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FALL, 1999: Volume 4 Issue 3

A Forgotten Land by Adrian Bishop, Team Co-coordinator

A report from the Kamenge Reconstruction and Reconciliation Project of Burundi Yearly Meeting with the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams Project: Burundi, 1999.


 “This is a forgotten land.”

These words were spoken to me by my friend Dieudonne in Gitega, Burundi, this past August. We were talking at the end of another long day of working at reconstruction and reconciliation in his country. We had just learned of ‘rebel’ attacks and military reprisals that had killed at least 100 people, mostly unarmed civilians. The news took the edge off the euphoria we experienced earlier in the day when young soldiers joined our conflict resolution training workshop at Kibimba School. We also both felt that it was unlikely that anyone outside Burundi would notice.

For 30 days, in this last summer before the millennium, I lived and worked with Elie Nahimana, Johnny Johnson MD, Alexia Nibona, Zainabu Dance, Benigne Irakoze, Becky Calcraft, Gentil Ntibagirirwa, Ray Boucher, Charles Berahino, Bette Hoover, Terrance Mkumimana, Josette Ngemdakumana, Joy Zarembka, and Thadee Nizirizana. We were the international team of volunteers who staffed the Kamenge Reconstruction and Reconciliation Project sponsored by Burundi Yearly Meeting and the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) of Friends Peace Teams Project (FPTP). Our team, with individuals ranging from age 20 to 59, brought with us a diversity of life experience, beliefs, and racial and national origins. The broad goals of the Kamenge Project were to engage in conflict resolution training and workshops and to rebuild the residence and guest house at Kamenge Friends Church destroyed in 1995 during the “crisis,” the name used to describe the massacres and pillage which began in 1993.


Diary Entry of Joy Zarembka
August 3, 1999, 8:54 p.m
.

I spent my day digging ditches and shoveling dirt out of the Kamenge building. It feels so good to do physical labor. I know that I will sleep well tonight. As I was digging around the church close to the road today, I began pulling up old, tattered articles: the heel of a black shoe here, an old bottle of nail polish there. I’m not sure if I thought it first or saw it first—a human bone. It makes so much sense. I AM standing on a killing field. I shouldn’t be surprised. Yet I am. The high school boys I am digging with determined that the bone I’m holding is a thigh bone. They start cracking jokes about how the bones belonged to their grandfather and other comments. I’m unable to tell how old the bones are. They throw the bones aside. I keep digging.


With the multifaceted skills of the team, we also videotaped and documented the stories of Burundians and the work of peacemakers. We engaged in other supportive activities as way opened. We also hope that we laid the basis for future projects. At the beginning of the Project, we had two days of teambuilding orientation which included recording statements of expectations from the team members. At our final meeting, we felt that we had made progress on nearly all the stated expectations. By the end, I was pleased with what we accomplished, and hope that our experiences and recommendations to AGLI will make for even more productive ventures in the future.

After several weeks, I found myself in an almost constant state of sensory and spiritual overload. Burundi is intensely beautiful—deep lush valleys, terraced mountainsides, running rivers, huge lakes that are home to hippopotamuses and crocodiles. The headwaters of the Nile and Zambezi drainage basins are both in Burundi. Yet, this is one of the poorest nations in the world. The soil is sadly depleted and the civil war has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people in the last two decades. For me, the most poignant moment of our work together was discovering human bones still unburied. People had been too afraid of being killed to bury them.

In the Kamenge area of the capital, Bujumbura, we rebuilt the pastor’s residence and guest house. Each day we were joined by forty students and six to twelve ‘fundis’ (builders). We built the structure entirely by hand with bricks made from clay taken from the edge of the steam at the site and baked there in kilns. At the end of the month the building was about 90% complete and habitable, and materials were on order to complete it. This is the first structure to be rebuilt in this part of Kamenge since the suburb was largely destroyed and then abandoned after episodes of slaughtering and looting in the last 6 years. It will house Friends visiting Kamenge and Burjumbura, as well as secure the church ground from further vandalism, and will house other community programs until other facilities are built.


Kamenge Project Team members Zainabu Dance, Bette Hoover, Adrian Bishop and Ray Boucher. Photo: Joy Zarembka


We conducted Conflict Resolution and Training workshops in Kamenge and upcountry in Gitega region. In Gitega, we were blessed to be able to work with Mi-PAREC (Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation Under the Cross) a local interdenominational peace training organization initiated with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Burundi Yearly Meeting. Mi-PAREC offers training in conflict resolution particularly for community leaders, and is gradually building a network of local peace committees in the provinces of Burundi (and starting soon in Rwanda). They are very deliberate at every opportunity to engage members of the military in dialogue. It was while working with Mi-PAREC at Kibimba School that we were joined by local soldiers who took an active part in the peacemaking exercises and discussions. We recorded miles of videotaped interviews of Burundians who have survived the atrocities. This is no small matter. Many had miraculous escapes, all have had relatives and friends killed, and many are still refugees or displaced persons. We are hoping to secure the necessary funds to edit the interviews into a format to tell the world about the plight of Burundi.

Most of the team spent a week in a workcamp of about 400 participants at Kibimba, the site of the first Friends Church, where we took part in preparing the Kibimba Secondary School to re-open. The doctor on our team was able to contribute significantly at the Dispensary, where he worked with the medical team and introduced some of our student team members to medicine in action. In September, this hospital is expecting to welcome its first staff doctor in six years. The secondary school (which was started by Friends but which had been a state school since the 1980’s) and the Friends Church which shares the secondary school compound, had been appropriated as a refugee center and military barracks during the crisis. Up until very recently, the military had planned to develop the site as a permanent barracks but the Yearly Meeting and the local Peace Committee argued successfully against this transition. A Cabinet member supported their wishes, and an agreement is now in place whereby Friends will re-open the school, with the Burundi government paying the teachers’ salaries. Peace Studies is to be part of the curriculum. On our last Sunday in Kibimba, about 2000 Friends gathered to rededicate their restored church!


Kamenge Project Team at work. Photo: Ray Boucher.


A huge bonus for our team was participating in a consultation sponsored by MCC on Conscientious Objection in the Great Lakes Region. Participants were Quakers and Mennonites from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as from Guatemala and Columbia. It was remarkable for us all to realize the ghastly similarities in the conflicts that have plagued both the Great Lakes Region and Latin America. There were many frank exchanges that led to a statement of commitment regarding conscientious objection in the region and to a second consultation in March, 2000. There was a real struggle to seek common ground away from nationalistic positions. This is very hard to do when, despite similarities of belief, there are soldiers from the other person’s country fighting in your country, even as you are meeting together.

For the long term, we return with a profound awareness of the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, and with appreciation of the commitment of Burundi Yearly Meeting to work for peace. I hope that Friends will be supportive of FPTP and AGLI as we prepare to collaborate with Burundi Yearly Meeting in activating a long term Peace Team in Burundi. The Team will focus particularly on training Burundians to be facilitators in conflict resolution and trauma healing.

For related earlier articles see:

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