Friends Peacemaking in Burundi

It would be hard for people to kill each other when they have been laughing and crying together in such a gathering. You end up by becoming friends.

—Teenage workshop participant

Adrien Niyongabo from Burundi Yearly Meeting explains the quote above as follows: "Our second Healing and Rebuilding Our Community workshop in November 2004 gathered young Tutsi from the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp at Mutaho, and young Hutu from the communities surrounding the camp. In October 1993, most of these youths were under 10 years old. From that time, they grew up separated for many years." Violence had broken out in Burundi in 1993 and many Hutu attacked Tutsi in the countryside forcing them into IDP camps, and the Tutsi army retaliated by killing many Hutu. This quote illustrates the essence of the Quaker peacemaking work in Burundi: the ability to get the two sides, Hutu and Tutsi, together to promote peace between the groups.

To visit Burundi Yearly Meeting is to be inspired. Considering that the members of Burundi Yearly Meeting live in the third-poorest country in the world, and that most live in remote, poorer-than-average areas upcountry, it amazes me what a tremendous amount of peacemaking work they do. In this article I will describe only some of their many activities, and give a lengthier description of one project.

Kibimba Peace Committee: In October 1993, in an incident that received international media attention, 72 Tutsi students from Kibimba Secondary School plus Matthias Ndimurwanko, the Tutsi principal of the Kibimba primary school, were herded by their Hutu neighbors into the building of the Ryanyoni gas station, which was then set on fire. Only two people escaped alive, one being Matthias. A year later he began the Kibimba Peace Committee with Aloys Ningabira, the director of Kibimba Hospital, to facilitate peace and reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi in the community. I wish I could report that Quaker peacemakers had been there to help, but we were not. Help came from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which assigned a number of its volunteers to help rebuild the community. The first task was to reopen the primary school and to get both Tutsi and Hutu students to attend. In addition they reopened the Hospital in Kibimba, which had been closed during the fighting.

One of the first activities the Kibimba Peace Committee organized to promote peaceful contact between the Hutu villagers and the Tutsi soldiers stationed at Kibimba was Saturday football games (soccer to people in the United States). The villagers played against the Tutsi soldiers who only a year before had been killing the Hutu villagers. The catch was that there was no referee so before the game the Peace Committee had to conduct a short peacemaking course on resolving the conflicts on the football field.

Recently, after a truce was established between the government and the main Hutu rebel group, the football peacemaking was expanded. In Kibimba the Peace Committee organized the usual match between the villagers and the soldiers with no referee. At the end of the game they chose a mixed Tutsi soldier/Hutu village Kibimba team. In nearby Kabaguzo, a stronghold of the rebel group, the Hutu rebels and the local Hutu villagers played a game, and afterwards they formed a united Kabaguzo team. Then a refereed match took place between the Kibimba Tutsi soldier/Hutu villager team and the Kabaguzo Hutu rebel/Hutu villager team. The prize for the winning team was a bull. I heard that the Kabaguzo team won and received the bull. In the spirit of the day, the winners slaughtered the bull and invited the losing team to share it with them. The Burundi Government was so impressed by this peacemaking activity that it asked Mi-PAREC (another Burundian group working for peace—see below) to organize similar matches throughout the country.

To facilitate communications between the Hutu and the Tutsi, and between the local people and the military stationed at Kibimba, the Kibimba Peace Committee also opened the Amahoro (Peace) Restaurant where everyone would be willing to come. To ensure that people would not be afraid of being poisoned, an MCC volunteer, Susan Seitz, managed the restaurant. When there was any dispute in the community, rather than letting it fester into possible violence, all sides would meet at the Amahoro Restaurant to discuss the situation. These are only a few of the many activities of the Kibimba Peace Committee.

When I was in Burundi in July 2002, I was unable to visit Kibimba because of fighting in the area. In August I returned and was told that during that fighting— unlike in 1993 when only Tutsi fled to the Kibimba compound—every ethnic group, Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa, fled to Kibimba, where they lived together until the danger had passed. I was told that this progress was due to the continuous work of the Kibimba Peace Committee.

Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (Mi-PAREC): When I first visited Mi-PAREC in January 1999, it was a group of nine people from various denominations and ethnic groups who went into the Burundian countryside to give three-day peace seminars. The goal was to set up peace committees like the one in Kibimba. Shortly before my visit, four members of the team had led a seminar, and as they were closing up, they were arrested and put in jail for three days. They spent the time conveying their teachings to the military. In the end they were released, and the governor of the province promised to endorse their future workshops.

