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Fire in Bujumbura
Thousands Flee a Burundi on the Brink

Tens of thousands of Burundians are fleeing the violent tensions in their country that were kicked off by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would seek a third term in office. The Washington Post has the numbers:

More than 50,000 Burundians have entered Rwanda and other neighboring countries since mid-April, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On a continent plagued by refugee crises, the exodus represents a new challenge, particularly for Rwanda, which already was a haven for 74,000 refugees, most of them from Congo.

More than 25,000 Burundians have crossed into Rwanda recently, while nearly 18,000 have sought asylum in Tanzania and almost 8,000 in Congo, according to the U.N. agency. It said it was working with Rwanda’s government to move the new arrivals to a refu­gee camp in that country, Mahama, which could host up to 60,000 people. The UNHCR had previously said its two reception centers near the border had been overwhelmed by the influx of refugees

Nkurunziza is Burundi’s first leader since its brutal civil war that ended in 2005. The post-war constitution limits presidents to two terms, but Nkurunziza claims that his first one didn’t count toward that limit, since he was appointed, not elected. Last week, the country’s constitutional court ruled in favor of his third term bid, but the opposition claims that the court was forced and its decision is illegitimate. The clashes between protests and government forces have already claimed over a dozen lives.

One of the most dangerous features of the standoff is the potential for the violence to turn ethnic/tribal if it intensifies. The conditions in Burundi prefigure the kinds of wars of peoples (as opposed to wars of states or governments) which tend to produce some of the worst kinds of atrocities. Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi is divided into Hutus and Tutsis, and previous conflict has been fought along those lines. Nkurunziza is a Hutu, as are many of his supporters.

We are already seeing some of the classic early characteristics of a coming ethnic conflagration. And the Imbonerakure, the youth militia group of the ruling party notorious for its violence and terror tactics, is menacing the opposition and refugees. The Daily Nation reports:

Some refugees say they are running from the Imbonerakure, a fearsome group whose name means “The Watchmen” or, literally, “Those Who See Far”.

The militia acts in support of President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose bid for a third term has triggered weeks of sometimes violent protests in the capital Bujumbura.

Among those who have sought safety in neighbouring Rwanda are people who described gangs of thugs going house to house, daubing doors of suspected opposition supporters with red paint as a grim warning of attacks to come.

These are ominous signs, but the same article goes on to note that the opposition and the refugee camps are not ethnically homogeneous, and that at present, the crisis still appears to be dividing people on political lines.

Still, history does not suggest that the danger of ethnic conflict can be written off in circumstances like this. For now, it’s too early to tell for sure whether this crisis is going to snowball. But the sheer numbers of Burundians who are fleeing so early suggests that those closest to the issue think there’s a potential for real trouble here.

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