Reconciliation in post-war Burundi

[Compiler’s note: At the time of this writing, Burundi had just re-erupted into political unrest after a ten year period of peace. Up to twenty people have been killed in clashes between protesters, police and military forces. Additionally, over one hundred thousand have fled the country in anticipation of further violence. But, in a large part due to efforts such as those described below, the vast majority of the Burundian population has remained nonviolent and peaceful.]

The small country of Burundi, situated in the Great Lakes region of Africa, has experienced decades of complex violent conflict highly influenced by ethnic and regional elements. The widespread massacres and the civil war that took place in Burundi between 1993 and 2005 have left victims and offenders on all sides of the conflict. Within this context, many Burundians have dared to work toward reconciliation among people from different ethnic groups, regions and political parties.

Peace studies scholar John Paul Lederach describes reconciliation as the confluence of truth, mercy, justice and peace: peacebuilding processes must provide time and space for all four elements. Reconciliation is the process of rebuilding broken relationships by addressing harms and choosing to move forward peacefully together. In the Burundian context reconciliation processes play out at political, social, media and community/grassroots levels: each level is distinct and all levels are interconnected. MCC’s Burundian partners work primarily in grassroots reconciliation through a peace committee approach that empowers and trains local leaders to mediate conflicts in their communities. Understanding the different forms of reconciliation and recognizing their interconnectedness help to clarify the vital role that grassroots reconciliation plays in Burundian communities.

At the state level, political reconciliation serves as a national strategy for responding to atrocities and human rights abuses. Efforts at political reconciliation in Burundi have involved attempts to achieve transitional justice through the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). The 2000 Arusha Peace Accords laid the groundwork for setting up a Burundian TRC to investigate cyclic violence since Burundian independence, to punish or forgive offenders, to offer reparations to victims and to establish the truth while clarifying a shared history. In 2015 the members of the TRC were elected, but the commission has not yet commenced its investigations.

Work towards social reconciliation in Burundi occurs at the level of civil society involvement. Civil society refers to non-governmental organizations and institutions linked by the common interests of citizens. Ideally, civil society actors, such as the leaders of religious, traditional, academic and humanitarian communities and organizations, remain apolitical as they advocate for the broader population, but such neutrality continues to be a challenge in Burundi, where most civil society actors tend to become politically polarized. The Great Lakes Initiative, with which MCC partners, is an example of social reconciliation as a movement of religious leaders to end the cycles of violence that tear apart the region by promoting reconciliation through their institutions.

The media plays a major role in situations of violent conflict, but at the same time has great potential to be utilized as a tool for reconciliation in what we call media reconciliation. Media is often manipulated to spread rumors and messages of hate that increase tensions and cause panic. Reconciliation through media promotes professional, responsible and neutral media that provides a platform to share diverse opinions, inform the population and hold political and social leaders accountable.

During the 2015 political unrest, the Burundian government cut certain private radio emissions broadcasting what it viewed as anti-government messages. Protesters destroyed the private pro-government radio station and in retaliation all of the anti-government radio stations were destroyed. Due to the radio stations’ lack of neutrality in their broadcasting, they became targets of political violence. Remaining media outlets provide space for occasional programs that speak on themes of reconciliation, but unfortunately peacebuilders in Burundi do not yet have a formal platform for sharing the message of reconciliation through media.

Finally, community or grassroots reconciliation works toward social cohesion at the very base. At this level, communities organize structures to address conflicts, seeking creative solutions that apply to their contexts. Peace committees in Burundi are grounded in traditional restorative justice practices in which the bashingantahe, or community elders, guide mediation processes between parties in conflict. Based upon this traditional institution, peace committees offer a more inclusive form of restorative justice that works alongside the state judicial system, receiving cases and reducing the number that arrive in court. By providing a space for dialogue among members in a divided community, peace committees unite people around common values that encourage peaceful coexistence.

An MCC partner, the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC), works in grassroots reconciliation by training and accompanying almost 400 peace committees throughout Burundi. The peace committee approach brings together volunteers from all social categories (representatives of the hutu, tutsi and twa peoples; displaced and repatriated persons; bashingantahe; demobilized combatants; religious leaders; etc.) to work together for social cohesion in their communities.

Peace committees in Burundi engage in many different types of peacebuilding activities, from people learning to forgive those who killed their family members during the civil war to using mediation to resolve land conflicts for the thousands of internally displaced and repatriated families throughout the country. Peace committee members also train their communities in conflict transformation, advocate to the appropriate authorities on behalf of vulnerable persons and mobilize communities to work together on development projects such as rehabilitating the homes of repatriated persons and building health clinics.

MIPAREC promotes social reconciliation by serving as a civil society link between grassroots reconciliation and political reconciliation processes. Using experiences with peace committees, MIPAREC collaborated with other peacebuilding organizations through the Quaker Peace Network (QPN) to develop a transitional justice model applicable to the Burundian context. QPN was able to propose this model to the country’s National Assembly as it drafted legislation to establish the truth and reconciliation commission. Understanding what grassroots reconciliation looks like in practice allowed MIPAREC to integrate realistic approaches to national reconciliation into the proposed bill.

Each level of reconciliation plays an important role in creating positive peaceful change in divided societies. At MIPAREC, we believe that grassroots reconciliation serves as the necessary foundation for encouraging sustainable reconciliation at each level. Communities need to accept the values of tolerance and empathy in order to live peacefully together with a certain degree of trust. Social cohesion must first be established in communities in order for efforts at higher levels of reconciliation, such as a national truth and reconciliation commission, to be effective.

Reconciliation in post-war contexts is a complicated and long process. Particularly following a civil war in which neighbors killed neighbors, trust is profoundly lost. Rebuilding trust is essential in allowing communities to coexist peacefully and in preventing violence in the future. Reconciliation in post-war contexts focuses on providing a space for dialogue that can help heal the wounds of war. Burundi still has a long way to go in addressing wounds of the past, building trust and finding healthy ways to move forward. We hope that our efforts in grassroots reconciliation are playing a role in uniting communities even while deep-rooted divisions remain a major source of conflict in Burundi. This year has been a great test for peacebuilders in Burundi. Even as violence erupts due to political unrest, many communities are holding on to higher values of tolerance and peace, resisting violence for the benefit of their communities. Grasping on to these scraps of hope, we continue on this journey toward sustainable reconciliation in Burundi.

Oscar Nduwarugira is the Director of the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC), an MCC partner organization in Burundi. Melody Musser is the Communications Specialist for Peacebuilding for MCC Burundi/Rwanda.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

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