The highlight of my brief time in Burundi was a visit to one of the “Peace Villages” near the Bujumbura airport, perhaps the best off of the villages in which we work given its proximity to the city. We joined our partners and the villagers, adults and children, in preparing a field for planting. Several people told their stories—a newly resettled widow who returned after 20 years in Rwanda to be told that she was no longer Burundian, an older man who reminded us of the difficulty in providing pens and notebooks so the orphans in the village can go to the new school that will open soon. Others expressed their gratitude for the programs that were helping them heal, bringing them together as a community, and teaching them new skills that they can use to rebuild their community and their country.
Burundi has come a long way towards building a stable peace since I last visited in June 2008, just two months after the capital Bujumbura had been bombarded by one of the rebel groups and a month after a ceasefire went into effect. In the summer of 2008, AFSC’s Burundi program was just beginning. The program largely focused on humanitarian assistance for displaced families and returning refugees.
Today, Burundi is steadily emerging from the shadow of decades of conflict. The 2010 elections did not erupt into widespread violence as many feared. With help from the United Nations Integrated Office in Burundi and the United Nations Development Program, small houses and new schools are being built in a few traditional villages to accommodate returning refugees, excombatants, and the internally displaced. This year, the government appointed a technical committee to make proposals for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission for Burundi.
Everyone we spoke with in Burundi—whether with the UN, the government, Burundian Friends or others from civil society—emphasized that while there has been great progress, the current situation is still fragile. Economic development could trigger new violence if it is not accompanied by personal and community healing. The newly created “Peace Villages” are especially vulnerable if the new and old residents cannot come together to guide economic development and equally reap the rewards. The proposed truth and reconciliation process will need broad support from political, religious, and community leaders if it is to succeed.
Over the past three years AFSC’s Burundi work has blossomed, skillfully engaging partners at every level from the grassroots, to the government, to the United Nations, creatively weaving together a variety of approaches to support Burundi’s recovery. The Burundi Evangelical Friends Church is a stalwart partner, with its vibrant peace and social justice initiatives. Other community-based organizations, key players in the government, and the local United Nations offices also value AFSC’s unique capacity to convene a broad spectrum of voices and resources, not only from within Burundi but from across Africa.
AFSC has played a valuable role in bringing the Burundi government into dialogue with other African leaders on critical topics. In the lead up to the 2010 elections, AFSC brought together fifty leaders from Burundi and seven other African nations, some of which had avoided election-related conflict and some of which had not. These leaders candidly shared their lessons about what might trigger violence, such as avoiding the parties in power announce victory immediately after the polls close without leaving time to verify the results. The Burundi government also heard—and implemented—a number of preventative measures such as training police, educating citizens about the political process, having local leaders call for peace and respect. On the eve of the election, one private cell phone company texted reminders of the importance of peaceful elections to its subscribers. As a result, the 2010 elections were the calmest in many years.
Three weeks ago AFSC facilitated another pan-African dialogue on Transitional Justice at the request of those working with Burundi’s technical committee, civil society, and others to share lessons from past on truth and reconciliation commissions. Although it is too soon to gauge the impact, several participants praised the level of expertise assembled and the quality of the discussion.
In addition to working at the government level, AFSC is beginning a Livelihoods Restoration Program with some “Peace Villages,” building on our experiences in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. As in Zimbabwe, we are working with local community organizations on skills training. We are also partnering with healing, reconciliation and community-building programs developed and supported by Friends (Quakers) in Burundi.
In Burundi local Friends have truly “let their lives preach” their commitment to bringing peace and healing to their country. These Friends eloquently make the case that sustainable peace in Burundi requires healing the personal wounds left by decades of civil war and also requires building the capacities of communities to reconcile so that every person can meet their own needs.
The Ministry on Peace and Reconciliation Under the Cross (Mi-PAREC) created a network of peace committees engaging Burundians across ethnic lines, promoting transitional justice and reconciliation as refugees, internally displaced, ex-prisoners and ex-combatants return to their communities of origin. Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) conducts workshops to address the trauma. Burundian Friends have trained HROC facilitators to work with internally displaced persons, returning refugees, excombatants, and those who never left their homes. The Friends Women’s Association (FWA) Clinic operates in Kamenge, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Burundi, providing free care for mothers and children under five, as well as HIV testing and treatment, and a small microloan program. Young Friends are using poetry, film, music, and art to bring messages of peace, reconciliation, and community building to younger audiences.
AFSC has not always had close ties with Friends in Burundi, so it is particularly gratifying to see productive partnerships with Mi-PAREC, HROC, and FWA. FWA is drawing on AFSC’s help to meet Burundi’s requirements for nonprofit registration and to install computers with internet access. HROC is one of three partners providing workshops in the “Peace Villages.” HROC has now been picked up by Kenyan Friends who are working with AFSC staff in Nairobi to bring HROC and Alternatives to Violence Project trainings to Somali refugees in the Dadaab camps.
AFSC’s work in Burundi, in partnership with Burundian Friends, exemplifies what we are able to accomplish when we work with respect and integrity across all levels, through official and unofficial channels, to support communities in reclaiming leadership and rebuilding their future. Taken together, the work in Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Somalia, demonstrates what is possible when our local grassroots efforts are able to learn from each other, drawn together by a shared vision of how peace can be nurtured across an entire continent. It has been a great blessing to see Quaker values so effectively put into action!