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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

September 1973

Rwanda and Burundi

by Stanley Meisler

The enormity and horror of it all are exposed by what a visitor does not see in Bujumbura. Bujumbura, a languid, colorless, nondescript town on Lake Tanganyika, is the capital of Burundi, a central African nub of a country in which 85 percent of the population is Hutu. Yet a visitor can find few Hutus in Bujumbura. It is a little like entering Warsaw after World War II and looking for Jews. A visitor would not need a tour of Treblinka to know that something terrible had happened.

In Burundi, something terrible has happened. A year ago, the government, run by the minority Tutsi tribe, tried to eliminate, in a chilling and systematic way, the entire elite class of the Hutu people -- all those with some education, government jobs, or money. The death toll was perhaps one hundred thousand, perhaps as great as two hundred thousand. Since then there has been even more killing, the latest in May and June of this year.

The troubles have also devastated a good deal of the south of the country. On the road to Nyanza Lac, near the Tanzanian border, many homes are deserted. Almost half the classrooms and two-thirds of the clinics are destroyed. The coffee bushes, the main crop of Burundi, are overgrown and untended. A visitor hardly sees a commercial truck anymore.

Return to Flashback: Violence and Unrest in Central Africa Nyanza Lac itself, once an administrative center with a population of twenty thousand, now looks like an unused movie set for an old Western. Arab traders sit in front of a few shops, but most are closed. Several, in fact, are in a shambles, The main grocery sells only margarine, tomato paste, canned mackerel, soft drinks, and beer. The school, the Catholic mission, the dispensary, the customs office are closed. The houses where French foreign-aid technicians once lived are stripped bare. Burundi officials say that two thousand people now live in Nyanza Lac, but a visitor cannot find them.

The slaughter that accompanied this devastation was not an isolated outburst in the history of this part of the world. It was only more and worse than what has happened before. There has been mass tribal killing in Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda for more than a decade, the killing in one provoking the killing in the other. The scene of the bloodshed, in fact, moved to Rwanda in the first months of this year. There is no end in sight.

The latest slaughter in Burundi was ignited by Hutu refugees who crossed the borders from Rwanda and Tanzania in the middle of May to avenge last year's massacres and overthrow the Tutsi government. Though the Hutus failed, the frightened Tutsi government ordered all Tutsis to undergo military training. Tutsi youths organized patrols to guard Bujumbura, now a Tutsi city, from the Hutu countryside. And soldiers and young vigilantes began reprisals against Hutus living outside the city.

It is not clear how many Hutus have died in the latest slaughter. But thirty-eight thousand new refugees had fled to Tanzania by the end of June. Many showed up with panga (machete) wounds, some infested with maggots. Some died from their wounds there in refugee camps. A Catholic priest, Father Ramon Vincens, who works near the Tanzania-Burundi border, quoted Hutu refugees as telling him that the program of genocide against the Hutus was "worse than the one last year."

Contemporary feudalism

Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda represent extreme cases of the failure of traditional African institutions to adapt to the extraordinary and swift changes of modern Africa. Each about the size of Maryland, each with almost four million people, Burundi and Rwanda are the most densely populated countries in Africa and among the poorest in the world. Their people graze cattle and farm on the verdant hills along Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika. The histories and traditions of the peoples of both countries are similar.

More than four hundred years ago, the Tutsi people (better known by the African plural, Watutsi) came down to Rwanda and Burundi from the north, probably Ethiopia. They were cattle farmers, probably Hamitic, with slender features and skin somewhat lighter than that of most other Africans. The Tutsis were tall, some well over six feet.

Rwanda and Burundi were already inhabited then by a few pygmies and by many Hutu people, farmers who lived by their hoes. They were Bantu people, short, stocky, dark, with negroid features.

