Friends of Burundi

 

 

Building the Peace in Burundi

 

Jeremy Woodham of the Church Mission Society (CMS) interviewed Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi.  Reproduced with permission

 

In a rare interview the Archbishop of Burundi gave his insights into the conflict that has dominated Burundi since its independence and the prospects for reconciliation, which he sees as the church's main job.

A tiny country buried in the heart of Africa . One of the most densely populated in the continent with at least 500 people for every square kilometre. And only ever in the headlines because of war. Welcome to Burundi .

 

But now, with the final rebel group having reached an agreement with the government, the long road to lasting peace looks more secure than at any time since the Anglican Church of Burundi got its first Archbishop in 1992.

 

Bernard Ntahoturi is the third person in the job and is faced with leading the country's 625,000 Anglicans (around eight per cent of that intensely packed population) in what he sees as the church's main mission - reconciliation.

 

"Many people have been wounded, each family has been affected by the crisis that we have passed through. The church will have to use the message of the Gospel to restore the trust of the communities."

 

"Having said that, reconciliation is not easy; it is a long process. Because here you are dealing with the feelings. So we should take time and not hurry in reconciling our people."

 

Understanding the nature of the conflict is one key element in reconciliation. Archbishop Bernard says the fighting was too easily written off in ethnic terms.

 

"Since 1993, Burundi has undergone a civil war coloured with ethnic differences. I say 'coloured' because I feel that the causes of this civil war were beyond ethnicity. Ethnic for me is what God has created and it's good. To belong to an ethnic group is positive but when we use it to kill others and to exclude others, then it becomes wrong and even a sin because it has produced killing and genocide and massacres and crimes against humanity."

 

Fear of the other was what drove people to kill, he says, and yet a deeper root of the conflict was poverty. Those in government used their power only to help their own.

 

"The powerful wanted to keep that power - almost all the resources of the country in the hands of a few.

The root cause was the exclusion of the other, the system that did not allow people to participate in the decision making in the matters concerning their lives. So people hid behind ethnic group, hid behind their regional belonging. For me the war was an expression of what was going on within our society, of excluding the other, and that exclusion had the colour of ethnicity."

 

The obvious question is, what now? How does the fear become hope?

Archbishop Bernard enjoys a good relationship with the openly Christian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Nkurunziza meets regularly with a group of senior church leaders to consult them and ask for their prayers.

"He is not serving the nation at an easy time."

The Anglican Church of Burundi is playing its part in reconciliation in three main ways. The first is mediation over the land issue that is a major hurdle for the repatriation of one of the longest-excluded refugee populations in the world. Many have been in camps in Tanzania since 1972.

 

"When these refugees come back they will need to go back to their land, but that land is occupied by other people. So we are mediators, saying, how do we share the little that we have with those who are on the inside - and those who are on the outside."

In education, as well as joining a partnership of government and other churches to develop education more generally, the Anglican Church is developing school materials on peace building.

"Thirdly we are helping in shelter," explains the archbishop. "And when we build houses in a given village we ask that people of different ethnic groups work together to build. If we are building the house of a Hutu we will ask Tutsis and Hutus to come and build today the house of this Hutu. Tomorrow it will be the house of a Tutsi. If they share in building their own communities, in building their houses, in building the schools for their children this will give them a time to share their experiences."

 

The archbishop, who spent much of the war involved in "commissions and committees trying to bring people to talk about reconciliation" believes that the church is well placed to do that job.

 

"We have found that the church in a community is like a market. The church and the market were the only two places where the two communities who were fighting continued to meet. So we feel the church at the grass roots will be an instrument of peace building."

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