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Rebels In Burundi Pledge To Oust The Country's President


We're about to visit a country that has long been on the cusp of civil war, but now that war appears to have arrived. It's Burundi, where rebel groups have come out of the shadows. They've given themselves a name and a mission to unseat the president. Let's turn to NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner to talk more about this. Gregory, good morning.


GREENE: So what can you tell us about this new rebel group and what this all means for Burundi right now?

WARNER: Sure. David, they're called the Republican Forces of Burundi and their spokesman is a defected colonel from the Burundian military. But to give some context as to why this is so important, so you have Burundi, tiny country, six million people and a similar history of ethnic tension to its northern neighbor Rwanda. And while the genocide in Rwanda began in 1994, lasted three months, the ethnic war in Burundi - it was never called a genocide - began in 1993, lasted 12 years. The war ended in 2005. And here is the key part. So the war ended because of a deal, a deal to ethnically integrate the army. Tutsis and Hutus fighting alongside each other as one nation was called the Arusha Accords. And everyone loved the deal, brought peace and that deal is in jeopardy of unraveling 'cause 10 years later, we have political violence in that country, it's been simmering for some six months and that seems to be reigniting these ethnic fault lines within the military. And yesterday was this announcement that everybody's been fearing, a rebel force led by a defected colonel who happens to be Tutsi saying his rebels would unseat the Hutu president. That sounds like civil war.

GREENE: And it sounds like there might be some powerful reminders to Rwanda. You drew that comparison because the Tutsis and Hutus are the two ethnic groups that they were part of that genocide in the country, right?

WARNER: Yeah, it's really a mirror image of that very conflict. You had Tutsi soldiers fighting Hutu militants. Now it seems to be Tutsi rebels fighting the Hutu government.

GREENE: Well, you have said that this conflict is really posing a sort of test for the African Union. What exactly does that mean?

WARNER: I think the test is whether the African Union, which is kind of like United Nations for African countries, will step up in this role as continental first responders or will they remain a country club for African leaders. The African Union has really been out front, intervening in hotspots, sending in troops as peacekeepers. And the AU says it wants to send 5,000 African troops as peacekeepers to Burundi, not a small force. Burundi says no. And this is a tough situation for the AU, which always goes in at the request of a fellow African government. But the Burundian government is, by many accounts - and we're talking Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, torturing and killing opposition civilians - fomenting the civil war. And the question for the African Union really in the coming days is going to be will it bow to the will of a government or will it intervene to protect Burundian civilians?

GREENE: And, Gregory, we should say the United Nations so far has decided not to get involved in this conflict, right?

WARNER: Right, and one of the dynamics here is that the Burundian military over the last 10 years has really been showered with training and resources by Western countries in part as a reward for integrating their army in the first place, ending that civil war. Now other peacekeepers are faced with the challenge of entering a country that has a very good military, that's also telling them no, you're going to be seen as foreign invaders if you come and try to intervene.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner about what sounds like a civil war that has arrived at this point in Burundi. Gregory, thanks a lot.

WARNER: Thanks a lot, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation , a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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