Burundi's oasis in a desert of ethnic strife

Burundi's government and main rebel group agreed to end a 10-year civil war this week.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, a dozen aspiring thespians gather inside the Kamenge Youth Center here. Above the rhythmic thud of basketballs pounding outside the window, the young director, Boumedien Ntakirutimana, assigns parts and explains the plot of his play. It's based on something that happened to a friend.

Like many Burundians displaced by war, Mr. Ntakirutimana's friend, who is a Hutu, came from Burundi's countryside to find work. Illiterate and unskilled, he eventually found a job as a house servant. But when he went to his employer and asked for his wages, they called the police, saying he was a thief. The police, who were Tutsis, beat him fiercely. Now he can't walk.

But in the play, Ntakirutimana doesn't cast Tutsis as instigators or a Hutu as the victim. He doesn't want to perpetuate stereotypes and assign blame. And that's the point - to get past labeling people by tribe and to begin thinking about everyone as fellow countrymen. In a nation riven by a decade of civil war and tribal hatred, it's one of the small but significant efforts by the Kamenge Youth Center to try to save the next generation from the cycle of ethnic strife.

"We are all Burundians," he tells the cast. "We should treat each other with respect."

Most afternoons, the center pulses with life. The basketball courts are filled and a line forms outside the small Internet center. Teens and 20-somethings come to learn guitar, study Italian, or just gossip with friends.

For the more than 20,000 youngsters who come here, it's a paradise of recreational and educational opportunities in one of Africa's poorest countries. They also learn tolerance and respect.

"The first time I went to my friend Esperance's house," says Justine Habonimama, referring to her best friend from the center, a Tutsi, "her parents said to her, 'Why have you brought this Hutu to our house?' But she kept bringing me, and now they don't say anything."

Like neighboring Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people were killed in ethnic massacres in 1994, the people of Burundi are divided into two main ethnic groups, the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi. Tutsis run the government.

Burundi's Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, eat the same food, share the same culture, and are often physically indistinguishable from each other. Yet it is a difference over which people have died.

As many as 300,000 people have been killed in ethnic massacres or during the civil war, which began in 1993 when Tutsis assassinated the country's president, who was a Hutu.

This week, the government and Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), the country's largest Hutu rebel group, met in Pretoria, South Africa, and forged an agreement on a transitional government and the makeup of a new national army. The FDD will get 40 percent of the army posts and several cabinet positions, governorships, ambassadorships, and seats in Parliament. The leader of the FDD immediately called for his combatants to end hostilities.

The northern districts of Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, and particularly the Kamenge Quarter, where the center is located, have been among the most tumultuous areas in the country. Just a month after the center opened in September 1993 by a group of Xaverian priests, a coup sparked months of fighting in the capital and, a few months later, the beginning of the civil war. There were massacres and reprisals, and tens of thousands of people fled into Congo.

By the mid-1990s, the city was almost entirely segregated into Hutu and Tutsi neighborhoods. Ethnic tensions were so high that simply straying into the wrong neighborhood could end in tragedy.

But the Kamenge Youth Center continued to welcome all Burundians between the ages of 16 and 30, eventually becoming one of the few places where young Hutus and Tutsis could meet and become friends.

Over the years, various regimes have tried to shut the center down, saying that it was fomenting unrest among youth. It has been looted, taken over by the army, and since 1993, more than 170 young members have died, many as a result of ethnic violence or war.

Despite everything, however, the center has remained an important voice for peace and reconciliation.

Through sports, activities, and classes, young Burundians are breaking out of their ethnically divided neighborhoods. They go out to build houses together, organize sporting matches, and found community associations. As a result, Burundian society is slowly becoming more integrated and the quarters more diverse.

"There are more than 20,000 young people who come here and learn to put away their differences," says Claudio Marano, the center's director, a plump, white-haired Italian priest, who greets visitors and members in flip-flops and African-print shirts. "They take that back to their communities. Eventually, hopefully, it will help to end the war."

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