Burundian healer Florence Ntakarutimana talks to AFSC's Lucy Duncan about how storytelling and community can transform war, poverty, and other traumas into peace.

I first met Florence Ntakarutimana of the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) program in 2012 when I visited a peace village outside Bujumbura, Burundi. As one of my hosts, she brought together perpetrators and victims of the decades-long conflict who had participated in the trauma healing workshops that HROC conducts in Bujumbura and elsewhere, sometimes in partnership with AFSC. The participants gathered in a small Friends church in the village and told me how the workshops had affected them.

Each of them told stories of transformation: victims talked of forgiving horrendous acts perpetrated against them, and perpetrators talked about how they had reconnected with those they had harmed and had been healed from the shock of their acts. Listening to these stories of deep and seemingly lasting change, it sounded like the workshops must work magic for there to be such healing. I wanted to learn more.

In 2013, when I participated in a three-day HROC workshop in Baltimore at Stony Run meeting, Florence served as one of the three facilitators. During the workshop, a woman who was a trauma nurse talked about how, with physical trauma, the wound often needs to be abraded, opened, and exposed in order for there to be healing; if the wound isn’t cleaned and opened, it festers and can get worse and cause the loss of a limb, or even death.

This is true with wounds of the spirit, too. People can suffer spiritual death if they hold their wounds too tightly; they can let their hearts turn to stone.

Recovering from perpetrating and experiencing violence

HROC was developed by members of Friends (Quaker) churches in Burundi and Rwanda with support from the African Great Lakes Initiative and AFSC. After the conflict and killings in both countries, there was a sense that there hadn’t been any opportunity to heal, either for victims or perpetrators. Friends in Burundi and Rwanda saw that unless there was some way to recover from acts of violence, the cycle of violence would continue. They also felt that both perpetrators and victims needed healing, so from the very beginning they brought together Hutus and Tutsis—people who may have directly harmed one another—for the workshops.

The principles of the program are very consistent with core principles of Quaker faith, including “there is that of God in everyone” and that people have within them a sense of what is right and can draw upon that to recover from what they have done or experienced.

Florence began her association with HROC as a participant in the program. When we talked recently, she told me her story and more about what she has seen through facilitating workshops and bringing the program to many regions in Burundi and beyond.

Interview with Florence

Would you be willing to tell me a bit of your own story in relation to the conflict and killings in Burundi?

I was born in 1976 with a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. In 1993 the war broke out between the Hutus and Tutsis. During the crisis my father was a “chef de zone,” an area manager, for the ruling Tutsi party for that time.

During the crisis people were not happy with him being a ruler in the Tutsi political party. Hutus in the community were asking him to kill my mother. He couldn’t do that.

When the crisis broke out, we fled from the community to my aunt’s house. My aunt was jealous of our life; she was asking for beer and clothes from us. We were not able to give her those things. She wasn’t happy and poisoned my mother. My mother died in 1996.

We fled from my aunt’s house and stayed in a community with another family. I was the firstborn and still in secondary school, my father had to come from the province to bring money and food for us to survive.

Then one day he was traveling from where we were staying. The Hutus from my community shot and killed him. They said, “You married Tutsi and didn’t kill her. You are ‘ICITSO’” (meaning somebody who works for an ethnicity that he doesn’t belong to). I stayed with my cousin, cared for my siblings. Life was not easy. Fortunately I met Dominique Niyonkuru, a born Quaker, when I was 18 and we married in 1999. Now we are blessed with four beautiful children, two boys and two girls; they are 12, 10, 8, and 3½.

There is distance between my aunt and me because of fear, but I have forgiven her. Her children come to my house. She acknowledges what she has done, but she has shame for what she did.

When I used to tell this story, I would cry. The reason I can tell this story without it making me upset now is because of HROC, which gave me the opportunity to heal.

Tell me about the trauma healing workshops.

We believe there is something good in everyone. We invite victims and perpetrators—rich, poor, educated, non-educated—to come together. We invite ten Hutus and ten Tutsis, women and men in the same number, whenever we offer a workshop. Each workshop has 20 participants. We believe people were affected at the individual and community level, so we work in communities. And Burundi society values the sense of community more than individuality. We spend three days together. On the first day we learn about trauma: what are the causes, what are the symptoms, what are the consequences? We don’t lecture—we facilitate the process.

