The Nation (Nairobi)

21 September 2005

Central Africa: Selfless Duo Bring Hope to Burundi

Nairobi — Perhaps nowhere in Africa has endemic conflict been more deeply rooted than in the region of the Great Lakes. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in inter-tribal violence in recent years - in which the genocide in Rwanda is the most obvious example.

And yet there are signs of hope. Rwanda, given stability and a progressive government, is now making rapid economic strides and has applied to join the East African Community.

In neighbouring Burundi, the ending of the 12-year civil war and inauguration, last month, of the former Hutu rebel leader, Mr Pierre Nkurunziza, as President, offers an opportunity for lasting peace.

But it may be no more than an opportunity. After an estimated 300,000 deaths, this small country of seven million people remains in a desperately fragile state. Ethnic divisions still run deep and the economy is in tatters.

In a war-torn situation no group in society is as vulnerable as its children. In Burundi the figures speak for themselves. Unicef estimates that 358,000 children in the country have lost at least one parent, and 77,000 have lost both parents. There are 230,000 Aids orphans and at least 5,000 street children.

So step forward two remarkable Burundians whose work with the children of Burundi is based on the principals of dialogue, forgiveness and reconciliation - without which Burundi simply has no future. Ms Marguerite 'Maggy' Barankitse and Mr Athanase Rwamo are true Peace Builders.

For Ms Barankitse, a Tutsi, in her early forties, the founding of her peace house, known as La Maison Shalom, in 1994, was a direct result of violence and personal tragedy.

At her hometown of Ruyigi, 180 kilometres from the capital Bujumbura, she already had seven orphans under her care - four Hutu and three Tutsi. She had returned to Ruyigi from studying overseas and helping to look after the sick at the famous shrine of Lourdes in France.

But Burundi had been plunged into further bloodshed in 1993 when, after democratic elections, the country's first Hutu head of state, Mr Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated.

On the morning of Sunday, October 24, 1993, Ms Barankitse was at a centre of refuge for 72 Hutus fleeing from avenging Tutsis, some of whom were related to her. Despite her desperate efforts, the Hutus were massacred in appalling circumstances as she watched - but she managed to pay a small sum in ransom to save 25 children whose parents had been killed.

Still in great danger, she managed to protect the precious charges in her care for many months until she persuaded the church to give her an old school building to house her ever-growing extended family of orphans.

They were the first of more than 10,000 orphans to pass through Ms Barankitse's Maison Shalom in the intervening years - many from refugee camps in Tanzania as well as from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Ruyigi, 120 children live at Maison Shalom - the main orphanage which cares for new orphan arrivals and children with HIV/Aids. Some 1,000 children live in homes built by Maison Shalom in the area, while the project now includes a cinema, swimming pool, a centre with a hairdressing shop and a dressmaker - even a dairy farm and a library.

This complex is known as the Cite des Anges (Angel City). Essentially, it provides training and income generating activities for the older children - who have also been joined by demobilised child soldiers who cannot return to school and must now be taught vocational skills.

By helping thousands of young Burundian orphans to create a new life, Ms Barankitse intends that they should take her message of love and peace into the wider community. Hence, peace education is an integral part of her programme at Maison Shalom. She knows that the children of Burundi have the future of the country in their hands and must take responsibility for this.

"I am not pro-Hutu or pro-Tutsi," she said in a recent interview. "I don't explain this to the children with words but with my heart. They live together and work together. Everyone who comes to Maison Shalom knows that they are safe."

Now that her Maison Shalom has grown so large, Ms Barankitse knows "that I cannot be mother to all. There are too many. But I can give them the tools to make their lives whole again."

Mr Athanase Rwamo comes from a very different background. A civil servant working with the National Youth Council of Burundi's Ministry of the Interior, he found himself, in the late 1980s, increasingly concerned about the growing numbers of street children in Bujumbura and other major towns in Burundi.

Anxious to help, he immediately ran into the usual prejudices - that street children were inevitable thieves, vagrants and delinquents and should be shunned and kept away from society. But he saw them as victims, too. Victims of war, of poverty - certainly of circumstances far beyond their control.

Using his own funds, he set up small reception centres where children could at least take refuge at night and receive a good meal.

In 1990, with the assistance of the Methodist Bishop No Nzeyimana and the Catholic Father Andr Vyumvuhore, he created OPDE - the Humanitarian Movement for the Protection and Development of Children in Difficulty.

From simple reception centres, OPDE became part of a campaign against malnutrition and illiteracy with clear objectives to encourage children "to restart schooling, work towards professional and social reintegration and begin a new family life in one of the family reception homes."

It was also important that the children should not become dependent on OPDE - self-reliance being a critical part of the programme.

Now aged 61, with four children of his own, Mr Rwamo has seen his movement expand into Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The destabilisation of the whole Great Lakes region due to conflicts has meant a constant cross-border movement of people, he says, so if Congolese children reach us in Bujumbura, we can send them to the OPDE office in Uvira, South Kivu Province in Congo; or to our office in Butare in Rwanda, if they are Rwandese. This has proved to be a great advantage both for OPDE and the children."

With the support of the United Nations Development Programme and as a member of REPPER - Exchange Network of Projects Supporting Street Children - OPDE is now ready to take full advantage of the new climate of peace in Burundi.

"Because of the war situation, it was difficult to establish branches outside our major towns. But street children come from all over the country, so with peace returning, we can build transit centres in the rural areas to rehabilitate children in their home areas. This should greatly strengthen the programme."

Now, OPDE is looking after 317 children and assisting 60 children living with families - and many thousands have been helped over the years. A new initiative to take care of Aids orphans was launched recently with students from Burundi University.

Like Ms Barankitse, Mr Rwamo gives no thought to the ethnic background of the children in his care. "Children have a right to love and be loved. It is time that governments in our region recognise this."

Both Ms Barankitse and Mr Rwamo have received prestigious international awards for their work. But for both, the true reward is knowing that with each step forward they take, the future for Burundi is a little brighter.

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