Over the years, the small group of Tutsi immigrants subjugated the masses of Hutus into a kind of feudal system. Much as in medieval Europe, a pyramid developed with Tutsi lords giving their own loyalty to more important Tutsi lords in exchange for protection. A Mwami, or Tutsi king, ruled at the top of the pyramid in each country. There were variations to the basic feudal scheme, but one thing was clear: centuries of tradition made the Tutsis feel like a privileged, superior people and the Hutus feel like a subjugated, inferior people.

Many of the ideas generated during the era of independence in Black Africa challenged the feudal structure of Rwanda and Burundi. Only 15 percent of the population in Burundi and 10 percent in Rwanda, the Tutsis began to feel deep fears about their place in societies where power might go to the majority. The Hutus' feeling of inferiority and the Tutsis' fears probably account for most of the terrible bloodshed in the last decade.

Eliminating opposition

The first troubles took place in Rwanda. In early 1961, the Hutu leaders, with the connivance of Belgian colonial officials, overthrew the Mwami of Rwanda. Rwanda became independent in 1962 as a republic run by Hutus. This revolution was accompanied by continual persecution of the Tutsi minority which reached its peak in 1963 and 1964. It is probable that since the Mwami of Rwanda was overthrown the Hutus have killed more than twenty thousand Tutsis and forced two hundred thousand to take refuge in neighboring Uganda, Zaire, and Burundi

Unlike Rwanda, Burundi became independent in 1962 as a kingdom, with a Mwami still ruling. He lasted only four years, and was overthrown in 1966 not by Hutus but by Tutsi army officers from a non-royal clan led by Michel Micombero, now Burundi's President. Since independence, Hutu rebels have tried to take over Burundi in various coups, plots, and uprisings. Each attempt has been met by Tutsi reprisals. The worst reprisal came last year after the most serious Hutu uprising.

The killings began in late April, 1972, reached their height in May, and ended, more or less, by August. Many Tutsis killed because they had been frightened by the Hutu uprising, in which a few thousand Tutsis died. But it would be misleading to blame the massacre of Hutus on a savage frenzy of Tutsi fear. There was some wild, indiscriminate killing -- the devastation in the south is proof of that. But most Hutus were wiped out in a cold and calculated way by a Tutsi government that seemed to feel that it could guarantee itself power for at least another decade by eliminating all potential leaders of the majority tribe. The repression was far out of proportion to the provocation.

According to most sources, the government had lists of intended victims. "I know some Hutus," said an American, "who begged Tutsi friends in the government to check the lists to see if they were on it." The lists were not exclusive. One source said a Tutsi official tried to reassure the wife of a missing Hutu by showing her a government list without her husband's name on. it. But he had been killed anyway.

In Bujumbura, many victims were killed in prison. "We kept sending food to my Hutu secretary in prison," said a diplomat, "until one day they told us not to bother anymore." There are all kinds of grisly stories about the methods of execution, all difficult to verify. But most sources agree with a diplomat who said, "They did not use many bullets."

The bodies were thrown on trucks and driven from the city to a field near the airport. In the first few days, the trucks rumbled through town in daylight. But the government later decided to try to hide what it was doing. The trucks were shifted to night runs. But that did not hide very much. "We were driving home one evening behind a truck," a Belgian woman recalled, "when my little boy asked me what was that inside the truck. They were bodies, piled up and tangled, some hanging over. It was terrible." Under bright lighting, bulldozers dug mass graves at night and covered them over.

There seemed to be three kinds of victims. First, the government tried to kill almost every Hutu who had a government job, including Hutu soldiers. Many of the death lists were simply lifted from civil service rolls. Second, the government tried to kill all Hutus who had enough wealth for potential leadership. Wealth is a very relative term in Africa. Many sources say that the so-called wealthy Hutus were any who owned a shop, had a bank account, or lived in a house with a corrugated iron roof instead of a thatched one. Finally, the government tried to kill all educated Hutus. Almost all Hutu university students, many Hutu secondary school students, and perhaps half the country's Hutu teachers were killed. In one incident, six women teachers were killed in front of their students. The categories of victims explain why a visitor sees hardly any Hutus inside Bujumbura but will see many trudging along the road, with hoes on their shoulders, in the countryside.

