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Called to Relate: An interview with David Niyonzima

By: Madeline Schaefer
Published: December 3, 2012

David Niyonzima

Photo: David Niyonzima

On a beautiful morning in 1993, Burundian David Niyonzima found himself caught in the middle of a violent ethnic conflict. Although he escaped unharmed, 25 people, including eight of his students at a local Quaker pastoral training school, were shot and killed. David spent the next few years fearing for his life and the safety of his family. But after a transformational experience of learning to forgive his attackers, David became committed to working for peace in his war-torn country. In 1998, David founded Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Service, an organization that works in local communities to facilitate psychosocial healing and peaceful resolution to conflict.

More recently, David has worked with AFSC to support the development of a truth and reconciliation commission in Burundi, to be set up early next year, which includes the voices of people doing direct healing work in the community. His deep Quaker values have inspired his commitment to God and to peace in Burundi.

On preparing communities for truth and reconciliation

The mechanism for establishing the truth and reconciliation commission is not yet in place in the country but the people are getting ready for it and they are looking forward to having it. Non-governmental organizations are doing all they can in their capacities to make the people ready.

We met with victims of four provinces, the provinces that were most hurt in our opinion, and we went and talked to people as to what they thought about the importance of transitional justice.

Following that process we are doing what you call psychosocial education in which we are preparing the victims to be ready to tell their stories; we are encouraging them to say what they know. Because we know that if they tell their stories, it assists in the healing process.

In 2009 David traveled to South Africa on a trip sponsored by CHEMONICS. He learned from that country’s experience of restoring peace.

The thing that was particularly touching for me was talking with a man who had been unhappy with apartheid and was fighting for those who had been unjustly murdered. Somebody packed a bomb in his car, it exploded and took away his arm and half of his eye…somebody wanted to kill him for not supporting apartheid.

When we met with him and asked him about the issue of forgiveness and paying back for the wrongs that somebody has done, he asked a question: How much money, what kind of things can somebody give me in repayment for my right hand that has been blown off by the bomb? It was a very strong and powerful statement to all of us. Of course we all kept quiet, and of course we did not feel anything could be given for him to take the place of the arm that was blown off by the bomb.

The point that he was making was that some things cannot be replaced; some things have no cost that one can find to satisfy the wrong that has been committed.

So the important thing is for us to be able to realize that we can go on and reconcile and forgive and heal because sometimes there’s nothing you can do; you cannot replace what has been lost.

Opening people’s hearts to what is possible

Right now, I’m heading the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Service. In our religion (Quakerism) we believe that for peace to be lasting, you have to start on the healing process because healing lays the ground for creating peace in the country. Peace will depend on the healing that takes place. If we plant the seeds of healing then the seeds of violence will not take root.

Our organization, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Service, is led by this sentiment: that the seeds of tomorrow’s peace grow in the soil of today’s healing and reconciliation.

I feel very much convinced by it because we’ve seen that in the Burundi war, most people who took part were people who had unhealed traumas in the past. Either losing their loved ones or parents or feeling that they can revenge by getting involved in the war.

A story of forgiveness

Here in Burundi are cases of, let’s say, communities that decide to go out and ask for forgiveness for what they’ve done. I was recently in one of the communes here in Burundi, in a workshop, and a lady just shared a story of what happened to her.

She decided that she was miserable— she could not sleep, she could not do her every day activities like caring for her family… and she wondered what she needed to do. Because she had lost two children who were killed and a husband, she felt that the weight of the feeling that she was living with was related to the fact that she had lost those loved ones.

One issue that was very hard for her was the sight of the guy in the mob that came to kill her husband and her children. She said that he was also miserable; he was the same way she was in her story. She said that when they met they could not connect with each other and they both felt very uncomfortable. They knew each other, they were neighbors, but they did not know what to do with one another.

She knew that he was the one who killed her husband, being part of the group; and he knew also that he had done wrong to this woman. She told us that somebody facilitated a meeting for the two of them. They faced each other and they were able to talk and the man, the one who killed previously, took that first step to ask for forgiveness.

Elders as peacemakers

The Burundi community had a system that for us is very powerful and very important…. The elders in the country were known as people who’d administer justice to the community but also people who reconciled conflicting parties. When they called people together who were in conflict, the objective was not to punish, but to make sure that everyone acknowledges the wrong that he or she has done. They were a reconciling unit so that the two people would come together and restore the relationship. The elders in the community had that role to play so that the people would cut the vicious cycle of revenge by bringing them together and reestablishing their relationship. So, yes, the tradition of Burundi has that background and that platform already.

Called to relate

God calls us to relate, to relate to himself and to relate to others. And so for me, relationship is not the legal thing like the dos and the don’ts. It’s simply an attitude of love and caring that is acceptable both to yourself—in other words you feel convinced of that attitude and feel peace about it—and also acceptable by the ones to whom you are extending it.

For me there’s this element of connection that’s essential—connection with God, connection with myself, connection with the community or the neighbors, connection with the creation.

If, for example, people in Burundi have the right relationship, regardless of their background—I don’t see how they can fight or I don’t see how they can kill each other.

So for me, relationship is very important. And even if it’s a group of people I don’t know, I know I’m related to them because of the human route, because of knowing that they are a human being like me.

Madeline SchaeferAbout the Author:  

Madeline Schaefer is the Friends Relations Fellow at AFSC.  She grew up in Philadelphia, surrounded by Quakers of all shapes and sizes.  After searching for stories and adventure in distant, cooler climes, she returned home only to find the richest ones right in her backyard.  Over the past three years, she has been exploring Quaker thought and culture through audio, a medium she grew to love at Carleton college’s student-run radio station.  Madeline lives with five lovely people in West Philadelphia, and is involved with Quakers throughout the Philadelphia region.

About the Author

Madeline Schaefer

Madeline is the Friends Relations Associate. She grew up in the beautiful Radnor Meeting community outside of Philadelphia, and attended Friends Schools in the area until the end of High School.  After several years of studying and traveling, she returned to Philadelphia only to immerse herself once again in the stories, the culture and the spirituality of Philadelphia Quakers.  While living in collective house in West Philadelphia, she grew curious about the history of young Quaker activists in the neighborhood, and started an oral history project to find out more.  Madeline is interested in exploring the ways in which life in community can stretch our capacity for compassion and growth.  Her dream is to create more alternative communities of people learning how to live together, creating models for a society fueled by cooperation and love.

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