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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK
Burundi: A question of justice
By Robert Walker
BBC News, Bujumbura

"The army came to the village. They started killing people," says Jean-Claude Karenzo, a Hutu who as a child escaped from Tutsi soldiers during Burundi's brutal civil war.

FDD supporters in Burundi celebrating their poll victory
Following its poll victory, the FDD now faces tough challenges

"My mother stayed behind. The soldiers stabbed her to death. I never saw my father again after that day."

Ten years on, Jean-Claude has returned to his village to restart his life after the official end of the 12-year war in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed.

And he, like many of other refugees streaming home, wants to see people guilty of war crimes during the fighting between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-led army brought to justice.

Violence like this has scarred Burundi since independence in 1962 when a small group from within the Tutsi minority took power.

They ruled through a form of ethnic apartheid, brutally suppressing Hutu opposition.

Balancing act

Finally Hutu rebels took up arms.

But under a peace deal designed to share power between Hutus and Tutsis, a new government has been elected with former Hutu rebel leader, Pierre Nkurunziza as president.

They cut them with machetes by the gate of my house. I saw my children dying
Therese Ndahirabusa

His challenge now is to find a way of delivering justice, while at the same time keeping stability and reconciling a divided population.

Therese Ndahirabusa, a Tutsi, counts off on her fingers the family members she lost during the war.

"A group of rebels came at night. I was hiding in a hole. When I went to see what was happening I saw them take my three children," she says.

"They cut them with machetes by the gate of my house. I saw them being killed. I saw my children dying."

Therese says the men who killed her children were from the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) - the former Hutu rebel group now in power.

Huge task

Now, every morning former rebel fighters run through the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, training with their former enemies in the government army.

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza
There were many bad things were done. Both parties were responsible
President Pierre Nkurunziza

Together they make up Burundi's newly united armed forces.

It is a remarkable sign of progress.

President Nkurunziza, who led the FDD during the war, admits many bad things were done and that both parties were responsible.

For him the planned truth and reconciliation commission is an opportunity to take things forward.

"I think what is important is to begin to know this truth and after having the truth, we are going to see how we can begin to bring some people to justice."

The truth commission will have a mixture of international and local members and a special chamber will try the most serious crimes.

But the task is huge. Ethnic massacres have been committed with impunity over four decades and many Burundians are sceptical of what the new commission will achieve.


Louis-Marie Nindorera, head of the organisation Global Rights in Burundi, says that is because the former enemies in the civil war have a shared interest in protecting themselves.

Woman with a child
Refugees are returning to rebuild their lives

"Given the way people have been waging war in this country, I believe that top officers would be threatened by this prosecution. It's fairly certain that very important people - MPs, members of government - could be involved or tried," she says.

And there are fears that if powerful individuals are threatened too quickly it could provoke a backlash and destabilise Burundi's hard-won peace.

But Ms Nindorera believes the costs of impunity may be even higher and that if nothing is done the victims will one day take revenge.

"The people who will make violence in five years, or in 2010, or in 2015 will be the victims of today who will ask a lot of questions and who won't have any answers to their questions and who take advantage of any situation to retaliate, to kill people," she says.

Whether Burundi's new government can deliver answers to victims like Jean-Claude and Therese will be one of its first and most difficult tests.

Ex-rebel becomes Burundi leader
26 Aug 05 |  Africa
Timeline: Burundi
05 Jul 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Burundi
26 Feb 04 |  Country profiles

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