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Burundi’s Students Boycott Classes

August 21, 2000

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) _ An agreement to end Burundi’s civil war may be around the corner, but for Theophile Bujeje’s best friends it came too late.

The two brothers, both soldiers in the Tutsi-dominated army fighting a seven-year Hutu insurgency, and another friend died two weeks ago in a rebel ambush.

``I was in the same class with Jean-Marie,″ Bujeje, 28, a University of Bujumbura graduate said, referring to one of the dead brothers. ``People are being killed every day, everywhere. I lost three friends in that ambush. I sometimes feel that life has no meaning.″

Fed up, Burundi’s university students _ who are obliged to serve a year in the army _ have said they will start boycotting classes to protest the government’s failure to end the violence. Their teachers, backed up by a trade union, will join the boycott.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, who is mediating peace talks, has invited President Clinton and other world leaders to the signing of a power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-led government and Hutu rebels and other opposition parties on Aug. 28.

If successful, the agreement could end a deadly civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people, both Hutus and Tutsis, since October 1993. The war was triggered by the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected president, a Hutu, by Tutsi paratroopers.

President Pierre Buyoya, a retired Tutsi major, and Hutu and Tutsi opposition parties, however, have said they want to delay signing the peace agreement.

For students like Bujeje and his friends in the army, time is running out.

``You don’t know if you’ll die by the time you graduate.″ said Bujeje, a tall Tutsi from the northern Cibitoke province. ``Imagine, tomorrow it could be me. We die and the rebels die. But not the politicians.″

On Saturday, some Tutsi student leaders held a rally at the campus of the country’s only university, with about 6,000 students. They called for their Hutu colleagues to be searched when entering the premises.

``But you know, we share food, dormitories and classes with Hutus. Those still with us are condemned by their own people for collaborating with Tutsis,″ said Bujeje’s friend, Adolphe Nahimana.

The Hutu rebels often attack passing vehicles or steal food and money from villagers, drawing reprisals from the army.

A recent rebel ambush using rocket-propelled grenades killed 27 army cadets returning from a basketball match, including Bujeje’s friends. The cadets were traveling in a bus and truck south of Bujumbura.

The accord centers on the establishment of an ethnically balanced transitional government, Parliament and army, but the Burundians have yet to agree whether a cease-fire should take effect before or after the agreement is signed.

The also disagree on who should lead the government during three-year transition period while the accord’s terms are fulfilled.

Although Bujumbura’s university is often viewed as a hotbed of Tutsi extremists, Bujeje said it is more a reflection of ethnic divisions that have cut across Burundian society since 1993.

``I grew up with Hutu friends as well as Tutsis. Then in 1993, an uncle who got me into a school was killed in Gitega, just because he was a Tutsi,″ Bujeje said. ``Things have changed since then.″

The university’s four campuses have been open, at least officially, to Hutus and Tutsis as both students and lecturers.

But in October 1995, Hutu rebels attacked the campus from the mountains surrounding the lakeside capital, and since then, many Tutsi students see their Hutu colleagues as a threat, students said.

``Nine people were killed. We got help from the army and we pushed the rebels away,″ Bujeje said. ``But many Hutu students, fearing for their lives, left afterward and never came back.″

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