Mi-PAREC dreams, and then realizes those dreams. In 1999, Mi-PAREC was based in a small house in the Kwibuka Friends mission station. It had dreams of renting a large house in Gitega in order to facilitate its workshops. When I visited Gitega in 2001, it had not only rented a large house in which to hold seminars, but it had also rented a smaller one with a restaurant where it prepared food for the workshops and raised income during other times. By this time the dream was to build its own building. In August 2002, when I returned, Mi-PAREC had begun work on a three-story building with 48 sleeping places, a large meeting room, a computer room, a library, and a reception area—it was the largest building being constructed in Gitega. Do not assume that they had received a large grant to do this. The building was self-financed by the proceeds of the workshops that the ministry conducted, and they were doing the construction themselves. The Mi-PAREC driver, who had once been in construction, was overseeing the project. This building has since been completed, and a second one of almost equal size is now under construction.

Magarama II Peace Primary School: In Burundi, students were formerly taught that Tutsi were racially superior to peasant Hutus and therefore should rule the country. The Peace Primary School was started by Modeste Karerwa shortly after the beginning of the Crisis (as the Burundians call it) in 1993. The goal for its almost 700 students from preschool through sixth grade was to teach the prescribed curriculum in the morning and peace education in the afternoon. This goal included visiting other children in IDP camps and orphanages (only 22 percent of primary age children go to school in Burundi), and developing peaceful relationships between its Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa students, parents, and teachers.

I would like to describe one amazing procedure that could well be copied by schools worldwide. Caning (paddling) of students, teacher abuse of students, and sexual harassment of students by teachers are major issues in African schools, as elsewhere in the world including the United States. The Peace Primary School begins teaching children’s rights to students in first grade using the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as a foundation. Every week, each class elects a monitor to assess the application of these children’s rights in the classroom. On Fridays the monitors meet with Modeste and the parents’ committee leaders and gives a report of any misconduct. When I asked Modeste what they do when misconduct occurs, she told me that it never happens. I am confident that the school has created an atmosphere where the students and their rights are fully respected.

Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services: I work with the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), sponsored by Friends Peace Teams, an initiative that strengthens, promotes, and supports peace activities in the Great Lakes region of Africa. AGLI has introduced programs into Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya, including workcamps; and it has worked hard across ethnic groups to restore relations that were destroyed by violence. In 1998, AGLI sent letters to all yearly meetings in the African Great Lakes region asking if they would like to have a delegation visit them. David Niyonzima of Burundi Yearly Meeting responded immediately, saying that assistance was needed with trauma healing due to the years of violence in Burundi. AGLI visited Burundi in early 1999 and partnered with Burundi Yearly Meeting to launch the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS). Carolyn Keys from Montclair (N.J.) Meeting spent over two years assisting in the training of three Burundian members of THARS and 23 local Quaker leaders from all areas of Burundi.

In 2002, David Niyonzima had returned with a master’s degree in Counseling from George Fox University in Oregon. In April 2003, THARS received a large U.S. Agency for International Development grant through Search for Common Ground, a U.S./European NGO that promotes conflict resolution in selected countries of the world including Burundi—becoming the first organization in Burundi to work with victims of torture. As part of this work, THARS set up listening rooms throughout Burundi and trained local Burundians to work with people who have been severely tortured and abused. When I heard some of the cases THARS has treated, I cried; I was distressed that any human being could do such things to other human beings. Such is the nature of things in a country where the social fabric has been mostly destroyed. If healing does not take place, then a new cycle of violence will occur. And, even without a new cycle, the effects of the violence to date will carry on to the seventh generation, as the Bible warns.

Friends Women’s Association: A 17-year-old girl came to the Friends Women’s Association’s (FWA) AIDS Clinic in Kamenge (a poor, destroyed area of Bujumbura), and said, "We’re abused by those who want to have sex with us. We don’t choose our partners. They force us. If we refuse, we’re beaten. Sometimes they don’t pay us the 500 francs [less than 50 U.S. cents] they promise—but instead, a slap." Eleven years of conflict have left the women of Burundi in a very precarious position, including falling prey to the spread of aids to them and their children. FWA provides medical attention, medication, and some food. It counsels those stricken by the disease. FWA conducts workshops throughout the country using the experiential learning approach of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) to teach women about the sexually transmitted disease and how best to cope with it, most times without the medicines common in the United States.

