Burundi has been hit by several cycles of violence since its independence in 1962, with 1965, 1972, 1988 and 1993 associated with massacres and a civil war between Hutus and Tutsis. Last month the Burundian parliament adopted a law on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which could be the beginning of a long due official process of uncovering the truth about the crimes of the past. The perspective of a Burundian brick layer and peace maker, Marc Ndarigendane, provides a personal record of Burundian history.
By Karoline Caesar
Ndarigendane means “who lives with a secret”. Marc learned at an early age that his secret was not a good one: he was the only child of nine that survived, his father died and his mother abandoned him. As a young man, Marc was confronted with the outbreak of a small war. People talked about the massacre of a Hutu rebel group of 1,000 Tutsis in the south of Burundi. Hutus were declared traitors and systematically killed. ‘Night guards’ who patrolled the neighbourhoods came to arrest and execute Hutus.
Arrested by the military
One morning, when Marc was on his way to work, his town was surrounded by barricades. He was arrested, loaded onto a military truck and brought to a military camp, before being led into a large hall, the floor of which was covered with blood. Soldiers undressed him and tied his hands beind his back. He was surrounded by soldiers holding him at gunpoint, while the commanding officer asked Marc three questions: What is your name? How many Tutsis have you killed? What is your profession? He told them his name and that he had never killed any Tutsis. He also said that he worked at a tree nursery: “Not far from here. You should know it, as you have just recently been there. I was the one who loaded the fruit trees to your truck, mangos, avocado and papaya. Ask my boss to confirm this.” The director of the nursery was a Tutsi. Marc was shown some tools – a hammer or a belt with nails – to be tortured with. The commander telephoned Marc’s boss. The boss came, and when he saw his employee naked and tied, he rushed towards him and cast himself over his body: “I know him, he is a good man, and he never missed one single day at work. Please let him go with me!” This was in 1972.
Elections of 1993
When in 1993 the first free elections were held in Burundi and Melchior Ndadaye was elected president – the first Hutu in the history of Burundi – Marc became a local “chef de colline” (the lowest unit of local administration in Burundi). Ndadaye was murdered a few months later and civil war broke out. When Marc saw that the people on the neighbouring hills began to kill each other – first in 1993 Hutus Tutsis taking revenge for the murder of Ndadaye, then 1994 Tutsis Hutus retaliating for the massacres – he did not want to continue. Fifteen houses were burned on his hill.
Marc started to work for a young organisation, called MIPAREC – Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross. Constructing the walls of a seminar house, he could hear what people in the neighbouring building were saying. Especially one word was being repeated all day long: “Peace.” Marc was astonished and fascinated and asked to participate in the meeting. He met Matthias, a Tutsi from Kibimba, who had survived a massacre in 1993. Matthias’ story reminded Marc about his own experiences in 1972. Marc now wanted to get involved in peace work, so he went back to his hill.
The first peace committee
The population was divided and terrorized by the military. Marc told people to stand together, mobilized them for a training workshop on peaceful conflict resolution at MIPAREC and registered the new association as a peace committee. The people on the hill volunteered to build a school for all children.
In the middle of construction work, soldiers showed-up, telling people to lie down on the ground. Marc got up – “Let the other people go and keep me.” He managed to negotiate to win some time and he organised help. One day afterwards, the regional military commander closed down the military post: “The population is united? There is no need for a post anymore.” The retreat of the post won Marc a lot of new followers for his peace committee. Their work kept on being challenged by rebel group attacks and lootings, but by the end of the civil war they were present in the whole district.
Reintegration of the Tutsis
Hundreds of Tutsi families were still living in camps and too scared to move back. Marc and his peace committee could finally convinced them that there was no danger anymore and they mobilised practical support. Volunteers helped reconstruct the houses. Finally, 424 families were ready to come back, and the number of peace committee members doubled.
The reconstruction of homes had stirred-up memories of some perpetrators: “It is not enough to rebuild their houses, we want to talk to the victims.” Marc and his committee prepared them for these talks and organised the first confidential meetings between 20 Hutu and 20 Tutsis families. There was a “Day of Peaceful Cohabitation”, sensitization campaigns on “good neighbourhood” and “peaceful conflict resolution” were held and visits at people’s homes organised. There were talks and pledges for forgiveness, many of which were accepted.
The peace committee today
Eight years after the end of the civil war, the peace committee has 445 members in the whole district, who work mostly on sustainability and prevention. Young people are brought together to talk about the past, learn mediation techniques and to get involved in theatre and dance groups. Marc, today being a grand father of 23 grand children, cannot stop making more plans on how to extend and improve their work, and wants to open a youth centre very soon.
Karoline Caesar has worked as a Technical Advisor for Communication, Research and Advocacy in the above mentioned project since 2011. In the past five years, she worked on citizen participation and civic education in Malawi, Zambia and Germany. She holds an MA in Humanities and Social Sciences.
380 Peace committees in twelve districts of Burundi are supported by MIPAREC and its partner Weltfriedensdienst, a German NGO. The project WFD/MIPAREC started in 2005 and builds on the genuine endeavours of the peace committees at grass root level. The capital city office documents the history and best practices of peace committees. More information can be found by clicking here.