Sometimes it is difficult for an outsider to understand how the government was able to inflict so much punishment on the Hutus. They outnumbered the Tutsis almost six to one. Yet the Hutus were cowed by an army that numbered no more than four thousand at the start of the troubles and far less after it purged itself of Hutus. Seventy-five thousand Hutus fled Burundi and took refuge in Zaire, Tanzania, and Rwanda. But the great mass of Hutus remained behind and took their punishment without much resistance.

Although many Hutus were taken from their homes, there are stories of others simply accepting summonses and reporting to the police at the scheduled time even though they knew that death awaited them. There are other stories of officials loading Hutus on trucks and, when the trucks were full, ordering the remaining Hutus to come back the next day. The Hutus obeyed. One Hutu Cabinet member was overseas when the troubles erupted yet flew home to his execution.

Some observers say that even Hutus trying to escape did so half-heartedly. "They were pathetic," said one foreigner who has worked with Hutus for many years. "Any kid with a third-grade education in the United States has read enough funny books to know how to escape. But they would walk to the border down the main road. If one gendarme stopped them, they would turn back." After centuries of psychological dependence on their Tutsi lords, the Hutus did as they were told, even if the order meant their death.

"Only the guilty . . ."

The government does not deny that great killing took place, but it has issued a self-serving interpretation of the events. According to an official white paper, a force of twenty-five thousand Hutus, many led by former Congolese rebels called Mulelists, attacked Burundi in April, 1972, and massacred fifty thousand Tutsis in an attempted genocide of the Tutsi people. The government put down the revolt and executed those responsible: "Only the guilty have been punished," President Micombero said. "The innocent were not troubled at all." The government's version of the events is rejected by all foreign sources in Bujumbura as grossly exaggerating the original Hutu attack and hiding the horror of the repression.

It was inevitable that the massacres in Burundi would unleash the pent-up resentment of Hutus for their former Tutsi lords in neighboring Rwanda. The resentment was exacerbated there by the Hutu failures since independence. Their economy was stagnant, going nowhere. Because of years of privilege and education, the Tutsis still had a disproportionate share of jobs in the private economy and places in secondary schools and the University of Rwanda. With these frustrations, it was natural for Hutu politicians, who face elections later this year, to play on the resentment against Tutsis in Rwanda.

In the first months of this year, Hutus have forced private employers to dismiss their Tutsi workers and have frightened Tutsi students away from the university and secondary schools. There has been rioting and murder of Tutsis on the hills in the countryside, though not on the scale of the earlier massacres in Rwanda or of the slaughter of Hutus in Burundi last year. Foreign sources in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, put this year's death toll at somewhere between 750 and 3000.

At the University of Rwanda at Butare, a list appeared on the bulletin board demanding the expulsion of seventeen Tutsi students. Hutu students formed tribunals to check the bloodline of other students to determine who was really Tutsi. Bands of Hutus roamed the campus and town looking for Tutsi students, smashing those they found with iron bars. In the end, 175 Tutsis, half the university's total enrollment, fled the campus.

The university administration posted a notice pointing out that, by its charter, the university was open to all qualified students regardless of race, sex, social origin, language, politics, or philosophical opinion. But Hutu students scrawled the words "Not possible for Tutsis" across this notice.

The emotion and lack of reason in the situation were demonstrated a few weeks later when three foreign correspondents asked a group of Hutu students on campus to explain the "several reasons" for expelling the Tutsis. The students waved their hands wildly at the correspondents and shouted, "Reasons . . . reasons . . . reasons!" at them. They refused to answer any more questions and ordered the journalists' taxi driver to take them away.

