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Violence Escalates In Burundi; U.S Citizens Urged To Leave

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Violence in the tiny African nation of Burundi has killed scores of people in recent days. Is it new ethnic bloodbath or lingering political tension over the president's decision to seek a third term?

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The tiny African nation of Burundi is on a slow burn, and many fear it's in danger of repeating the history of its neighbor, Rwanda. Since a battle over the presidency turned violent this past spring, the word genocide has been in the air. In the past few days, scores were killed by police who went door-to-door dragging people out of their houses and shooting them, some with their hands tied behind their backs. Our East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner is on the line from Nairobi, Kenya. And Greg, what is happening right now in Burundi?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, Renee, a new episode of violence began Friday when three military bases in the capital were attacked by gunmen. Now, no one has taken responsibility for that attack, but the reaction of the government in its public statements and its tweets has been to blame what they call the Sindumuja. That's a dangerous blanket term that really refers to any Burundian who is not pro-government, who is not in the ruling party. The reaction from police was just as deadly and undiscriminating as you just described. And just as frightening has been the rhetoric from Burundian officials - the rhetoric that's evoked language used before and during the Rwandan genocide - where police are exhorted to get to work on the opposition. Of course, the opposition are Burundian citizens.

MONTAGNE: Gregory, as you say, Rwanda back in 1994 had this terrible genocide. But Burundi has had a similar history of ethnic division. So what is the possibility that there could be another ethnic war there?

WARNER: Well, Burundi shares a border with Rwanda and it also has the same ethnic makeup - Hutu and Tutsi. And while Rwanda's genocide started in 1994 and lasted three months, Burundi's ethnic civil war began in 1993 and ended 12 years later, in 2005. Those ethnic traumas are present, and those divisions can resurface at any time. But the president is Hutu. His opposition is Hutu. The lines of division right now are really not ethnic; they are political. And what is going on is that you have an elected president that's done precious little for his country - the president cares more about the building his soccer team than jobs or healthcare - and the president has now seized a third term in power, really rigging the court to absolve him of constitutional two-term limits. He's cracked down brutally on peaceful expressions of dissent, and that dissent has now become armed. It's become violent. That's what's worrisome.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the midst of all the U.N. has discussed sending peacekeepers to Burundi. But it decided to send an envoy instead to encourage negotiations between the two sides. How is that working out?

WARNER: Renee, I was thinking before I ever started going to Burundi, I was first encountering Burundians in a real way in Somalia. Thousands of Burundian troops are serving as peacekeepers in Somalia and other African hotspots. You could call peacekeepers one of Burundi's prime exports along with delicious coffee and tea. The irony there is that that same army has failed to keep the peace at home. But it also reveals this interconnected world we live in - how a crisis in this tiny country of Burundi can actually affect international security and troop deployment in the war on terror. And yet even in this interconnected world, Burundi's leadership is still acting like they're too tiny, too strategically unimportant to be noticed. And the government's approach seems to be that they can just keep the death toll low enough - they can avoid that G word, genocide - then no one will stand in their way.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's East Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner.

WARNER: Thanks, Renee.

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