Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Burundi: With Independence Came Genocide

imagesCoordinated attacks in Burundi in recent years left hundreds dead and forced thousands to flee the country. The State Department advised Americans to depart and drew down the embassy in response to the escalation in violence amid concern that the small African nation could again be on the brink of civil war.  Internal conflicts have pitted ethnic groups against each other and led to genocide throughout the country’s history.  The first was in 1972.  Burundi became independent from Belgium in 1962 and was declared a constitutional monarchy. Members of the Hutu ethnic group, which made up a large majority of the country, won most of the parliament seats in the country’s first election, but the king appointed a Tutsi as prime minister. Resulting Hutu uprisings were put down by the Tutsi-led police and army.

In 1966, the monarchy was deposed and replaced by a republic under the leadership of the Tutsi Prime Minister Michel Micombero, who became the country’s first president. President Micombero’s government more closely resembled a military regime than a republic, and ethnic tension and violence continued to be explosive.  On April 27, 1972, Hutu members started a rebellion, committing atrocities and killing hundreds of people.  President Micombero declared martial law and Tutsi-controlled armed forces killed Hutus en masse; an estimated 80,000 – 210,000 died and thousands more escaped to surrounding countries.

Miles Pendleton was a political-economic officer in the U.S. embassy in Bujumbura during the genocide. He recalls his experiences with in a 1998 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy.

For more information about Africa, genocide, or embassy evacuations, please follow the links.

“Within three weeks all our guests were dead, both husbands and wives”

Miles Pendleton, Political-Economic Officer, U.S. Embassy Bujumbura, 1970-1972
PENDLETON:  I saw very little in the months ahead that would suggest that we were facing an explosion….President Michel Micombero, who was about 31 or 32 years old who had been president for five years…would throw potential enemies in jail, but they didn’t have to be Hutus, and it could be for whatever reason.

One would never figure out totally what was going on, but people at a certain level in the government or the military with whom we had some dealings (I taught English to military officers) led a life that had its ongoing uncertainties. And I didn’t think too much about people being jailed because they seemed to be released quite promptly. And that was one of the things that led to a slightly numbing sense of tranquility, in terms of the underlying Hutu-Tutsi problem.

And, indeed, David Rawson [Africa specialist], was out visiting us in the spring of 1972, and he and I went around the country and went through some roadblocks and didn’t recognize them as being precursors to the “events” (and in French they’re called “évènements”) of ‘72. And the word “events” disguises the fact that 200,000 people were killed, most all of them horribly and systematically with sledgehammers in a genocide during that period. This was in April of 1972.

My wife and I gave a dinner party in late April in David’s honor, and we tried to balance it very carefully between Hutus and Tutsis. He knew more Hutus than he knew Tutsis. As far as we could figure out later, within three weeks all our guests were dead, both husbands and wives. People we thought were Tutsis turned out to have one Hutu grandparent, and, à la Hitler, became, at the outset of the fighting, from the wrong side and were killed.

I was reminded how, in a sense, naïve I was about what was going on and how hard it was to really fathom what was going on. I had a number of rather unattractive people practically on my “payroll”. I would give them a little bit of money, and they would give me gossip.

But it didn’t seem to suggest an explosion. At the embassy, we did not know that a rebellion or coup by Hutus was being prepared for the end of April 1972.

And one thing that happened that I probably should have paid more attention to was that a distinguished Hutu who had studied in the United States and whom I knew quite well, relatively speaking, and with whom I could converse in English, called me on the phone, and asked me if I knew any way to help get outboards for some friends of his that would survive the choppy water of Lake Tanganyika. He knew that we had Boston Whalers and whatever.

I was sufficiently tranquilized that this didn’t mean anything to me, but upon reflection, it may be that I was being asked for help in terms of this Hutu uprising, which started in late April in the south and reached Bujumbura, but we didn’t have word of it.

On the 29th of April, Micombero, the president, had dismissed his government at midday, and in the evening one began hearing noise that sounded like rifles and machine-gun fire around the town. I went around on my mobilette, which was a motorized bicycle, and didn’t see anything of great note. We got word, however, that something was going on which might be an uprising.

I went to the embassy and sent a cable to Washington, after talking with some of the key missionaries on the phone alerting them to get their heads down, and then asking if they had any reports of anybody caught up in it, and the answer was no.

Our first focus — and this is something which I can remember stressing to the Ambassador — was on the American citizens and trying to make sure that they were all safe and well. So the first little cable we sent (we didn’t know what the hell was going on) was to that end.

