GITEGA, Burundi --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.
Emmanuel Ntakirutimana works with opposing youth parties
Emmanuel Ntakirutimana 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 said.
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, 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.
"Rather than dividing over political values or ethnicity, they [youth from opposing political parties] are choosing to unite to protect their community, understanding that everyone has the right to live even if they have different ideas."
Ntakirutimana said that people in the community also have protected people 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.”
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.
"GLPI gave me tangible tools for peacebuilding work," Ntakirutimana said.
Aloys Ningabira helps peace committees prevent violence
(MCC Photo/Matthew Lester)
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 studies at GLPI in 2004.
(MCC Photo/Matthew Lester)
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.
If the peace committee members see any of those activities, they text the information to one person, who analyzes data from peace committees across the country to determine whether the violence is widespread or isolated.
Gathering this information is important, said 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 said, 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.