Nervous Burundians say quake portends all-out war

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Burundi descended into violence in April after President Pierre Nkurunziza launched a bid for a third consecutive term in office, despite concerns over the legality of such a move

Burundi descended into violence in April after President Pierre Nkurunziza launched a bid for a third consecutive term in office, despite concerns over the legality of such a move (AFP Photo/Landry Nshimiye)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Already rattled by a political crisis that has claimed some 100 lives, many Burundians fear that Friday's earthquake portends the return of the brutal civil war that rent the central African nation.

The 5.6 scale temblor that struck the region was felt in Rwanda, DR Congo, Burundi and Uganda with casualties only reported from DR Congo so far.

But it spread dread and gloom in Burundi, with some recalling that a similar quake preceded the 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye -- the country's first democratically elected president -- an event which spawned a devastating 13-year civil war.

"I still have memories of the civil war," said Diane, a 23-year-old shopkeeper who sells clothes and trinkets in the capital Bujumbura.

"I am very scared that war will resume," she said.

Burundi had been slowly getting back on track after the 1993-2006 conflict killed around 300,000 people.

But President Pierre Nkurunziza's successful effort to bulldoze his way into a third term in a controversial July election fuelled protests, a sweeping crackdown and an exodus of citizens fleeing the unrest.

Nkurunziza's candidacy was condemned as unconstitutional by the opposition and provoked months of protests.

In mid-May, rebel generals attempted a coup, which failed. They have since launched a rebellion in the north of the country, close to the border with Rwanda.

- 'War is inevitable' -

There are fears -- both inside and outside Burundi -- that the tiny country in the heart of central Africa's troubled Great Lakes region could be plunged back into civil war.

"The quake is a pointer that the president will go," said Jean, a Bujumbura taxi driver.

"There was a quake just before Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated," he said, claiming that ever since then tremors were seen as a sign of ensuing unrest: a coup, an assassination or war.

The crushing of anti-government demonstrations has restored a superficial normality to Bujumbura -- the barricades were torn down, streets cleaned up and the fires put out. Yet behind that veneer lies an abiding fear.

People fear indiscriminate retaliation from security forces especially since the recent assassination of a powerful military leader and Nkurunziza loyalist, General Adolphe Nshimirimana. He was widely seen as the country's de-facto internal security chief.

At the same time, residents of many opposition strongholds in the capital are taking precautionary measures by arming themselves and setting up barricades at night to prevent police patrols from entering.

"War may come, there is really a lot of tension," said Alain-Carmel, a 20-year-old petty trader who was orphaned in the last civil war.

"We tried everything so that Burundi can live in peace but war seems inevitable," he said, adding that he was stuck in Bujumbura.

"I don't have the means to flee. One needs money for that. But if I had the means, I would go," he said.

More than 180,000 Burundians have so far fled since April, taking shelter in neighbouring countries. Those with money have left for Europe.

Elvis, a foreign exchange dealer in Bujumbura, said he had sent his family to neighbouring Rwanda.

"I have to stay here to earn money," the 29-year-old said, adding: "But if the situation continues to worsen like this and there is war, I will have to flee."

"Dialogue is the only way to ward off war," he said. "War destroys many things. I lost my mother, my aunt and many of my family members during the civil war and I don't want to see that again," he said.

Meanwhile, many Burundians are apprehensive of August 26, when the president's second term expires.

"Burundi could be on fire after August 26 because after that we will not have a president as his third term is deemed to be illegal," said Jean, the taxi driver.

"We can still avoid war if the government and the opposition can negotiate. If not, it will be war."