Rwanda's troubles finally triggered a coup in July this year. Like most Rwandan soldiers, General Juvenal Habyarimana, the army commander and Minister of Defense who took over the government, was a northern Hutu. Since northern Rwanda was not conquered by the Tutsis until well into the twentieth century, northerners look on themselves as more militantly Hutu and less tainted by Tutsi intermarriage than southern Hutus. For years, northerners have complained that the southern-dominated government was not doing enough to keep the Tutsis down. That attitude may have been a major reason for the coup.

In Burundi, the Tutsis are still not safely in power. Like the whites in Rhodesia or South Africa, they are vastly outnumbered. While the massacres last year may have weakened the Hutus, it also may have made them more political, more resentful, and more eager for revenge. As this year's border incursions show, this may be especially true of Hutu refugees. These incursions, in fact, have angered the Burundians and led to skirmishes between Burundian and Tanzanian soldiers at the border this year.


One of the strangest sides to all the bloodshed between the Tutsis and Hutus has been the feeble reaction of the rest of the world. Last year's slaughter in Burundi must rank with the most terrible in history. Yet Christian missionaries kept quiet or muted their concern. Most foreign governments, including the United States, refused to protest in public at the time. Two African countries, Zaire and Tanzania, even rushed military help to the government that was doing the killing. Almost all foreign aid continued to flow into Burundi. European businessmen kept playing golf in Bujumbura.

It is not difficult to imagine the outcry in the world today if the whites who run the government of South Africa had decided to put down a rebellion and guarantee their control by killing all black South Africans with any education, wealth, or potential for leadership. Yet the events in Burundi provoked only a few whimpers of protest.

Missionaries and other religious leaders showed the most surprising restraint, for in the past they have been in the forefront of those exposing injustice in Africa to the rest of the world. In Burundi, one of the most Christian countries in Africa, missionaries were afraid that if they spoke out they might lose their hold. Silence was the price they had to pay, they felt, to expand Christianity in Burundi.

An American Protestant missionary reluctantly granted an interview early this year. He said that Protestant missionaries were in a precarious position in Burundi. Government leaders, who are mostly Catholic, suspect them of stirring up trouble among the Hutus. He paid tribute to the American Embassy in Bujumbura for trying to keep stories about the massacres away from the American press. He said that if the news had been splashed in American newspapers, the Burundi government might have blamed the one hundred American Protestant missionaries and expelled them.

Yet, a few minutes later, he complained that the rest of the world had ignored what had happened in Burundi. How could he praise the American Embassy for withholding the news and then lament the fact that foreigners ignored the event? The missionary shrugged.

He was asked how he could go on working in Burundi. Many victims were Christians. The government had slaughtered Hutus whom he had trained for years. Put on the defensive, the missionary laughed nervously. "I suppose you could say that's our job,' he said, "preparing people to die."

Catholic leaders did not remain silent, but they did not say very much, either. Statements deploring the strife came from Pope Paul, the papal nuncio in Bujumbura, and the five bishops of Burundi. But all were guarded and mild. Against the enormity of what happened in Burundi, the Catholic pronouncements were ineffectual. They hardly amounted to any kind of condemnation.

The reaction of the U.S. government to the events was typical of most foreign governments. Thomas P. Melady, who was then the American Ambassador, believed that his first responsibility was protecting the one hundred and fifty Americans in Burundi. Soon after the killings began, he rebuked the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, for briefing American correspondents there about the troubles. Melady feared that news reports in American newspapers would be easily traced by the Burundi government to the American Embassy in Bujumbura and its main sources, the American missionaries. The clamp on the news became so tight that Senator Edward M. Kennedy complained in June, 1972, that the State Department was even withholding from Congress its information on the massacres.

The United States did not criticize Burundi in public until May, 1973, when President Nixon made a small reference to the troubles in his annual foreign-policy report to Congress. ". . . Countries have a right to take positions of conscience," Nixon wrote. "We would have expected that the first responsibility for taking such positions rested upon the African nations, either individually or collectively. The United States urged African leaders to address the problem of the killings in Burundi. . . . All of the African leaders we spoke to voiced their concern to us; some raised it with Burundi's leaders. But ultimately none spoke out when these diplomatic efforts failed." Nixon neglected to mention that, in this matter of conscience, the United States had also refused to speak out when its diplomatic efforts, such as they were, failed.

