Burundi's place for peace

As in Rwanda, ethnic tensions ran high here. Through it all, this youth center served as an oasis.

The seemingly endless list of daily activities at a sprawling youth center in this central African capital – Ping-Pong, weight lifting, basketball, guitar lessons, tailoring school, Arabic classes, and more – isn't just aimed at keeping the center's 26,000 member kids busy after school.

In a nation where a decade of ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis left some 300,000 dead, the Kamenge Youth Center is instead a kind of demilitarized zone between ethnic groups – a place where friendship and trust have sprouted between Hutu and Tutsi youths, even during the nation's darkest days.

Burundi's recent troubles are less well known than those of its neighbor, Rwanda. But ethnic violence here between 1993 and 2005 was often as brutal as during Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Through it all, the youth center – situated between Hutu and Tutsi neighborhoods – stayed open. With peace now taking hold after rival parties struck a peace and power-sharing deal last year, the center is taking its place as a bulwark against a return to chaos.

As its founder, an Italian man named Marano Claudio, puts it, "When we play together today, we'll watch a movie together tomorrow, and, one day or another, we will be together always."

Building such ties is slow work. When a skinny Tutsi kid named Augustin Hakundimara first heard about the center from friends at school, in 1995, he asked his parents if he could go. They balked, fearing the 1-1/2 mile walk would be a huge risk. Even Augustin had his doubts. "We all thought that if we entered [a Hutu] suburb, nobody would know what happened to you," he says.

But after continuing to hear about the center – which is funded by national and international donors – he finally persuaded his parents. Foosball was his first activity. He often played with Hutu kids. Soon he joined a joint Hutu-Tutsi work team that ventured into Hutu neighborhoods to help build houses.

"Little by little the fear disappeared," Augustin says, sitting next to a Hutu buddy named Eric Bigirindavyi.

They both pump iron in the gym several times a week. They're confident that bonds forged here are stronger than ethnic ties – and that their country won't again devolve into violence.

"Burundians have learned," Eric says. "I don't think it can happen again."

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