On the second day, we discuss listening skills to prepare people for listening, sharing their stories. There is power in storytelling. The hearts of people are broken, and they need to be listened to. In my seven years of leading workshops, the causes of trauma are not only the crisis, they are also polygamy, rape, poverty…many, many things cause trauma. Many people did not have a chance to bury or remember or honor their loved ones during the crisis. People need to remember and mourn. We share about grief and the stages of grief, and the stages of healing from grief. People learn about traumatic anger, because if this is not worked out, people will seek revenge. The second day is a day of crying, of emotions. Facilitators are always Hutu and Tutsi, men and women, to keep the balance.

On the third day of the workshop, we talk about trust. In healing from trauma, trust-building needs to be done together. We do a blindfolded trust walk. Each person is led by a person of another ethnicity and they learn they need one another. They talk about how living an unhealed life is like being blind and that they are ready to help one another and help others. We talk about trust, using a metaphor of the tree of trust and the tree of mistrust. We discuss about the roots and fruits of the tree of mistrust, reflecting on what we see in our selves, families, and communities. We do the same for the tree of trust. People bring up the roots and fruits of trust in our communities and families. People always tell us that they see the tree of mistrust growing big in their communities, and that they wish to have the tree of trust, and then discuss in small groups how they can replace the tree of mistrust with the tree of trust. When you sow love, understanding, and forgiveness, you harvest peace. When you sow mistrust, you harvest killings or revenge—violence.

At the end of the workshop, we talk about what’s next. They often suggest forming small groups to meet once a week to talk. In some communities we have peace and democracy groups to monitor the elections; we saw very good results, many saved lives because of these groups. When guns were distributed, they were reported and confiscated early, so people were safe. We sometimes give goats; a Hutu and a Tutsi share the goats. Internally displaced people visit the peace villages or surrounding communities and they share the goats. They call the goats, “Peace,” “Reconciliation,” “Forgiveness.” There are peace and democracy groups that meet once a week and exchange credit to care for one another. There is another project where Hutus and Tutsis and ex-combatants meet once a week to make biosand water filters, they give one another clean water. They receive water, life, from someone who may have killed a brother or sister. These are all initiatives to stay connected and help support longer term change.

We organize advanced three-day workshops where people learn about how to deal with their emotions and others’ emotions that come up when they hear other people’s stories, and three-week trainings, in which people learn how to facilitate workshops and become healing companions in their communities, to do a follow-up of healing because healing is a process. They learn the process for two weeks, then facilitate a workshop in the community, and then do a last week to finalize the training. We organize a community celebration with the participants. We sing, we dance, and people give testimonies. People from the whole community come and hear participants’ stories. In this way we have established the program in eleven of the seventeen provinces in Burundi.

We have introduced HROC in primary schools to help students and teachers to heal…

How has your Quaker faith influenced your life and your approach to healing?

I saw and experienced how my husband treated me and my siblings. It’s not automatic that he would have taken them in when he married me. I learned about Quakers at The Great Lakes School of Theology—where I got a bachelor’s degree in Christian leadership—in Burundi. I learned the doctrines, what Quakers did in the past, like George Fox and John Woolman (learn about John Woolman on page 12). I fell in love with Quakerism. To me this is my right place. Quaker faith is a process of reflection and action: You learn, then you do it. HROC, so much based on Quaker principles, is my everything, it is my doctor, my everything.

What is the relationship of the on-the-ground healing and reconciliation processes and the governmental ones?

When people are changed, they can stand up and say “no” to violence. When something happens in the community, people who have been in our workshops often will run to the healing companions instead of to judges. But there is another level we have not reached—there needs to be a truth and reconciliation commission, which we have been working for some time. The people are changed, are ready for change. [But there is still action expected from the legislature with regards to improving the law that will be accepted by the people and conform to international standards].

What gives you hope?

People are aware of the consequences of violence. Before it was not like that. People take ownership of their problems. We still need the international community to change things at another level. Things are discouraging politically, but maybe healing will trickle up from the communities?

Thanks and blessings to the supporters and partners of AFSC and HROC. Together we are rebuilding torn hearts and communities.