FWA began about two years ago when Cassilde Ntamamiro, coordinator of the program, and other women of Burundi Yearly Meeting felt that women needed to be organized in order to tackle the problem of hiv/aids. A full 80 percent of the women in Burundi, including Friends, are illiterate. They are not educated about hiv/aids. Moreover, there is a great stigma attached to the disease, and women who become ill are frequently thrown out of their homes and otherwise neglected. So much work needs to be done.

Healing and Rebuilding Our Community Program: The major contribution of Friends to peacemaking is the ability to get the two sides in a situation to sit down together and discuss their differences. The new Healing and Rebuilding Our Community program in Burundi, supported by the African Great Lakes Initiative, does exactly that. Its leader, Adrien Niyongabo, has helped to develop a program that brings Tutsi and Hutu participants to the same three-day workshop. The goal is to reestablish normal relationships after killings. He is concentrating on conducting workshops in a small community in order to heal social and psychological wounds. In the West, we perceive "trauma" to be a personal issue; but in countries racked by the widespread violence that occurred in the Great Lakes area, trauma is also a societal problem.

The first community targeted was the Mutaho IDP camp and its surrounding community. Mutaho is about 25 miles north of Gitega, which is right in the center of Burundi. The Mutaho area was one of the areas in Burundi most destroyed by the fighting. The commercial center of Mutaho—once a large square with two-story buildings on all sides and a marketplace in the center—has been completely destroyed. Many Hutu and Tutsi in this area killed each other during the conflict in 1993. The two groups became separated when the Tutsi moved to IDP camps, while the more numerous Hutu stayed on their plots in the countryside. Former neighbors and friends became enemies. This is how the situation has remained for the last ten years, with little communication between the two groups.

Six workshops were held, each with ten Tutsi from the IDP camps and ten Hutu from the surrounding community coming together to participate. Two of these workshops were with youths who have lived close by but separated since 1993. The climax of this effort came on January 23 when a community gathering/celebration was held for all 120 people who had attended the workshops.

Each workshop is three days long. The first day is structured in order to develop a secure environment where everyone can feel free to talk. There is an introduction to psycho-social trauma (a new concept to most of the participants), a presentation on the causes and symptoms of trauma, followed by small-group discussions on the effects of trauma on the participants, and a closing relaxation exercise. On the second day, participants focus on good listening skills, learning about grief and loss, how to recover from trauma, and destructive and constructive ways of dealing with anger. The third day brings introductions a "tree of mistrust" and a "tree of trust," which lead to a "trust walk" where each Hutu participant is blindfolded and led around by a Tutsi participant, and then vice versa. The workshop ends with testimonials and evaluation.

Here are some excerpts from these testimonials:

We all are carrying very heavy burdens from what we passed through. Speaking for myself, I have been holding a big grief within me for many days. I give thanks to a Hutu family that agreed to hide me after my mum, brothers, and other relatives were brutally killed. Although I escaped, I witnessed the death of my loved ones. It hurts! Coming from my exile, I found that there is nothing that I could do to bring back my loved ones. I decided not to seek revenge. Rather, I started to create good relationships with the killers of my family members although it looks bizarre to some individuals. Still, I have my big trauma to deal with. Thanks so much for having invited me to this workshop. I feel much lighter than when I came. I got a wonderful opportunity to speak about my sufferings. The workshop has been healing for me. Thanks again. (Tutsi participant)

I liked the fact that we came from different churches as Hutu and Tutsi. Days ago, we could not gather like this. I was amused by how nobody could notice all those differences during our workshop. It is like we were from the same family. I hope we will continue to behave that way once back in our communities.

Although these people are dealing with societal problems, it is clear that hurt from the conflict includes anger and violence within the family. It seems that societal violence and family violence are closely linked. One of the more important aspects of these workshops is that often they result in more peaceful family relationships, as indicated in this story:

I would have been the big loser if death had taken me away before having attended this HROC workshop. I had seen how happy are those who came from these workshops you are organizing and I wondered what they were given. I was overloaded with my bad feelings and this workshop has been an opportunity for me to put down some of them. Moreover, I had been quarreling with my wife and many times I used violence over her. Thank God that I have learned how I can manage my anger. I am ready to change and bring peace in my family.