We sent another cable at midnight, and then in the morning at first light I went around on my mobilette again, which was probably a bit stupid. I saw a place where we’d heard something had happened, and it was clear that there were burned out cars and gutted cars and blood on the ground et cetera. There had been some kind of skirmish.

And we began to put more and more pieces together to the effect that there had been a Hutu uprising of sorts and that the Tutsi army had pretty well controlled it. Actually, it took them quite a while to control it, and it was very hard for us to get information from the hinterland. And it was very hard to tell where the combat ended and reprisals, systematically, began.

“Every Hutu over eleven who could read or write was rounded up if he had not fled, and an attempt was made to kill them”

But the Hutus were beaten almost immediately, it seems to me. I haven’t studied this perhaps as intensively as I should to get the dates right, but it was clear within a week to ten days that systematic reprisals were starting. And these reprisals really became genocidal and went on for a couple of months.

Every Hutu over eleven who could read or write was rounded up if he had not fled, and an attempt was made to kill them. Many, many thousands were buried out at the airport, and you could see the mass graves as you flew in. In order to save ammunition, they were sledgehammered, usually, and pushed into mass graves and then covered with a bulldozer and suffocated to death if they hadn’t died from the earlier blows. A curfew was started at six in the evening, so we couldn’t see what was going on at night, when in the capital city the trucks were going around loading the literate Hutus up.

And we all had to be in our houses, or somebody’s house, by six o’clock. I was trying to collect as much information as we could all day every day and get a report to Washington at 4:30 in the evening so I could have time to get home. As the days went on there were more and more overnight curfew parties to keep up the spirits of the foreigners in Bujumbura.

The daily events were really quite traumatic. For instance, we had a Hutu gardener who hid in our house. We stashed him even at one point in our bedroom. And then he went crazy and went out and killed his mother and escaped from our garden compound. We had Hutus and Tutsis working for us…So life has its complexities, but trying to keep even those who worked for us from ratting on each other or whatever was not entirely easy.

And as time went on, the Catholic Church began to get very good demographic studies. They had census takers in Burundi who had been there before. And you began to get consolidated reports from parishes as to how many Hutus had died and how many had run into Tanzania or Rwanda.

A lot didn’t go. The Hutus frequently have a kind of subservient mentality, and we heard stories, which I believe, of a truck coming and soldiers filling the truck with Hutus and telling those who couldn’t fit, “Come back tomorrow at 10 o’clock and we’ll get you in.”

They would come back and get in the truck even though they must have known they were going to die. And they were only six miles from the border with Rwanda. I mean, really, quite astonishing to see this.

And in the months that followed, between 150,000 and 200,000 people were killed, and we had a pretty good fix on that through the work of the census takers of the Catholic Church. Washington, quote-unquote, did not wish to hear about this. It was inconvenient. And that’s another part of the story.

‘“Do not waste the Secretary’s time with such a thing again.”’

Human rights were definitely not an American issue in the way it is today, institutionalized as a matter of concern no matter what else is in play…And our reporting really was, I think it’s fair to say, seen in Washington as inconvenient because we had no particular interests there as long as our citizens were okay. And there was a real question as to what could be done about it.

The OAU (the Organization of African Unity) didn’t seem to know what to do. They were encouraged to send a mission to Burundi, and about three weeks into the reprisals, they sent a mission of three people, as I recall, other heads of state, who did not leave the airport and met with Micombero (seen left), to our shock, and expressed their “solidarity” with the President of Burundi.

That was the last thing he needed at that point. It just encouraged him more and more. He was reported to be going up in the French military helicopter, which was provided by France as aid, flown by Colonel Biot of the French Air Force, to machine-gun Hutus from the air. And there was a joke that went around, “What do Hutus do when they hear the president’s helicopter coming? They take an anti-Biot-ique.”

The only communication from Washington that just got me quite riled up was when we got a telephone call from the country director for Central Africa telling us that it was hard to believe that so many people were being killed and would we kindly tone it down.

When I got back to Washington in September after this stint to work in the Ops Center and I went into the editor’s office (the events started in late April) there was a June “morning report” to the Secretary of State hanging on the wall which had a little summary of how many people had been killed in Burundi and what was going on. The executive secretary of the Department of State had written on it: “Do not waste the secretary’s time with such a thing again.”…

“There simply wasn’t a feeling in official Washington that anything could be done”

Part of what happened was that there was no TV. There were no reporters; no foreign reporters were allowed in for months. But there was somebody in Dar-es-Salaam who would get our cables about five or six in the evening and give them almost lock, stock and barrel to BBC, and when I’d get home for the curfew, I’d listen to the BBC News 6:00 pm and you could hear whole paragraphs and phrases that you’d written an hour and a half earlier coming out of London back at you.

