Burundi – a powder keg on brink, international officials fear

Updated 8:41 PM EDT, Fri May 8, 2015

Story highlights

Five reasons for the world to care about what's happening in Burundi

Nightmare scenario lurks in words no one wants to say: Another Rwanda

Burundian author in Seattle worries for safety of family back home, who cannot leave the house

(CNN) —  

Seconde Nimenya worries every day about her family back in Burundi.

She’s an author living in Seattle. But her brother Cyriaque is stuck in his home in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, with his wife, their four children and two orphans for whom they care.

Also stuck is Nimenya’s sister Terese, who came to visit and now cannot leave.

The danger, Nimenya said, is that the police would mistake them for protesters. Police have been firing live ammunition, killing a dozen or more protesters in the last 10 days and injuring many more.

Many other people, Nimenya said, have been arrested and tortured. Some of them, she said, are children.

“It’s everyone who doesn’t know a thing about politics who is the victim,” she said.

A flurry of concern

International organizations, from the U.S. Embassy in Burundi to the African Union to UNICEF, issued a flurry of statements Wednesday expressing concern and urging Burundians, particularly the current government, to turn away from violence.

And Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ former top humanitarian official, said Wednesday that international action was needed to avoid a catastrophe.

Burundi is a tiny central African country – smaller than Maryland. Its population, 10.4 million, is less than one-third that of Tokyo. So why is it suddenly climbing the international news agenda?

Because it could have an impact far beyond its size.

The worst fear lurks in the words no one wants to say: Another Rwanda.

Trying to avert a bloodbath

No one is predicting that. Everyone wants to avert it. But the direst possibility – unlikely but conceivable – is an ethnic slaughter like the one that took place in the neighboring country of Rwanda in 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.

In that genocide, Hutu extremists slaughtered Tutsis and moderate Hutus, often with machetes.

Burundi’s ethnic makeup, with a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority, is similar to Rwanda’s.

As the President seeks a third term, despite a two-term limit specified by the agreement that ended Burundi’s own ethnic civil war, opponents have taken to the streets.

Possibility of compromise remote

The positions of the two sides seem beyond compromise. Depending on what happens, the flows of refugees, already alarming, could increase.

Stability in the region could disintegrate. The region would grow poorer.

And perhaps most dire of all: Much of the world could be left with profound regret for the lives that could have been saved.

So here are five reasons to care about what is happening today in Burundi:

Human lives are at stake

Perhaps thousands of them.

The current tension seems on its face to revolve around politics rather than ethnicity. It boils down to the determination of President Pierre Nkurunziza to hold onto power and the determination of protesters to prevent his candidacy.

But ethnic tension lies close to the surface in Burundi. The country’s civil war, which lasted from 1993 until 2003. was driven by hatred between Hutus and Tutsis. An estimated 300,000 people were killed.

This time, as the President gets more desperate, the situation can evolve quickly, Nsengiyumva Pierre Claver, a former member of an EU electoral monitoring team, told CNN by phone from Bujumbura.

“The rules in this deadly game now can change so easily,” Claver said. “Because the ruling party is really using the last card they have to use – to go back to ethnic confrontation.

“There is a very great risk of ethnic conflict.”

Ethnic conflict could destabilize the region

Hutu-Tutsi violence in Burundi would surely inflame animosities in neighboring Rwanda and in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Hutus and Tutsis also endure an uneasy coexistence

Paul Kagame, the Rwandan President – a Tutsi who was instrumental in ending his country’s Hutu-perpetrated genocide – is unlikely to stand by if fellow Tutsis are killed in Burundi.

And eastern Congo is essentially ungoverned. Already, according to both Nimenya and Claver, local people are reporting that anti-Tutsi paramilitary groups similar to the Interahamwe, the Hutu group responsible for much of the violence in Rwanda in 1994, are being trained in the DRC.

“If Burundi backslides, it creates a lot of uncertainties in this region,” Claver said.

Regional instability can hurt the global economy

About 1 billion people live in Africa.

For years, analysts have viewed the continent as a potentially huge market, one large enough to help global economic growth if only Africans could become prosperous enough to have buying power commensurate with their numbers.

But economic development has no greater enemy than war. Investment would dry up. Education would be disrupted. Productivity would be diminished.

Should the region become destabilized, the hoped-for buying power of people there would be reduced rather than increased.

Prevention is cheaper than cure

Conflict in Burundi, large or small, could cost taxpayers in many developed countries some money.

Already, 20,000 refugees have streamed into Rwanda; that number seems certain to increase in the coming weeks. Refugees need to be cared for, out of simple humanity. That costs money. Governments will help fund that care. Humanitarian agencies will launch fundraising appeals.

And regional instability could create a need for peacekeepers to enforce any agreement – and that, too, costs money.

The pain of regret

Four years after the genocide in Rwanda, President Clinton went to the country to apologize in person for the lack of international intervention to prevent the genocide.

The apology, of course, came too late for the 800,000 people who were killed.

No one knows the future, but some international officials fear that something horrific could happen again – unless action is taken.

It is not outside the realm of possibility that – as after Rwanda, as after the killings in Srebrenica the next year, when 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred – the world will find itself saying, yet another time, “Never again.”

And wondering if this time it really means it.