Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness - Burundi's own Romeo and Juliet story
When Haruna, a Hutu, and Anita, a Tutsi, fell in love, they knew it wouldn't be easy.
There's a simple reason why a luminous teenage girl named Anita and a strapping, square-jawed boy named Haruna shouldn't have ever fallen in love in this central African country: She's a Tutsi and he's a Hutu, and they come from opposite sides of an ethnic divide that has led to 300,000 deaths in the past 13 years.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yet on a balmy afternoon last year, as they sipped orange sodas and smiled shyly at each other, they knew – with Romeo-and-Juliet certainty – they'd be together always. They also knew it wouldn't be easy.
After all, many of their own family members had been killed: Two of Anita's sisters were tied up and torched by Hutus, and six of Haruna's relatives were killed by Tutsis. One had a flaming tire put around his neck.
Burundi's ethnic killings are less well-known than those in neighboring Rwanda, with its 1994 genocide. But they were equally brutal.
The determination and idealism of two shy teenagers is emblematic of a kind of people-powered reconciliation now emerging in Burundi, and it's most evident here in the suburb of Kamenge, which is seen as a national model. Unlike in South Africa, this nation hasn't tried any formal, government-led reconciliation process. But there's plenty of exhaustion after 12 years of conflict – and indignation at the politicians seen as responsible for the war.
So, by tapping a tradition of forgiveness that enjoins enemies to "become brothers as before," grass-roots groups of Hutus and Tutsis have begun their own efforts. Many have had "reconciliation days" in which victims and perpetrators lay bare the events of the previous decade – including their own crimes. There's often a pledge to prevent recurring violence. Referring to several such events he has witnessed around this tiny nation, Stéphane Mora of the US-based Search For Common Ground observes simply, "There has been a very positive evolution over these few years."
* * *
It was Burundi's version of working-class suburban bliss.
In the relative calm of the early 1990s, life was good in Anita and Haruna's neighborhood of Kamenge – a lower-middle-class suburb of the capital. Haruna remembers Anita as the cute kid sister of one of his Tutsi friends.
Then, in 1993, the country's first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated. In one of the world's poorest and most densely populated countries, power-hungry politicians stoked ethnic tensions – tensions originally fomented by Belgian colonizers in the 1920s and 30s.
Suddenly Kamenge was the city's most-violent suburb. Hutus setting foot in Tutsi areas faced near-certain death. And vice versa. Anita's family had to flee to a Tutsi-only zone. Soon the suburb settled into a de facto system of ethnic apartheid. Between 1993 and 2005, some 15,000 people died in Kamenge alone, says Marano Claudio, an Italian who lives in the area. Across the country, roughly 1 in 23 Burundians died during "the crisis."
By 2004, all sides were exhausted. Other nations, including South Africa, were demanding peace. Negotiations led to a power-sharing deal – and multiethnic elections in 2005.
In Kamenge, mistrust lingered – evidenced by the charred, ruined buildings lining its streets today. But Hutus and Tutsis started to rebuild, and that's when a cross-ethnic relationship bloomed.
Haruna had dropped out of high school and was driving a city bus, which Anita rode to school. He began eyeing her – and soon asked her out. She declined. He was, after all, 22, and she was just 16. "He's a big man," she recalls thinking, "and I'm just a little girl." Also, her friends warned her not to date a Hutu. Yet she admired his driving and his clothes and soon decided "no other boy was like him." In a teenage swoon, she even envisioned that "he would be the only boyfriend I would have for my whole life."