27 December 2016
I wrote the following article on Burundi in 1995 and is included in my book "BURDEN OF NATIONALITY" (digital available on Amazon Kindle. It is available in print but considerably more expensive including postage). But does it enlighten on the current loose talk of genocide in South Sudan?
The Genocide That Did Not Take Place
By Jacob J Akol
So much bad news out of Burundi since the beginning of the year: A persistent armed confrontation between Tutsis and Hutus in the suburbs of the capital, Bujumbura, eventually sent thousands of Hutus across the border to the Zairean (Congolese) town of Uvira, just visible across the north-western tip of Lake Tanganyika. Hundreds of miles northeast of Bujumbura, thousands of Rwanda Hutu refugees in Burundi packed whatever little belongings they had and headed towards the Tanzanian border in search of security. A few got through but Tanzania slammed the door on the rest and complained that there were already too many refugees in the country. Then the American Ambassador to Burundi "discovered" a massacre in a remote part of north-eastern Burundi and went to the media.
The world media, expecting imminent genocide similar to what had taken place in neighbouring Rwanda in April, May and June last year, packed their best gear, including satellite telephones and video transmitters, and invaded Burundi.
"It was unbelievable!" Monsignor Pie Ntukamazina of the Episcopal Church of Burundi told me in Bujumbura. "Many journalist came to my office wanting to know when the genocide would take place! They wanted to know what genocide looks like. They stayed for the first week searching for it; waited for another and then departed, desperately unhappy. It is incredible how some people delight so much in other people's misfortunes!"
It is not that Monseignor Pie does not admit the possibility of genocide in Burundi. It is just that he believes there are many forces working against it. "I am not," he said, just a religious man but a man who believes in the power of God which works through people. I know many people who are working very hard to prevent genocide. If the Church and the politicians continue to preach peace country-wide like they are doing now, I know for sure that it will never happen."
In Bujumbura, David Ndaihutse of the African Revival Mission Ministry was doing more than his fair share of peace-making Apart from having established a medical care centre in the city for the mentally ill, he has established a mobile surgery to treat those who could not get to government hospitals during the recent outbreak of hostilities in the capital. His patients were mostly Hutus.
David, a Rwandan Tutsi whose father was killed in Rwanda in 1960, also organised two peace marches on April 15 and 16 to the Bowies and Buy Enzi townships of Bujumbura, where recent fighting and exodus of Hutus out of the city took place. He called it "March for Jesus, for reconciliation, for unity, to speak out to the community to stop mass killings, destruction and all evil that is happening around the world today, particularly in Burundi."
Up country, some 160km north of Bujumbura, a Hutu elder clergyman, Pastor Samara Tife of Buhiga Parish, continues to preach peace and love across ethnic lines. Since the massacre of October 1993, following an abortive military coup, in which the first democratically elected president (a Hutu) was assassinated, Buhiga Parish, like most parishes in Burundi these days, has been divided into town and displaced camp-dwellers (who are mostly Tutsi) and the dispersed population on the hillsides (who are mostly, if not entirely, Hutus).
Pastor Semimayira told me: "I have been preaching peace here long before our community was divided by the massacres of 1993 and I am not going to be confined to preaching peace and love to one ethnic group only. I go up to those hills," he said, pointing at distant hills, "and I preach to those who bother to turn up."
Asked if he were not afraid for his life, he replied, "Yes, I am, and I take necessary precautions. But, really, nothing can hurt me anymore than I am already hurting. Nothing can hurt me more than seeing young people I brought up in this parish cutting up women and children, indeed their own mothers, brothers and sisters with machetes. I will continue to preach peace. That is what God has called me for. We must bring back tolerance and forgiveness."
But 13-year old Sinzinkaya is past forgiving: "I know the one who killed my father. He is up there in the hills. I will never forgive him!"
"I fully understand him and admire his honesty," said World Vision’s George MacPeak. "Not only did he see his father killed in a most violent manner, he almost lost his own life as you can see from the deep scar on his face."
Three-year old Uwitegetse Dorieane was too young to remember what happened when her parents were murdered near Buhiga in 1993. Neither does four-year old Nestor remember much of the grisly killings.
Sending off the children, so that they could not hear what she was going to say, Sister Marie Nestor, Co-ordinator of orphanages in Gitega area, said of Uwitegetse: "The bodies of her parents were found in the bush. She is the only one alive from that family." Of Nestor she said: "He is also alone. No parents, no brothers, no sisters. He was in a displaced camp with his grandmother who later died. A nun brought him here to Mugera Orphanage."
Not 16-year old Naharo Venant. He remembers everything: "I was there when it happened. They came about noon. They were our neighbours. I know them. They beat my parents to death. I ran up a tree and stayed there for four days. I don't know if I can forgive them."
Fifteen-year old Ntaconzoba Suavis also remembers: "I saw our neighbours in the process of killing my parents when I returned from school. I ran away to another house but the people who received me were later attacked and killed. I was angry for a long time but now I have to forgive them. There is nothing else one can do. You just have to forgive."
Ntaconzoba would like to be an ambassador for her country in the future "so that I can seek assistance for my country." Naharo would like to be a journalist. He did not elaborate.
I found 74-year old Ntilongwa and his wife, Regina, 64, in the town of Mbuye, some 70km north of Bujumbura. Displaced from their home in 1993, their daily worry is where to find bread and shelter for themselves and their four grandchildren whose parents were killed in 1993.
The Mbuye community was seriously affected by the inter-ethnic killings in 1993. Out of a 53,000 population, an estimated 4,000 were massacred while 11,000 were displaced and now live a precarious life in the town of Mbuye and in the displaced camps nearby.
"Recent disturbances in Bujumbura did not affect us," Nduwimana Melance, Administrator of the Mbuye Community, told me. "In fact we are optimistic about peace in this community. Recently, members of the community arrested two people whom they suspected of brewing up trouble. What we need here is assistance to repair damaged buildings, specially here in town where we need teachers back from cities like Bujumbura and Gitege."
In Gitege, Burundi’s second largest city and 100km north-east of Bujumbura, Ndibwami Francois, of the Episcopal Church of Burundi, was frantically organising a Christian Youths Conference on "Peace and Reconciliation", to reflect on the role of the Church in the Burundi crisis. "Our activities," said Francois, "will include drama on reconciliation. Our meditation will be about tolerance."
Nothing less than tolerance and forgiveness will see both Burundi and Rwanda through. Constitutional justice alone will not do. Hutu has killed Tutsi; Tutsi has killed Hutu. The line between the criminal and the victim has got very thin over the years of conflict. Whoever sits in judgement of the other will be pointing one finger at the accused and four at himself. It is well to remember that a nation of judges and criminals will never find peace, particularly when the differences are drawn between ethnic or class lines. The one in the dock will always believe that the one in judgement is the criminal.
Ntaconzoba has the answer, so simple yet so true: "There is nothing else one can do. You just have to forgive."
Then face the real issues, for it is extremely important for all, in both Burundi and Rwanda, to recognise and accept the fact that the social relationship between the Hutu and the Tutsi will never return to what it was before and during the colonial era. Indeed, not even to what it had been for the last thirty years. If one was privileged, one must give up a bit of that privilege. If one was underprivileged, one must be careful not to want to take all. Both Burundi and Rwanda need to establish an equitable sharing of power and resources between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. By all means re-establish democracy but take a leaf from the republic of South Africa, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution. Agree on the constitution, write in the guarantees and, above all, respect them!
*Jacob J Akol is currently Editor of Gurtong Trust Media