We decided to do two of the workshops with youths. If there is another round of violence in Burundi, it is these hurting youths who will be recruited into the groups that will promote any violence that occurs. These workshops gathered young people, half Tutsi and half Hutu, from the Mutaho area. Most of them were under ten years old in October 1993, when the separation began—thus, they have lived apart longer than they had ever lived together. They were invited to attend these workshops to share their stories. There were no confrontations in our workshops. Instead, both Hutu and Tutsi youths were so sad because of what happened to their communities and they felt regret at being in such a situation. The youths were ready to learn new skills and to find a way for healing. They spoke of depression, from the torture they endured and from the many losses of loved ones and other destruction. This would explain the unhappy faces that participants had at the beginning of the workshop. As usual, towards the end of the workshop, they were more open, hopeful, joyful, energized, excited, and friendly. And they were inspired to act differently from how they had been living apart without communicating with each other.

In addition to the comment at the beginning of this article, here are some comments from the youths:

These teachings are special. The more we did things, the more I got released. Really, they are unique.

I discovered that the tree of mistrust that was within me was too big. I could not think at any time that I could speak from the heart to those who are not from my ethnicity. Very few are the times I have been happy. Then, little by little, as we went on with the workshop, I felt a joy that I can’t explain and found that there are still loving people. Yes, I have found a way to uproot my tree of mistrust.

My grief started in 1993. That year left in me a big wound. I was always jealous of those who still have their parents. But now, I realize that it is good to put myself in God’s hands and start to live in a friendly manner with my neighbors.

Later, Pastor Sebastien Kambayeko, a facilitator in that workshop, reported the following:

A group of Tutsi widows living in the IDP camp came to him and told him how the two trees, the trust tree and the mistrust tree, had affected them. They said that as single parents, in order to make room for the trust tree, they needed to prepare the way for their children and grandchildren by forgiving their wrongdoers.

One of the ways to do that would be to follow up on an idea expressed by one of them during their last workshop. This idea was to go to Gitega prison to meet the Mutaho Hutu former officials. "Maybe they would doubt our sincerity because what they did to our families was woeful. But we will not give up. We would go there for a second time, sit with them, and talk. We need peace for our next generation."

The last report is that the women have gone to Gitega to ask the provincial administration for permission to visit the prisoners.

The followup workshops had two main topics. In the morning small groups shared: "What did I get from the HROC workshop I attended and how is it helping me, in my life and my community?" The afternoon focused on "Level of Trust in my Community." It is clear that many of the participants had taken to heart the message—it is necessary to care for others whomever they may be. Here are some comments:

These teachings helped to change people’s minds. Before we attended these workshops, we feared to meet with persons from the opposite ethnicity even if we did not know anything bad about him or her. But now, there is no more fear and the hatred has been replaced by love. I am a Hutu. Whenever I was passing near the IDP camp, in my mind, it felt as though all the Tutsi we crossed were suspicious of me. But now, when I pass near the same IDP and see these people, we hug each other, laugh, and chat. I think that this is a lesson and a model for those who see us. The HROC workshop has made us a model in our community.

The skills that I got in the workshop that I attended have enabled me to be compassionate in helping others. A few days ago, in the queue at the hospital, I saw a woman sitting under a banana tree, crying and saying things like a crazy person. I immediately went to her, sat beside her and held her in my arms. She kept on crying. After a while, she stopped crying and looked at me very surprised. I told her that I felt pity to see her alone. I asked her what happened and she told me that her child had passed away. I listened to her and we finally sent somebody to go and call her husband. This was a great experience for me. I did not expect that I would be empowered to that level.

Now I am able to manage my anger. Before the HROC workshop I attended, I used to be angry to the point that I would later plan to come and kill the one who made me angry. Now I am eager to accept that problems can erupt among people and still there will be a way to resolve them instead of killing each other. I now feel proud of myself because my neighbors keep coming to me asking for advice. Surely they know better than anyone else that the changes in my behavior are real.

