Peacebuilding thrives amidst Burundi unrest

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Training programs, peace committees work for resolution of conflict

By Melody Musser

As political unrest brings increased violence in Burundi, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partners continue building on two decades of peacebuilding to encourage nonviolence in the midst of this national conflict.

Sprinkled like salt across Burundi are peacebuilders who have been trained at MCC-supported trainings during the Burundi Civil War in 1993-2005 and at the Great Lakes Peacebuilding Institute(GLPI) since 2004. 

In their own communities, those peacebuilders have been sharing the knowledge and are using practical conflict transformation skills to encourage reconciliation, trauma recovery and peaceful relationships.

Some peacebuilders share their knowledge with members of hundreds of community peace committees that have spread across Burundi since 1994. The peace committee members, who are leaders in their communities, then use their training to mediate local disputes and organize development projects to build connections in the community.

The current political unrest began in the spring of 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza’s political party nominated him for a third term. Some Burundians believed his nomination was unconstitutional, sparking protests that became violent.

After the president won the election, which was boycotted by the opposition, members of the opposition movement were targeted for imprisonment, torture and assassinations. Independent radio stations were destroyed, allowing rumors and inaccurate information to be disseminated.

Peacebuilders and the thousands who have been trained by them have worked diligently during this situation to keep violence and ethnic conflict from escalating. Two of those peacebuilders are Emmanuel Ntakirutimana  and Aloys Ningabira.

 

Training youth with opposing political views

Emmanuel Ntakirutimana (photo right) works in Cibitoke, a western region where conflicts between youth from different political parties in this region have caused tension in the community.

He has been coordinating a project since 2013 that brings youth together to learn the practical skills he learned at GLPI—conflict transformation and prevention, nonviolent communication, how to manage rumors, tolerance and mutual respect. Youth meet twice a week with their local administrator (mayor) to discuss problems in the community and look for positive solutions.

Only two months after the project started, youth who previously refused to even greet each other on the street were sitting together regularly and discussing their differing views, Ntakirutimana says.

However, in this year’s election period, members of the Ibonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, started placing a white mark on each house where a Tutsi family lives. This caused people to fear that the political dispute would become an ethnic dispute, pitting Hutus and Tutsis against each other against each other as they were during the civil war.

A rumor spread quickly that the Ibonerakure-associated youth were working with a rebel group to prepare a Tutsi massacre. People believed that a certain Rwandan businessman was using his warehouses to hide machetes and gasoline in order to attack Tutsis and burn their homes.

This rumor caused numerous people to flee Cibitoke, but Ntakirutimana saw that this rumor would be easy to verify.

He sent members of the project’s youth discussion groups, whom he had trained in conflict transformation, to talk to this businessman. The businessman gave permission for the group to go through his warehouses with his Tutsi employees to verify that he wasn’t hiding anything.

Following this informal investigation, discussion group members were able to calm the community, confirming that the rumor was not true.

Ntakirutimana says that people in the community also have protected those who were targets to be assassinated.

“Rather than dividing over political values or ethnicity, they are choosing to unite to protect their community, understanding that everyone has the right to live even if they have different ideas,” says Ntakirutimana.

Ntakirutimana is among 200 GLPI alumni whose peacebuilding training was paid for by MCC. They do peacebuilding work across the African Great Lakes region—Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In addition to taking theoretical and practical courses in peacebuilding, graduates share best practices and exchange experiences as they build a support system with each other.

 

Peace committees prevent, resolve conflict

Aloys Ningabira experienced the horrors of neighbors turning on neighbors because of their ethnicities. In 1993, he narrowly escaped being burned alive in a historic massacre of Tutsi people in his hometown of Kibimba.

Motivated by that experience to work for peace, Ningabira attended an MCC-supported peace training in 1994 and was among those who started Kibimba Peace Committee, the first peace committee in Burundi.

It has served as a model for nearly 400 additional peace committees formed since then by Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation Under the Cross (MIPAREC), an MCC partner that also started because of the 1994 training. Other organizations also patterned their peace committees after Kibimba Peace Committee.

Ningabira, who began working for MIPAREC in 1997, has maintained close ties with his hometown peace committee through today. He has taught them how to prevent and resolve conflict, as well as how to record early warning signs of violence—skills he learned through his work and studied at GLPI in 2004.

Before, during and after the elections in 2010 and this year, the Kibimba Peace Committee has actively watched for signs of violence in their community—anything from aggressive behavior of youth political parties, rumors and population movement to gunshots, imprisonments and assassinations.

The peace committee members text information to one person when they see any of these activities. This individual analyzes data from peace committees across the country to determine whether the violence is widespread or isolated.

Gathering this information is important, says Ningabira, because it can be used to dispel rumors that cause people to panic, flee or be violent without a valid reason. The information also can help people stay safe by avoiding places where there is violence.

Ningabira is pleased that the majority of Burundians are not responding to ethnic provocations of political opponents like they did in 1993.

Instead, he says, the overall response to the crisis is that people are protecting each other as brothers and sisters—a response he attributes to the teachings of the peacebuilders and the work of the peace committees.

MCC is an inter-Mennonite relief, development and peace agency that serves in the name of Christ. Melody Musser is an MCC Burundi peacebuilding coordinator.

Photo 1: Regina Karerwa, holding her grandchild Kevin Yezuninyishu, and Patrick Higiro, both members of the Kibimba peace committee, talk about their transformation from people whose war experiences in the 1990s caused them to hate into people of peace through MCC-supported peace trainings. Now peace committee members in Kibimba are reporting incidents of violence related to recent elections to help dispel rumors and to promote safety. (MCC Photo/Matthew Lester)

Photo 2: Emmanuel Ntakirutimana, right, stands with Jackson Nduwayo, a youth member of the ruling party, during a meeting where youth from opposing political parties come together to learn peacebuilding skills. As they learn to knoweach other and work, learn and play together, violence decreases in the community – even during this volatitile post-election time. (Photo courtesy of MIPAREC)

Photo 3: Aloys Ningabira, a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer with MiPAREC stands by a former gas station in Kibimba, now a memorial to the ethnic violence and civil war in Burundi. Seventy people were rounded up and burned alive inside the gas station during the 1993 civil war. Alloys narrowly escaped the death squad when his host mother vouched for his ethnicity as a hutu. (MCC Photo/Matthew Lester)

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