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From harm to healing

Janine Photo: AFSC/Lucy Duncan

“We are healed and healing others. After the Healing and Rebuilding our Communities workshop, I felt I can tell the truth to others in conflict, some of our enemies are now friends. Some are surprised by our change. Our change changes them, if they are behaving badly, I can help them. We are doctors.” 
—Janine in a peace village in Bujumbura, Burundi

At the Friends Women’s Association Clinic, a partner of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the doctors and nurses serve women with AIDS in Kamenge, Burundi, a community deeply affected by the Hutu and Tutsi violence of 1972 and 1993.

Dr. Alexia, longtime director of the clinic, tells a story of a woman who was in her home when Hutus came and killed her children. Because it wasn’t safe to leave her house, she stayed inside with her murdered children for a week. If she had remained isolated, without support for healing, Dr. Alexia believes that the woman would still be preparing for revenge. But through group counseling at the clinic, this mother stopped feeling so alone. Listening to the stories of other women, she knew that the problem wasn’t just hers. Telling her own story, she had a chance to share her grief with those who could truly understand. The women continue to meet weekly and provide long-term support for one another.

Behind the back garden there is a cornfield Dr. Alexia hopes one day can become a hospital. When the fence there was excavated for repairs, the volunteers digging into the ground found bones from the killings. The clinic, offering healing for Kamenge women, is literally built on the bones of those lost in the conflict. 

In peace villages throughout Bujumbura, AFSC works with another partner, Friends Peace Teams, to offer trauma healing and reconciliation workshops like those in which Janine (quoted above) participated. Over the three days of a Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) workshop, perpetrators and victims come together. On the first day they learn about trauma. On the second day they tell the stories of their experiences, examine anger, and grieve and mourn. On the third day the participants reflect on how to build trust in communities with such a history of betrayal.

Perpetrators and victims can’t undo what has happened, can’t erase what they have experienced. It may seem surprising, then, that people who experienced the horrors of that violence and have begun to heal are more committed to establishing a lasting peace than people who haven’t known such suffering.

Like the Friends Women’s Association Clinic, ordinary Burundians are building a place of healing on a foundation that fully reckons with the pain inflicted by the terrifying genocide. It isn’t easy; it takes courage and commitment to build a space capable of holding anger and forgiveness, grief and hope, a devastating past and a resurrected future. But through truth-telling and reconciliation, Burundi is rebuilding communities in which cooperation and even friendship is possible among those who once were enemies. 

Violence—whether in Bujumbura or Boston—rips apart the fabric of a community. The trauma only ends, for perpetrator and victim, when those devastated lives can find enough healing to offer a shared promise of peace to future generations. 

AFSC works in many communities to move from harm to healing. This issue of Quaker Action includes stories of the restorative work we do with those facing violence, poverty, victimization, and persecution. I hope you will be as heartened as I am “to see what love can do” when a narrative built on punishment and retribution is replaced with one built on transformation and wholeness.

In peace,

Shan Cretin, General Secretary

Quaker Action Summer 2013
  From harm to healing: Changing the system, changing ourselves In the summer issue of...