Friday, 28 September 2007

The African Great Lake Wars: Refugees in Burundi and "Shake Hands with the Devil"

Roméo Dallaire and Roy Dupuis have been much in the news here this week. “Shake Hands with the Devil,” which stars Quebec film vedette Dupuis playing the Canadian general who tried to stop the genocide in Rwanda, has opened around the country. Dallaire—since retired and now a Canadian senator—won the 2004 Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction for his book of the same name. Even though he has his critics—he is depicted as an ineffectual nothing in another genocide movie, “Hotel Rwanda”—many consider him a genuine hero because of his efforts to get the United Nations to act decisively in 1994.

It’s been a while since I checked how things were going in Rwanda’s neighbor, Burundi. The two countries were once the Kingdom of Ruanda-Urundi, on the north-east quadrant of Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. The Germans were the first Europeans to claim the territory, and after the First World War, the Belgians—who already controlled the immense territory to the west now called the Democratic Republic of Congo—took over. Independence came in the 1960s, and now both countries have similar population mixes, about 10 per cent Tutsi and 90 per cent Hutu with a few Twa thrown in for good measure.

Burundi has also known violent ethnic conflicts, but so far a genocide on the scale of Rwanda’s has been avoided. Repercussions of that tragedy, as well as the continuing struggle between groups for control of Congo, continue to mark Burundi, however. The latest story on the IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network) news service tells of refugees from Congo who had been camping in front of the UN refugee agency office in Bujumbura being bussed off to more permanent shelter in Northern Ngazi province.

Six years ago this week I was preparing to go to Bujumbura to research my novel The Violets of Usambara, which is about a Canadian politician who goes missing in Burundi in 1997 while on a fact-finding mission about the status of refugees. It is discouraging to see how the tragedy continues.

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