I am a muchingantahe [a wise man who helps adjudicate local cases]. I used to ask for bribes from one of the two parties in conflict so that I could give him or her favor. Just after the last day of the workshop I attended, one woman came to me with money in her hands. Trying to hand it to me, she said that she wanted me to help her to win a case against her neighbors. I listened to her and when she was done, I quietly told her that I could not touch her money. Instead, I suggested that she could go and meet the one with whom she was in conflict and try to talk about the issue. Two days later, she came back happy, for they were able to resolve the issue by themselves. Another man came with the same intention, but still I refused the bribe. I told him that I am no longer the same person they used to see. HROC has changed me. I am happy that people in my community know that I have abandoned that worthless habit and that they can unify by themselves. Thanks for the HROC workshop because I have got Light and courage. I have become conscious that bribery is one of the roots of the mistrust tree. And I have uprooted it.

In the followup workshop for the youths, the youths said that if the adults stay with the hatred, then young people should play the mediators so that the new generation may inherit a "restful community." Here is the report of one young woman:

I am a Tutsi living in the IDP camp. I was around ten when the war reached our area. I remember the day when Hutu beat my young brother to death. My mum asked our Hutu neighbor to escort her so that she could take my brother to the hospital. Pitilessly, he told her "Don’t you know where you have buried your husband? Take him there too." Hopelessly my mum and I went to the hospital, but my brother died in mum’s arms before we could reach it. We turned back and took the trail to the cemetery. Only two of us, two females, buried my brother. This would never have happened before the war. After we were done, we went home crying. Since that time, I considered the Hutu man to be a monster, as well as his wife and children—as we say in Kirundi, "The mouse’s baby is victim of his mum’s hate." After the HROC workshop I attended, I would sit and meditate. One day, I decided to rebuild the destroyed relationship with that family. Unfortunately, the man had died. Still, I went to his daughter, who is almost my age, and told her my sad story. I openly told her that this was the only reason that I hated them. She was very sorry to hear about what her father had done to us. In tears, she humbly asked if I would be eager to forgive her father though he had died, her family, and her too. I responded to her that this was my purpose in coming and talking with her. We are now friends—real friends. I have forgiven them. Without HROC workshop skills, especially the tree of trust, I am not sure if I would have come to that decision.

Conference Center in Kibimba: In the December 2004 issue of Friends Journal, I reported on the Watu Wa Amani (People of Peace) Conference in Kenya. Elie Nahimana, the general secretary (called legal representative in French-speaking countries), decided that Burundi Yearly Meeting needed a place for its members to learn and discuss more about peacemaking. In September 2004, one month after the conference, Burundi Yearly Meeting began building a conference center in Kibimba. By this past January—less than five months later—they had built the kitchen up to the roof and the conference hall above the windows, and they had laid the foundations for a 48-room/96-bed dormitory plus two small houses for workshop facilitators. This they did with almost no money. Mi-PAREC sent workcampers who did much of the digging and filling of the foundations. They knocked down some old buildings on the site and reused the bricks. Unfortunately, they can’t build the roofs without expending a considerable amount of money. Elie estimates that this will be finished in two years.

A Sign of Hope: In 1934, evangelical Friends from Kansas established the first mission site in Burundi at Kibimba. I chuckle to myself every time I read that the Religious Society of Friends is declining, since what people mean is that it is declining in the United States or Britain. When I first went to Burundi in 1999, I was told that there were 9,000 adult members. Now there are over 15,000 members, an increase of 67 percent in six years. Since it takes two years of attendance in classes to become a member, and since children are not included, Burundi Yearly Meeting may involve over 30,000 people.

This is not to say that Burundi Yearly Meeting is perfect. In a country with years of violent conflict, mistrust among people—including those in Burundi Yearly Meeting—is common. In the summer of 2003 there was a major leadership crisis in the yearly meeting. The crisis seems now to be mostly resolved. Resources are extremely limited and there is much competition among the hard-working, dedicated staff of the various organizations to acquire more resources. Nonetheless the peacemaking work continues with the groups mentioned in this article and with many others.

The growth and work of Burundi Yearly Meeting offers hope for all Friends around the world. We are a small Religious Society. What we do best is to bring two sides of a conflict together in a nonviolent setting to settle differences in a peaceful way. This is how we help bring the Peaceable Reign of God here on Earth.
The author is indebted to Adrien Niyongabo, who supplied the extensive quotations and explanations in this article that relate to Mutaho.

David Zarembka

David Zarembka is coordinator of African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams. A member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, he is sojourning at St. Louis (Mo.) Meeting.