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Tribalism: Lessons from Burundi

NAIROBI, August 29 – He risked his life because of an undying search for the truth; truth that no one else was ready to accept.

Bob Krueger was posted to Burundi as U.S Ambassador in 1994 – just when ethnic cleansing had began in that country and neighbouring Rwanda.

Despite threats to his life, Krueger gathered courage to expose what was happening in Burundi to the world.

He dug up graves to exhume decaying bodies and interviewed survivors in search of evidence that would convince his country and the international community that the killings were real.

Fourteen years down the line, images of scattered human body parts still linger on his mind.

Krueger narrates how the cancer of tribalism made one community to hate another one so much; they were ready to annihilate them in the cruelest manner possible.

“I arrived in Burundi in June when the genocide was proceeding, and I immediately went to the countryside. People thought of each other in terms of tribes. I found within the first ten days that at least 100 people were being killed every day, most of them by the army.

The Tutsis – although they were only 14 percent of the population – controlled 100 percent of the army, the judges and the police force. They had destroyed democracy; the real power was in the army, which had killed the President and 21 of the 83 members of the Cabinet,all Hutus. They had been assassinated one by one.

However, surprisingly, never was a single charge brought against anybody.

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People would bring me reports of where to go and witness the killings, and I would go there for two reasons; one I strongly believe in democracy and in justice.

Secondly, I knew I could not stop the killings, but if I went into an area where the army was engaging in the slaughter, they would pull out for a time; I did not stop them but I slowed them down.

Worst moments

During one of my trips to the countryside, I saw how the army would set thatched houses on fire and use machetes to slaughter the Hutus; it was just a cruel, cruel thing!

In a day and a half, I found 70 bodies that had been rotting for ten days. Not impala, pig or cow; it was decaying human flesh!

I dug graves myself.

I had a feeling in every fiber of me; I felt pain and sympathy. No words could describe the feeling.

Afterwards, I held a press conference and released names of 70 dead people. I showed their photos and the consequence was that within the next 10 days two Burundian newspapers carried front-page headlines calling for my assassination accusing me of interfering in their internal affairs.

I phoned anybody who would pay attention, and frankly, the world ignored it.

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I was outspoken, I could not remain silent because I couldn’t have lived with myself if I shut up. After my public statements, the army ambushed my convoy, two people were killed and eight others were seriously wounded; bullets went through my car, people were being killed all around me. I was miraculously saved!

Against my wish, I was recalled by my government in 2006, due to rising violence.
Tribalism at your own peril

Once you begin judging people not by whom they are but by what tribe they come from, you are on the way to injustice, to resentment, to hatred. From hatred, it can flow to genocide and that’s what happened in Burundi.

People need to know that they are denying their own humanity by putting tribalism above.

I am sure Kenya does not want to be like Burundi or Rwanda that is why the key struggle is to start fighting tribalism first from within yourself. Tribalism and ethnicity will bring you down,” he concludes.

Bob Krueger went on to become a Senator in the U.S. Together with his wife Kathleen Tobin, they have written a book ‘From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi’. It recites the slaughter that occurred around them, as well as their repeated efforts to get the U.S. government and the international community to take notice and take action.


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