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.

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."

He, too, was smitten. "I love that girl," he thought to himself, "and I don't love any other." A month later he asked her out again. They went for sodas – and sealed their bond. Haruna recalls the moment with an impish grin: "When we shared the Fantas, she was mine."

* * *

When Anita's mother discovered her daughter was dating a Hutu, she began beating her. "Don't you know what they have done to us?" she wailed, still mourning the deaths of her two daughters. Soon she gave Anita an ultimatum: Stop dating Haruna or leave the house. So, Anita moved in with Haruna.

Her mother's friends lamented that Anita was "lost." Referring to Haruna, they'd ask, "Has he killed your daughter yet?"

Yet Haruna and Anita weren't the only ones uniting across ethnic lines. In Kamenge, even during the crisis, groups of residents, mostly women, had talked about the need to return to harmony.

Soon a grass-roots group called Cadeka was promoting unity – through a modern-day application of a Burundian tradition called bashingantahe, whereby a group of respected elders served as guardians of the collective good. If a dispute arose, they would call together aggrieved parties, hear their stories, proclaim the official truth, and mete out judgment – such as payments of damages. Their overall focus was always reconciliation, and they ended their sessions by pleading, "We enjoin you to become brothers as before."

Over several years, Cadeka began holding workshops in Kamenge with the help of a Kenya-based group called the Association for Co-operation and Research in Development. With clusters of Hutus and Tutsis crowded into meeting rooms, local leaders inveighed against politicians who'd created the troubles. "In the poor suburbs we have killed each other, but in the rich suburbs, where the politicians live, they didn't kill each other," Adelaide Uwimeza, president of Cadeka, would say.

Using a bit of wisdom perhaps applicable the world over, Ms. Uwimeza also argued that as long as their neighborhood remained deeply divided, no one was safe: "If you chase someone away, you are not sure if they are plotting to come back."

Soon workshop participants would be part of an "hour of truth" during which they'd divulge how they'd been victimized – and, sometimes, crimes they had committed. Across years of tit-for-tat violence, many had been both victims and perpetrators, which made them more willing to admit both how they'd been hurt and the harm they'd caused.

Then participants forged and signed "community contracts," pledging to prevent violence – and help reintegrate neighborhoods. Now, delegations from other areas come to learn Kamenge's process.

In the end, some 4,000 residents attended workshops – including Anita's mom.

* * *

By early 2006, Anita hadn't talked to her mother for seven months. So she was surprised to get an invitation to come home.

Walking into her mother's house, she was welcomed warmly. Her mother told her that if Kamenge's tensions were ever going to fade, they had to be erased within their own family first. It helped, of course, that Anita had made her mom the grandmother of a pudgy girl named Chadia. Just a few months later, in May, Anita's mom died – but not before blessing her bond with Haruna.

Although many have reconciled, not all is harmonious in Burundi. The National Liberation Front rebel group is refusing to join a cease-fire monitoring team, despite having signed an accord with the government last month. The government – a coalition of former rebels – is negotiating with the United Nations on how to structure a truth and reconciliation commission and a parallel court for war crimes. But observers worry that Burundi's leaders will use "reconciliation" to ensure impunity for their own war crimes. They "want to protect themselves," says Serge Nibizi, chief editor of African Public Radio here. Civil society is pushing for a justice-heavy approach that prevents impunity.

Meanwhile, sitting in their two-room apartment, with posters of Bob Marley and rapper 50 Cent adorning crumbling concrete walls, Anita and Haruna still exchange shy, flirty smiles. Theirs isn't likely to be an easy life. Both of them dropped out of high school, and making do in Burundi's sluggish economy is tough. Yet, at least in terms of ethnicity, things are changing in their neighborhood and nation. Now, Anita says, with a wise smile, many of the very girlfriends who once warned her not to date Haruna, "have Hutu boyfriends themselves."

One man chooses to forgive the boy who killed his son

For a mere $5 – maybe less – in the lawless last days of 2004, a farmer named Gregoire Nsekerabandya could have arranged the killing of the boy who had just murdered his eldest son. After all, his son, Yves, had been shot for refusing a demand by his one-time friend, Eric, to shine the shoes of Eric's militia commander. Yves balked, and his last words were, "I don't have any water" to shine them with.

Mr. Nsekerabandya even heard the gunshot. "When a child comes to the earth, you are expecting so much from him," he says solemnly. "When all the expectations fall down in one second, it's very sorrowful."

Yet he didn't rush for revenge. Instead, he wrestled with guidance from the Bible: "It says you should respond with good deeds to bad deeds," he explains. "If I was not a good prayer, I might have taken revenge" on Eric or his family "to try to make them feel like I did."

In April 2005, he went to a reconciliation workshop. Organizers realized Eric and his mom were also participating. So, in a kind of ambush reconciliation, they united the group.

Apologies flowed. Eric sank to his knees and asked forgiveness while his mother, Jeanne Nahimana, apologized for him. Nsekerabandya accepted both apologies. "It wasn't your fault," he told Ms. Nahimana. Now she has great empathy for Nsekerabandya, whom she reverently calls "old man."

Since the apologies, the families have forged a bond. "We are now sharing water," he says, "and farming tools."

"If he needs anything," she adds, "he comes to our house."

Burundi: Africa's lesser-known Hutu-Tutsi battlefield

• Since independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has seen several spasms of ethnic violence between the dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority.

• Burundi is still emerging from a 12-year civil war in which about 300,000 people died after the country's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadye, was killed in 1993.

• A transitional government was set up in 2001 after talks brokered by South Africa's Nelson Mandela, but fighting intensified after Hutu rebel groups agreed to a cease-fire.

• In 2004, the United Nations and government began to disarm and demobilize thousands of soldiers and former rebels.

• The last active rebel group and the government signed a cease-fire agreement last month.

Source: BBC, Reuters.

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