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While the 1994 genocide in Rwanda received world attention, the conflict in Burundi that took place around the same time unfolded to general indifference. French photojournalist Laurent Larcher accompanied the French Pontifical Mission Society on a fact-finding trip to Rwanda and Burundi in July 2001. The report below looks at the effects of the ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi -- violence that claimed the lives of approximately 250,000 people during the 1990s and displaced an estimated 800,000 people. Larcher’s diary of the trip captures something of the daily experience of people living in a nation still suffering from war and shows the efforts of the Catholic church to play a role in healing the divisions within Burundi society.

The first stop on our trip to Burundi is its capital city of Bujumbura, located on the western side of Lake Tanganyika. The Abbé Gabriel, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ conference, welcomes us at the airport. We head for the bishop’s palace, and on the road we learn that the capital of Burundi is in a state of siege. It is defending itself against the Hutu-dominated National Forces of Liberation, often called the FNL, which is besieging the city in armed rebellion. The FNL doesn’t yet have the means to seize Bujumbura, but is acting more as a guerrilla force with raids in villages, ambushes against the army and attacks on roads.

In the streets of the capital, there are armed soldiers everywhere. The uniforms are frequently worn and threadbare, the soldiers often very young. When brief engagements with the rebels take place, the army has the reputation for not distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Starting at 4:30 p.m., the axis roads that link the city with the outside are closed. At 11 p.m. there is curfew. Apart from these restrictions, an almost normal life is possible in the city.

Another rebellion is taking place in the north of the country. This rebel movement is larger, more successful and more dangerous. The Forces for Democratic Defense, the FDD, is also dominated by Hutus. Its leader, Jean Bosco, won a name for himself in the Congolese war. Now with the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the path to normalization, Bosco’s Hutus, supported covertly by the regime in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital city, are returning to Burundi. Thus two zones of major tension exist in the country, to which is added the pressure exercised by the refugee camps. In addition to camps of displaced Hutus and Tutsis in the interior, there are camps outside Burundi, mainly in Tanzania, with an estimated 377,000 principally Hutu refugees.

Bishop Evariste Ngoyagoye welcomes us warmly when we arrive at his home. He is surrounded by a cadre of young priests of various ethnic origins. They are happy to see us. “We have the impression we are forgotten,” explains one of them. We get to know one another over a local beer. The Arusha accords are discussed. The majority is skeptical: As long as the military leaders of the rebellion will not be invited to the negotiating table, nothing solid can be built. This evening one priest is missing: the Abbé Jonas. Operated on two days ago for appendicitis diagnosed late, this young priest of 35 years is still in an unstable condition. Everybody is worried.

After a short night, everyone at the bishop’s palace prepares for one of the most important days of the year. Today, seven seminarians of the diocese will be ordained priests. The ceremony will be held in a symbolic place: Ngara, one of three districts north of the capital. Last Feb. 27, the FNL laid siege to Kinama, near Ngara. The army retook Kinama March 10. There were hundreds of deaths, principally of civilians. Houses must be reconstructed and a climate of trust reestablished.

Fragile peace

“The social tissue is fragile,” explains the Abbé Gabriel. “It is still marked by the massacres of October 1993 and those of 1995. Under the effect of these killings, the northern districts, the poorest quarters, are Balkanized.”

The fragile peace in Bujumbura also extends to these northern districts. But everyone knows that in the grip of fear, of political and psychological manipulation, that new massacres are more possible here than elsewhere. In choosing one of the three northern quarters as the scene of the ordinations, the bishop is trying to combat separatism and hatred. Thus, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Ngara vibrates to the rhythm of processions, to tambourines, dances, chants, applause, the usual sounds of ordination ceremonies in Burundi.

“Look, here Hutus and Tutsis are mixed. One speaks, prays, lives with others without trying to figure out who is who,” explains 21-year-old Jean-Louis, a liberal arts student.

Another student, Elysée, elaborates. “Everybody desires peace. The civil war in Burundi is driven by clans fighting over power. Each contestant uses ethnicity in order to advance his personal ambitions. These ordinations manifest our willingness to construct together a common world.”

The day is a great success.

At 6 in the evening, on returning to the bishop’s house, brutal news greets us: Jonas has just died. Everyone is stricken, the bishop most of all. “To die of appendicitis at 35 … The doctors first diagnosed amoebas, the next day painful constipation, and the third day, finally, appendicitis. But too late,” he says.

Sunday, Abbé Gabriel drives us to a parish on the exterior of Bujumbura: Buhonga, a hillside spot dominated by Hutus. The FNL is present in the zone, so we can stay only several hours. We assist at the second Mass of the morning. The church is full -- perhaps 2,500 people. Intense and fervid prayer. A beautiful community, but according to its Hutu abbé, not yet liberated enough from recent history to be directed by a Tutsi pastor.

Monday, we assist at the funeral of the Abbé Jonas. We push back our departure for Ngozi in the north of Burundi to the beginning of the afternoon. Jonas had been ordained just a year, almost to the day. Emotion is intense.