The U.S. government avoided the issue by persuading itself that the killings were an African problem. If African governments chose to ignore it, American officials reasoned, why should the U.S. government make an issue of it? Moreover, American officials believed that protest was futile.

The United States did suspend a fund of $25,000 in foreign aid that it allots every year to the Ambassador to finance small projects around the countryside. But the United States will supply $300,000 worth of relief to Burundi this year, mostly in surplus food. American officials insist this will be distributed only to the widows and orphans of the victims. But an American relief worker who does the actual distributing said: "Good God, I can't discriminate between Tutsis and Hutus. I have to give the food to whoever needs it, in every part of the country. I can't give the food only to Hutus."

Belgium was the only Western country to react differently. The former colonial power in Burundi, Belgium is the largest donor of foreign aid and has the greatest number of nationals living there, about three thousand. In May, 1972, Premier Gaston Eyskens of Belgium denounced the massacres as "veritable genocide" and threatened to cut off Belgian aid, which amounts to $4.5 million a year. In the end the threat was not carried out. The Belgians did withdraw their thirty-five advisers from the Burundi army, less to punish Burundi than to placate Belgian public opinion. But, aside from this, Belgian aid was neither withdrawn nor cut substantially.

Belgian officials took the view of most foreigners supplying aid to Burundi. They insisted that punishing the government by withdrawing assistance would only hurt the masses. "If we cut foreign aid," said an official from another country, "you will only have misery here. If you put a curtain around this country, it will be worse." As a result, the United Nations, the Common Market, France, and West Germany, like Belgium, have all maintained foreign-aid programs in Burundi.

Almost all African governments reacted in a predictable way. As usual in cases of African disorder, the governments either ignored the massacres or pledged support to the Micombero government. In fact, Zaire rushed troops to Bujumbura, and Tanzania sent ammunition. The reason was simple: African leaders did not want to break their facade of Black African unity.


It would be foolish now to be optimistic about the future of Rwanda and Burundi. Systematic murder of the ethnic enemy has become a legitimate political weapon in both countries. Since neither has solved its ethnic problems, it is a safe guess that slaughter will be used again. The ease with which it was renewed in Burundi this year is proof enough of that.

Can anything be done to stop all this? There may be some truth in the argument by American officials that they and other outsiders have little influence on what goes on in this part of the world. But it is also true that governments outside Africa have considerable leverage which they could have applied against Rwanda, Burundi, and the rest of Africa.

The United States, for example, buys almost all the coffee produced by both Rwanda and Burundi, and both countries would be bankrupt without foreign aid from Belgium, France, Germany, the Common Market, and the United Nations. Perhaps a coffee boycott or the withdrawal of aid would not stop the slaughter in either country, but neither weapon has ever been used.

The industrialized countries could also put pressure on the other African countries to face the problem of Rwanda and Burundi. They could, for example, refuse to support all African resolutions on southern Africa in the United Nations unless these resolutions also condemned the disaster in Burundi and Rwanda. Perhaps this would only infuriate Africa. But it might also shame Africa into dealing with its problems. At the least, it would expose African hypocrisy.

Finally, there is the question of whether countries like the United States have the moral right to remain silent while all the killing goes on. Perhaps it is true that condemnation would have been futile in Burundi last year. But no one knows for sure. All that is known is that, while everyone kept quiet, more than a hundred thousand people died. Keeping quiet obviously didn't save anyone. Perhaps shouting might have.

Return to Flashback: Violence and Unrest in Central Africa

Copyright © 1973 by Stanley Meisler. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1973; Rwanda and Burundi; Volume 232, No. 3, pages 6-16.

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