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Burundi on the brink: It’s a Jewish Issue

Jews have an obligation to work toward halting the African republic's spiraling violence, because: never again

Burundi is a small African country just about the size of Israel that is in danger of descending into a maelstrom of violence and murder. Hundreds have already been shot to death in the capital city, Bujumbura, over these past few months, many of them this past weekend. More than two hundred thousand refugees — two percent of the population — have fled the country to Tanzania, Rwanda and the Congo. Burundi has the same ethnic makeup as Rwanda, where in 1994, at least 800,000 Tutsi were killed over a one hundred day period. From 1994 until 2006, when the Arusha Peace agreement was signed, 300,000 Burundians — both Hutu and Tutsi — were massacred in successive convulsions of violence. As the peace agreement unravels, the specter of mass killings that has haunted this generation of Burundians as they have tried to rebuild their country is fast becoming a nightmarish reality.

And yet this descent into hatred and vengeance does not have to continue; Burundi 2015 is not Rwanda 1994. It is still not clear if the politically sparked bloodshed in Burundi will deteriorate into full-fledged ethnic violence — but we can learn a lesson from Rwanda. And what we know now, in terrible hindsight, is that a little determination on the part of the United States during those crucial hundred days could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

In 1994, the United States led what Samantha Power described as “a successful effort to remove the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda.” Writing in The Atlantic in 2001, Power, now US ambassador to the UN, said the US “aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements,” and, while 8,000 Rwandans were dying each day, “refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide.”

Burundi circa 2015 may not be Rwanda 1994. But we don’t know that. The massacres have begun in Burundi, and massacres tend to multiply their horrors geometrically. As with infections, the first days are crucial. I believe that Jews, especially Jews in the United States, have a special responsibility. For my generation, the first after the holocaust, “never again” was a defiant declaration of purpose and determination—and for many of us, this meant doing our utmost to prevent mass murder of civilians and genocides and politicides wherever they might take place. The Jewish community, including organizations like the ADL, AJC and the Simon Wiedsenthal Center, which are built around notions of tolerance and the lessons of Jewish history, can play a critical role in asking the US government to do for Burundi what, tragically, they did not do for Rwanda.

I’ve visited Burundi a number of times over the past several years and on my last visit less than a year ago Burundi still seemed, after decades of ethnic conflict, to be on the mend. I had conversations with dozens of young Burundians. True, just about everyone had been traumatized by the conflict, had seen close relatives or friends die, or had been refugees outside of Burundi for years, but the great majority seemed committed to a new Burundi in which ethnic hatred and political violence had been put aside. Yet hope and fear are not mutually exclusive. Many were fearful, certain that the Arusha Peace Process, which had been signed in 2006, would fall apart.

And fall apart it has. When the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he was going to run for a controversial third term in late April, thousands took to the streets in protest the next day. Police clashed with protesters over the coming weeks killing dozens. In May, there was a failed coup attempt. All through the summer and fall, the killing of opposition leaders and human rights activists as well as revenge killings of ruling party supporters and members of the ruling party’s youth wing continued. Tens of thousands of Burundians, fearing for their lives, fled to neighboring countries. Two weeks ago, an opposition militia group raided an army barracks in order to steal weapons and many were killed. Since that time, according to numerous reports from Bujumbura, death squads have nightly been pulling young men suspected of supporting the opposition from their homes, murdering them, and leaving their bodies on the street. 87 people were killed last Friday alone. At the same time, reports have told of Burundian refugees in neighboring countries being forcibly recruited into opposition militias.

What is so dangerously incendiary about this moment in Burundi is the real possibility that what may have started as a political power play will warp back into the kind of wholesale ethnic slaughter that characterized Burundi for so long. There is no consensus yet over whether this is a clear and present danger; Patrick Hayajandi, for example, writing in The Guardian, of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, argues that the current violence is political, not ethnic. He points out that with the army now 50 percent Hutu and 50 percent Tutsi, and the national, district and municipal governments, including the parliament and the senate also mixed, with 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, “it is far less likely that the state will unravel into genocidal killing.” Hayajandi’s fear is that “hyperbole,” including the use of the word genocide, will radicalize the two sides and enflame the situation.

Even in the midst of this frightening crisis, the people of Burundi have shown a great deal of steadfastness and commitment to peace. Violence has not spread into village areas, and is almost totally confined to Bujumbura, the capital. And on Burundian Facebook pages, a meme is passing around: The words Hutu and Tutsi appear, but they are crossed out: replacing them, un-crossed out, is the word Burundian.

And yet the situation does seem to be slipping out of control. The information coming out of Burundi now is quite limited; only official government news sources are now permitted to operate. Gruesome photographs of young men, sometimes 5 or 6 in a row, their bullet-ridden bodies thrown in the streets of Bujumbura, are circulating on the internet. Some Burundian exiles believe that the mass killings of genocide have already begun. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has said that Burundi is on the very cusp of civil war that could result in eruptions of ethnic violence and have alarming consequences for neighboring countries.

It would not take much, in relative terms, to stop the burgeoning violence in Burundi and prevent the conflict from sliding into genocide. The UN is already “considering” whether to bolster their peacekeeping force in Burundi; and the African Union has released a statement saying that “We will not allow a genocide on African Soil.” The American Jewish community, and organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the ADL have the credibility necessary to urge the Obama administration towards action, which would mean encouraging and supporting the UN and the African Union in taking strong preventive measures.

For Jews in the years after the holocaust, the notion that the world would continue with business as usual while civilians were being slaughtered wholesale seemed intolerable. Perhaps this was a naïve hope, because mass murders, genocides and politicides, spurred by various combinations of ideology, politics, economic interests, religion and ethnicity, have proliferated since the end of World War Two. The list is heartbreakingly long and geographically various; it includes Indonesia and Bangladesh, Cambodia and China, Rwanda and Congo, Kurdistan and Syria, Darfur and South Sudan, and more.

And yet on some of these occasions, for example in Darfur, the concerted outcry of many, including Jewish leaders, did make a difference. In the case of Burundi, genocidal massacres have already taken place — sometimes Hutu on Tutsi, sometimes Tutsi on Hutu, 30,000 here, 10,000 there, across a thirty year period. We are forewarned; a potential relapse under current conditions seems eminently possible. It behooves the United States Jewish community, and its organizations, to do everything in their power to make sure this relapse does not take place.

About the Author
Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur. Micha founded the Israel Association or Ethiopian Jews, the first advocacy organization dedicated to changing absorption policies, and Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli organization working with impoverished subsistence farmers in the Global South. Micha has written for numerous publications, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Report from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.