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A history scarred by ethnic violence


Divisions between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups have long been a part of Burundi society. Hutus migrated to the region throughout the first millennium, displacing the Twa, who remain a tiny minority of the population. The Tutsis arrived in the 16th century and, as they had in Rwanda, established themselves as the dominant political and economic power. (However, in contrast to Rwanda, intermarriage has been common between the two groups in Burundi.)

In 1899, Burundi came under German East African administration. Then, during World War I, in 1916, Belgium gained control of the territory that encompasses modern-day Rwanda and Burundi. The Belgians administered the area through indirect rule, relying on the Tutsi-dominated royalty, a policy that exacerbated ethnic tensions.

Burundi became an independent state on July 1, 1962, and Tutsi King Mwambutsa IV established a constitutional monarchy. In 1966, a military coup led by Capt. Michel Micombero abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. The military government that emerged proclaimed the Tutsi-dominated Unity for National Progress (UPRONA) the only legal political party.

Civil unrest continued throughout the 1970s and ’80s, including a Hutu rebellion in 1972 and military coups. Tensions between the Hutu majority and ruling Tutsis in 1988 erupted in violent confrontations, in which an estimated 150,000 people were killed.

In 1991, military ruler Major Pierre Buyoya approved a constitution that provided for a president, a nonethnic government and a parliament. Under this constitution, Burundi’s first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected in June 1993.

The following October, Ndadaye and several other Hutu political leaders were assassinated in an attempted coup by the Tutsi-dominated military. In the ethnic violence that has followed, more than 200,000 people -- mostly civilians -- have been killed, and some 800,000 have been displaced.

In January 1994, the National Assembly chose Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu, to succeed Ndadaye as president. But four months later, Ntaryamira and Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana were killed in a plane crash. The event marked the beginning of Rwandan genocide, while in Burundi violence and unrest worsened.

The Burundian army staged a coup against interim president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya in July 1996 and reinstated Buyoya, who suspended the National Assembly and banned opposition groups. Following the coup, neighboring countries imposed an economic embargo on Burundi and the United Nations suspended all but humanitarian aid.

The regional embargo was lifted in January 1999, based on the government’s progress toward national reconciliation through the peace process, facilitated by former South African President Nelson Mandela.

A peace accord was signed in August 2000 by Buyoya’s government, the National Assembly, 10 Tutsi parties and seven Hutu parties. It established a power-sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis and provided for a three-year transitional governmental, after which elections are to be held.

Buyoya was sworn in as president of the transitional government Nov. 1, 2001. He is scheduled to hold office for 18 months before transferring power to his Hutu vice president, Domitien Ndayizeye.

Conflict continues between government-armed forces and Hutu rebels who refuse to participate in the peace process. Human rights organizations have accused the army, government-sponsored paramilitaries and the rebel groups of human rights abuses, including torture, kidnappings and massacres of civilians.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002