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Killing begins anew in Africa

Mid-summer in a presidential election year isn't the best time to get America's politicians thinking seriously about anything but re-election.

In fact, almost nothing short of an all-out catastrophe can be expected to get a politician's attention, much less deep thought. And in this election season, for some reason, even a catastrophe seems incapable of breaking through and registering on our nation's political radar screen.

Exhibit No. 1 on this point is Burundi, a central African nation whose name isn't exactly on everybody's lips these days. Burundi may be a disaster on point of becoming an all-out catastrophe, but it seems nobody here wants to know about it.

We've got the Olympics going on in Atlanta and a jumbo jet crash, possibly involving terrorists, in New York. Who wants to know about a place in Africa few Americans can find on the map?

Nevertheless, what's happening in Burundi is important to each and every one of us. It's genocide _ premeditated mass killing _ and as in neighboring Rwanda two years ago, it's taking place on a scale far larger than anything we've seen in Bosnia or anyplace else in recent years. And also like Rwanda, the killing in Burundi involves the country's two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis.

Despite the magnitude of the killing, the White House and Bob Dole's campaign people continue churning out position papers about Russia, Bosnia and other subjects on an almost daily basis but have virtually nothing to say about Burundi.

Could it be somebody might think that if the politicians dare to talk about Burundi they might actually be expected to do something about it? You would think so the way everybody is avoiding the subject.

What happened this past weekend, however, makes Burundi almost impossible to ignore, even by our politicians and public.

Early Saturday morning, anti-government Hutu rebels entered the village of Bugendana in central Burundi and shot, stabbed or hacked to death more than 300 people, some of them infants not yet able to walk. Those killed had one thing in common _ they were all Tutsis, the ethnic faction that makes up only 14 percent of Burundi's 6.2-million population yet has controlled the country one way or another since independence from Belgium in 1962.

If this had been an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. But since 1993, when Burundi's first Hutu president was assassinated in a military coup, such massacres have been anything but isolated incidents.

It's estimated now that at least 150,000 people, and most likely many, many more, have been slaughtered in such attacks by both sides over the past three years. The worrisome part is that the pace of the massacres is picking up. Many fear an all-out civil war between Burundi's Hutus and Tutsis is imminent.

To give you an idea of how bad this can get, three months of fighting between Hutus and Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda two years ago killed between 500,000 and 1-million people. When you figure that about 57,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam over a roughly 10-year period, you get an idea of the slaughter going on in central Africa these days.

So what is the outside world going to do about it?

At most, precious little.

Most likely, nothing at all.

As noted, don't count on Bill Clinton or Bob Dole to get too exercised over this. They have an election to worry about. The United Nations under Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali might try to get involved, but it can do so only if the United States or probably France gets behind it. That doesn't seem likely at this point.

The French might try to go it alone _ that's what they did in Rwanda two years ago _ but that level of intervention probably wouldn't be enough to make any big difference.

Right now, the best hope is an intervention plan backed by the Organization of African Unity and put together by Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania. This so-called "African solution" calls for Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda to send a joint task force into Burundi to keep the peace.

Trouble is, Burundi's Tutsi-dominated army opposes such a mission because it might threaten its authority. The Hutu rebels are against it too because they suspect the Ugandans would side with the Tutsis.

Until a few days ago, Nyerere had been threatening to send in peacekeeping troops anyway. But for some reason he changed his mind, saying the joint mission would go into Burundi only if a cease-fire was in effect. How that's supposed to come about, nobody is saying.

I said earlier that this latest massacre in Burundi makes the ongoing slaughter there "almost impossible to ignore, even by our politicians and public." That "almost" is a crucial word.

We may yet manage to avoid thinking about Burundi and what's going on there and if we do it will be an awful shame on all of us.