BUJUMBURA, Burundi — The hills around town do not ring with gunfire anymore. Terrified civilians have stopped trudging down muddy paths seeking shelter. Areas that had been cut off for years because of fighting are finally opening up. And a cautious optimism seems to be spreading across the land.It looks like peace,” said Ama Hayyarimana, a father of eight. “But you never know.”
After 15 years of off-again-on-again civil war, the last of Burundi’s rebel groups has finally come to the negotiating table. A cease-fire signed in late May is still holding, and for the first time all the decision makers — including top rebel leaders who until recently had been demonized as terrorists and commanded troops from exile — are in the same place, here in the capital, Bujumbura.Burundi, with a population of 8.7 million, is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Its troubles have often disappeared into the shadow cast by its neighbor Congo, where millions have died in a series of seemingly endless conflicts that rage on to this day. Just north of Burundi is Rwanda, which was racked by genocide in 1994 when Hutu death squads exterminated 800,000 people, most of them Tutsi.
The same combustible mix that exploded in Rwanda exists in Burundi. Both countries are poor, beautifully hilly and divided between Hutus and Tutsis. In both places, Hutus make up a vast majority of the population, while Tutsis hold much of the power and wealth. Resentment among Hutus had been bubbling for years, and in Burundi the spark was a 1993 coup by mostly Tutsi army officers who assassinated the country’s first Hutu president.
Burundi then cracked open into a violent free-for-all involving warring militias, rival politicians, criminal gangs and child soldiers. More than 200,000 people died.
“It was an inferno,” said Jean Marie Ngendahayo, an opposition member of Parliament.
He said the situation got so bad that mobs of children stoned people to death while their parents cheered them on.
The conflict soon morphed from Hutu against Tutsi to Hutu against Hutu. Peace deals in the early 2000s brought most of the Hutu rebel groups into the government fold — except for one, the National Liberation Forces, known as the F.N.L. In 2005, Burundi held a landmark election, with Burundians choosing a Hutu-led government. Still, the National Liberation Forces fought on.
“We were fighting to end discrimination,” said Agathon Rwasa, the group’s leader. “Even with the new government, ethnic troubles are still a problem.”
Mr. Rwasa said that the government was corrupt and incompetent and that it had stunted development in Burundi, which remains one of the poorest nations on the planet. The government, in turn, has blamed the rebels for scaring off investment and keeping the country steeped in bloodshed.
Last month, Mr. Rwasa returned to Bujumbura after nearly two decades in exile and fighting in the bush. The government of neighboring Tanzania, where many of the rebel leaders had been seeking asylum, essentially told Mr. Rwasa and his comrades that it was time to go home. Tanzania is host to hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees, and United Nations officials said the Tanzanian government was eager to help solve Burundi’s crisis so Tanzania could move on, too.
In the past few weeks, rebel leaders have been meeting with Burundian government negotiators to put together a durable peace. The first step was the May cease-fire. The next will be getting the thousands of rebel fighters — the rebels say they have 15,000, but the government says the number is closer to 3,000 — to disarm or to be integrated into the national army. Many rebels are teenage boys who seem confused about what they are actually fighting for.
“We are fighting the government army so we can join them,” said one young rebel soldier named Clapton, who had an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder and a steak knife tucked into his belt.
Clapton and his baby-faced, beret-wearing comrades are the beneficiaries of a new rebel feeding program, in which a German aid agency is providing beans, oil, rice and salt to rebel fighters who agree to participate in the peace process.
Early this month, dozens of rebels stood with their combat boots planted in the mud watching an aid truck chug up a mountain road. Children wearing ripped T-shirts crowded around. It was the first time in months that food deliveries were possible in this area, only about five miles from downtown Bujumbura. The area had been considered too dangerous because it was rebel territory and the rebels were notorious for banditry and murder, including killing aid workers.
While the sacks of food were being unloaded, government troops in blue uniforms mingled with rebel fighters wearing a hodgepodge of camouflage.
“This has always been a complex war, a war between brothers,” said Lt. Col. Adolphe Manirakiza, a spokesman for the Burundian Army, referring to the fact that government and rebel leaders had been allies during the guerrilla fighting of the 1990s.
It is not clear how long the precarious harmony will last. This patch of Africa is littered with worthless peace treaties. Take Congo, where the government and various rebel groups signed what was billed as a breakthrough accord in January. Since then, fighting has erupted several times. This month, rebel fighters, belonging to a group that did not sign the treaty, opened fire on a refugee camp in eastern Congo and killed six civilians.
This is also not the first time the National Liberation Forces in Burundi have agreed to a cease-fire. In 2006, the rebels vowed to put down their arms, but after political discussions broke down, they returned to the hills.
However, people here say this time feels different. All the leaders are in the same place, with Mr. Rwasa out of hiding. And there is a reinvigorated international effort, led by South Africa and Tanzania, which are putting considerable pressure on both sides.
“The government and the rebels aren’t committed to making peace,” said Mr. Ngendahayo, the Parliament member. “But they are obliged.”
There are legacies of the war all over the place, not so much burned buildings but damaged people. Mr. Hayyarimana, the father of eight, said he had lost his home and 18 relatives to the fighting.
He stood in the courtyard of a friend’s house where he was temporarily staying, surrounded by his children and a little boy with a distended stomach. The little boy was an orphan. Both his parents had been killed. And no one knew his name.
6 months ago