Making war on war

Once on the road, Gabriel doesn’t speak for several minutes. The zone we’re passing through is occupied by the FNL rebels. In general, they don’t attack during the day, but sometimes it happens. We don’t dawdle. Along the way, we occasionally run across municipal militias. Armed by the government, they are in charge of their own defense against rebel attacks. As night falls we arrive at Ngozi. Bishop Stanislas Kaburungu welcomes us with a frank and vigorous handshake. He is happy to see Gabriel again. Naturally, the death of Jonas is discussed. And then we speak of what happens here. It is unique, exceptional, exemplary.

“In the region of Ngozi, the slaughter was massive,” Kaburungu says. “We have seen war unfold before our eyes. In 1996 we came together to reflect on how we could end our internal fighting. The same desire animated us: to make war on war, with our own means. We decided to focus on our economic development.

“After having installed an electric network, we decided to construct a coffee factory. Until then, the coffee grown in our region was roasted at Bujumbura. We decided to roast it locally. In several weeks, we had collected 6 million French francs to use for launching the factory. Today, we see its benefits.

“Then in 1998 we decided it was necessary to have our own university. The idea was mad! We proposed that everyone become a founding member. The success was immediate. From thousands of people we collected contributions: The university was a chance for their child. In 1999 we opened.

“Then we started to look for a fund to create student credits. The Italian bishops’ conference understood immediately the stakes of the project and gave $1 million. We invested this money, and with the interest we opened a bank: COFIDE, or Financial Company for Development. This is what provides student loans. Today, COFIDE permits 243 young people out of the 700 students registered this year to undertake higher education. COFIDE also supports local development programs. In the villages, people come together because of these programs. The social tissue is strengthened: The fears and the barriers between different ethnic groups are falling. We are building a new society.”

Since 1996, the region of Ngozi has not only prospered but also has not experienced the fires of violence. Two former prime ministers are participating in the undertaking with the goal of working for the common good.

After the visit to Ngozi, we start off the next day in the direction of Gitega. The memorial of Kimbiba lies along the way. Here, Oct. 23, 1993, 100 Tutsi students were delivered by the school director into the hands of a Hutu militia. Shut up inside the school, the students were burned alive.

We stay the night at the Seminary Jean Paul II in Gitega. Bishop Simon Ntamwana, president of the bishops’ conference, leads a retreat of young priests. “In the face of the tragic and monstrous events we have lived through, I’ve been frightened by the superficiality of faith on the part of some of the Burundi people. Happily, the youngest call us to account. I see among the seminarians, for example, a willingness to leave behind hate and suspicion. The younger generation is more disposed to live together than their parents were. They are less susceptible to ethnocentrism. I see in them a real sign of hope.”

Wednesday, we depart for the small seminary of Buta in the south. The seminary is becoming a place of reconciliation and memorial. The Abbé Leopold, a teacher at the small seminary, was witness to the events of April 1997.

Remembering a massacre

“There were 250 children, ages 11 to 19,” the priest said. “On April 30, 1997, around 5:30, we heard shots. In several minutes, the assailing rebels had become masters of the seminary. The soldiers charged with protecting us had fled. A troop of rebels had taken over the dormitories. The little ones on the first floor dormitory were able to flee by the windows, but not the older students on the second. The assailants gathered us in the middle of the room and demanded that we separate into Hutus and Tutsi. The students refused. They were united. Then the leader of the group, an enraged woman, ordered their killing. There were 70 students. The assailants fired their grenades. When the rebels left the seminary, I counted 40 bodies. The 30th of each month, the families of the victims and the seminarians come to Buta to commemorate the massacre. In April, the diocese organizes a pilgrimage to celebrate the witness these students offered. The young people of the region love to come here to find each other. Since the opening of a sanctuary in 1998, the assailants have tried to destroy it three times.”

Today, the assailants are just 30 kilometers away from the small seminary.

Before we leave, Leopold shows us his dispensary. He has obtained permission from the church to practice traditional medicine. His remedies are based on plants, and with them he treats numerous illnesses, above all malaria. Considering the success he’s had, it seems the remedies work.

We return to Bujumbura. There, in the capital, the church does what it can to fight against two calamities: the children of the street and AIDS. Since 1995, the number of children living on the streets has continued to grow. It’s estimated that 8,000 children live on the streets of Bujumbura. At the Organization for the Development of Children, they can sleep in security and learn the coppersmith’s trade. The orphanage of Notre Dame de la Tendresse, run by the sisters of Bene-Bernadeta, is home to about 50 orphans.

AIDS is a source of worry to all: 30 percent of the population is HIV-positive. The Society of the Missionaries of Africa have opened a center called Bonne Espérance (“good hope”). One of the priests there confides to us that, in the nearby high school, the teachers estimate that 85 percent of the students are HIV-positive. With malaria lately on the increase, AIDS is killing more people than the civil war did.

What conclusions should we take from Burundi? Neither disease nor the recent violence in the country seems to have quelled the Burundians’ will to live. Although Burundi is one of the poorest nations in the world, it does not seem to be one of the most desperate. The Catholic church in Burundi is determined to serve peace and is seeking support for its efforts. It begs us not to believe that ethnic problems are insurmountable and notes that the crisis in Burundi is first and foremost a political crisis. Most of those we met in Burundi are hopeful. They say the people of Burundi have always lived together and that they are once again resuming a shared life together.

This story was translated from the French by Margot Patterson.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002