and children more than a decade ago, "but if the UN would start screening – 'Why don't you want to go back?' – [they'd see] that everyone has different problems. Some have family members in prison; others, the government sold their land without consulting them."

In one of the world's most rural countries, where the population has tripled since independence, land is already scarce. Now the justice system is stymied by the backlog of bitter land disputes that could ignite widespread discontent.

Mary Wiltenberg contributed to this report. She traveled to Tanzania on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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