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Africa Must Stop Massacres

August 17, 2004

Nations around the world solemnly noted the 10th anniversary this spring of the Rwandan genocide in which some 800,000 people were slaughtered. In the midst of the commemorations, the Sudanese government was sponsoring and taking part in the killing of tens of thousands of its own citizens in its Darfur region.

Sudan is not the only country in the area plagued by civil war. Three nations in central Africa's Great Lakes region -- Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) -- have suffered ethnic conflicts for a decade. The weekend massacre of at least 160 Tutsis who fled Congo for a U.N. camp in neighboring Burundi is the latest example, one that threatens to reverse promising steps toward peace.

Thousands attended burials of the victims Monday near the massacre site, and the Burundi government said it would allow the establishment of a secure camp farther from the border. The vulnerability of the camp overrun Friday night should have been clear to the U.N. and, especially, to the government in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital.

A hard-line Hutu rebel group, the sole holdout from the process that brought a tentative peace to Burundi, claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was aimed at Burundian soldiers and Congolese Tutsi militia hiding at the camp -- a ludicrous claim considering that most of the victims were women and children killed with grenades, machetes or guns. Some survivors and Burundi officials said Hutu extremists based in Congo joined the rebel assailants.

The United Nations did not have its own soldiers protecting the camp, which -- with others nearby -- shelters perhaps 25,000 Congolese who have crossed the border since June. U.N. officials understand that locating camps farther from borders increases safety, but doing so is difficult because refugees seek to be close to their homes to cross back and forth when possible. The primary responsibility for safety rests with the host government, in this case Burundi.

The attack threatens attempts to restore peace in Congo and to hold elections in Burundi to create a government that would share power between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. It will be up to leaders in nations like Nigeria and South Africa to press Rwanda not to carry out its threat to invade Congo to avenge the killings. Nations in the region that forged the tentative agreement for Burundian elections also should emphasize the need to follow through. Africa gets little help from the outside world, as was clear in Rwanda when Hutus massacred Tutsis and is evident now in Sudan. It needs regional agreements to stop killers from crossing borders and requires armies with training and equipment to enforce the pacts.

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