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III. Background to the War

The war in Burundi began following the October 1993 assassination of President Melchoir Ndadaye by a group of Tutsi army officers. Freely and fairly elected some months before, Ndadaye was the first Hutu to serve as head of state in Burundi. Earlier attempts by the majority Hutu to win a share in power had been put down by the Tutsi, a minority of some 15 percent of the population who have dominated political, economic, and social structures since the colonial period. After Ndadaye’s assassination, Hutu armed groups, sometimes under the orders of local administrative or political leaders, slaughtered thousands of Tutsi; the Tutsi-dominated army massacred thousands of Hutu.1

Some of Ndadaye’s followers and others took up arms in three rebel movements. By 2002, two of those movements remained active: the FDD, usually estimated to have some 10,000 combatants, and the FNL, with fewer than 3,000 fighters. In late 2001 the FDD split, with the larger number following Pierre Nkurunziza and a significantly smaller number remaining loyal to previous commander Jean-Bosco Ndayikengurukiye. The FNL also divided in August 2002, with dissident Alain Mugabarabona claiming leadership from commander Agathon Rwasa, whom he accused of blocking efforts at negotiations. Mugabarabona, however, failed to win the support of most of the FNL, which continued to follow Rwasa.

The war involved neighboring states as well, with FDD combatants based in Tanzania launching incursions into Burundi despite apparent efforts by the Tanzanian government to discourage such activity. Both FDD and FNL combatants had bases on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and benefited from support from the government in Kinshasa. In addition, they incorporated into their ranks some Rwandans now fighting against the current government of Rwanda; some of these combatants were part of the army of the previous government (Forces Armées Rwandaises, FAR) or, in smaller numbers, were members of militia (Interahamwe) and may have participated in the 1994 genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda.

On the other side, Burundian army troops have been supported by several thousand soldiers of the current Rwandan army, the Rwandan Defense Force, who assisted them particularly in northern and central Burundi.

1 See Human Rights Watch, Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme, Ligue des Droits de la Personne dans la Région des Grands Lacs, Organisation Mondiale contre la Torture, Centre National our la Coopération au Développement, Nationaal Centrum voor Oontwikkelingssamenwerking, NOVIB, “Commission d’Enquête sur les violations des droits de l’homme au Burundi depuis le 21 octobre 1993, Rapport Final, ” July, 1994.

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December 2003