But there simply wasn’t a feeling in official Washington that anything could be done, and it was a sad moment, and we haven’t learned totally that lesson. I’m proud of the reporting, by and large. Sometimes it was that we had no leverage, and today we have that same problem. With people having seen what happened to some of our troops in Somalia, we have as much of a burden about committing troops today as we did then, which I think is very sad. I disagree with that a lot, but it’s core to where we are.

The missionaries wanted desperately to hold on, but there were a number who were threatened and endangered. I worked with a number of them, as I mentioned earlier, to help them to get out, usually overland, into Zaire, from which they could go to Rwanda and out to Uganda and Kenya and what have you.

Some had to be essentially smuggled out. But for them it was an absolutely horrible experience because they saw the systematic destruction of the people in whom they had invested their lives, and it took a certain kind of bravery to live with that. I came away from the events of ‘72 with a great deal of respect for the missionaries and their nature….

It is clear that the Tutsis did not wish to do anything which would involve the world community. They therefore were very, very careful to try to avoid having anybody hurt who was a, quote, European, unquote, which might get the industrialized countries upset. They cared about public opinion.
Teddy Kennedy (seen left, photo: New York Times) got up and made a brief speech in the Senate one day about what was going on, and the military really stood down for a day when they heard it on VOA and BBC. They were afraid that the Kennedys somehow were going to mobilize against them, but then they figured out that that wasn’t going to happen. It was one of the few public comments that had an impact. It showed that if you could speak out, you might have had some impact.

At the end of it all, I ran into the Bishop of Bujumbura, who was also head of the collège, the Jesuit school. I’d heard a lot of rumors that he had really turned from being a Catholic into being a Tutsi during this period. And I said, “I want to talk with you about this.” He said, “Come to lunch and bring your wife.”

Therefore, we went up to his house and had a horribly frank discussion about what had happened. He basically admitted to me, despite his eight years of training in Rome, that he believed the Tutsis had no choice but to defend themselves and that he was involved in this process. Otherwise the Tutsis would be exterminated.

My wife and I left feeling that this man of the cloth had just betrayed the cloth almost totally, because he could have played a dampening role, I think, if he had chosen to do so. But he was totally frightened, totally frightened….

“Half of her students, the Tutsis, killed the other half”

I was younger and less wise than Mike [Hoyt, Deputy Chief of Mission in Bujumbura], and Mike had been through a lot, and he knew what to expect and what not to expect out of the State Department in Washington with regard to matters in which obscure Catholic Church census-takers reported that now more than 100,000 had been killed….Whereas I was being dogmatic, he was experienced enough to trim somewhat.

However, when the Department press spokesman was asked about reports of many thousands killed in Burundi, the press spokesman said two days later, “Well, nobody knows; it’s a numbers game.”

You were dealing in an arena where Mike wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose our credibility, and he was quite correct, by being too precise and too dogmatic, and I was pretty sure of my sources, and I think it’s like every newspaper and every organization where you have a bit of – I wouldn’t say “internal conflict.”

I was the scribbler, and Mike would edit when he could, and sometimes he couldn’t and we’d just send stuff on the wires [as cables to the State Department.] It was certainly different when I got into larger embassies or back in Washington when you had to have 27 clearances…

Of course there was no TV coverage. The Washington Post arrived two months later, and I was sufficiently traumatized and, I think, by then suspicious of almost everybody that I pulled my punches in talking with the reporter. Then my wife told me she would strangle me if I pulled any punches, so I opened up.

My wife had been through a very unpleasant personal experience because she’s an attorney and she was teaching law to the law students at the Official University of Bujumbura. She was in the midst of giving them two days of exams on morality and the law, when half of her students, the Tutsis, killed the other half. You could hear the cries from the classrooms.

It was one of those things where, you know, my wife and I to this day think of it often, these sorts of events. They really were life-informing in a sense and affected our careers in terms of what I wanted to ask her to do with her law degree thereafter.

But unless you know people who’ve been through this sort of experience in a very personal way, it’s quite distasteful to most people, particularly the nature of the killings, et cetera. We found when we served later in Brussels, that if you invited a group of old Africa hands over, which meant people who had lived in Rwanda and Burundi, you had a bond that went very deep, whereas you normally could do no more than tip your hat to a neighbor you might see every day, from Brussels, who didn’t understand….

I was reassigned in the summer of ‘72, and by then I was really emotionally quite wiped out. Almost everybody who was going to be killed had been killed, and it seemed, in a sense, a fair moment to leave and let somebody bring a new measure of enthusiasm to working things out.




Return to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Burundi: With Independence Cam…

by Judith Baroody time to read: 13 min