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Recovery in Mutaho, Burundi:
Aftermath of the Visit to the Gitega Prison

By Adrien Niyongabo

On October 21, 2004 on the last day of a HROC workshop, Agnes Ndayishimiye, a Tutsi, commented, “I am happy that I leave this workshop with a new dream that there will be a special day. That day, I see myself going to Gitega prison where our former administrator [a Hutu accused of being responsible for the killings of Tutsi in the area] is kept. I will ask to see him. I will be brining him food [a sign of reconciliation in Burundian culture]. I will hug him. He will not, maybe, recognize me. I will tell him that I come from Mutaho IDP [internally displaced persons’] camp. I will show him that love has replaced hatred. I will be happy that day.” It took almost a year until August 20, 2005 to arrange this visit. But when it happened, it was the talk of the town—actually it was broadcast on the radio. When I visited Mutaho in July of this year, people are still talking about the visit. The original story, “Love Has Replaced Hatred: A Visit to Gitega, Burundi, Prison” by Adrien Niyongabo can be found in the Winter 2005 issue of PeaceWays, page 6. Three years later Adrien Niyongabo, Coordinator of HROC in Burundi, went back to Mutaho to interview people from both sides—the villagers and the prisoners—to see how this affected their lives. David Zarembka

In August 2005, a group of people who participated in a HROC workshop, wanting to put their desire for reconciliation into practice, decided to visit the prison in Gitega where people accused of participating in the violence in Mutaho were being held. This is the story of their visit, narrated by people who were involved: Révérien Ntukamazina and André Ndereyimana, who were being held in the prison, and Marius Nzeyimana and Espérance Nijimbere who were among those who visited the prisoners.

Marius: What we got from the HROC workshop has really made a big impact in our hearts. Before it, I would never think of going to visit the people who were in prison in Gitega because one of them had killed my brother. But from the change that the workshop caused in me, I was able to be part of the team that visited the prison. It was not easy to suggest that we contribute food and money to the prisoners while knowing that one of prisoners had killed my brother. But I did it because I have been changed.

Espérance: The workshop made a big difference – I was no longer a woman who felt under pressure. I became happy by allowing myself to forgive, and from there I was able to ask to become part of the team who would visit the prisoners.

The prisoners were not trusting at first, but they were open to transformation:

André: When we heard that people from Mutaho were coming to visit us in the prison, we were surprised at first, and we were also suspicious. Not only us but other prisoners who were not from Mutaho were saying “Be suspicious--those people coming to visit us from Mutaho who say they want to visit you, it’s not with an open heart. They want to see who’s still alive here and then they will see how they can kill you.” We all had such fears at the beginning when we heard about the visit. But by the end we came to see that they really did bring us money and food just out of love.

We spent time together and chatted and at the end we had a prayer. I remember them saying, “We don’t want to come back to visit you here. Rather, we want you to be released and be able to go home and then we can visit you at home.” It was like a dream.

And some were even willing to put their life on the line to show their trust:

Révérien: I had been in prison for three years when colleagues said somebody wanted to meet me at the gate. I jumped out at the opportunity, and as I approached the gate and saw Pastor Sebastian [a HROC facilitator], I just started crying, and then he also cried. He greeted me and told me that he had come simply to visit me as he had been my neighbor. We chatted a little bit, and they had brought us food and money, and we prayed for a while, and sang hymns.

It was the first time to see Tutsi come to the prison to visit the Hutu. They brought us food and money, but a rumor came that the Tutsi were coming here for no good-- that they came to get us. “They are finding out who is here and bringing food with poison.” But I said, “The bananas are good, and as they look normal, how would they have put poison in them?” I grabbed four bananas and I ran to the kitchen. I ate one and then the second before a friend from Makauko grabbed one and said, “If you die, I will die too.” And another friend from Gutshuru did the same. When we went to sleep at night, one person woke me up just to check if I was still alive, in fact I was quite happy to have eaten the bananas because it had been so long since I had eaten bananas, because they are expensive and prisoners can’t afford them.

The next morning we were together with the prisoners from Mutaho to share the food, and as they knew we had eaten some, they all wanted their portion. And God answered our prayers, because we are now out of the prison.

The visit served as an example to other communities as well:

Révérien: I liked the visit because afterwards people wrote letters to their churches and missions, saying “Even Tutsi from Mutaho came to visit the prisoners! Yet you have never come to see us – Have we been forgotten by our homes?”

And when the administrator of Gishuli followed our example by bringing food, the people of that district said it was not enough, because while they were thankful that food had been brought, they said, “What about the people from Gishuli themselves coming to visit us? We would like cooperation, just like when we saw the people of Mutaho talking to the prisoners from Mutaho.”

Reactions to the visit:

Esperance: Some of the others in the IDP camp did not understand why we did the visit. They even went so far as to imagine that we were being paid money by Hutu to have the visit. But of course this wasn’t true for any of us. It was from the love, the compassion that we learned in the workshop, and knowing that we need to rebuild our community.

Marius: Frankly, not everyone was happy about the visit. If you have reached out to create a friend, the enemy of your new friend will not be happy with your new relationship, and that person might do whatever he or she can to make your friendship fall apart.

But for me, when we did the visit, it was like putting down a heavy load I had been carrying. If you are traumatized and you see the one who caused your trauma, it continues to re-traumatize you, or might cause you to just run away because it is too much. But choosing to reach out was a way of digging out– you know this root, the root of war, the root of killing – it is deep in our hearts. And we need to uproot it, and in order to uproot it we need to start by forgiving those who are close, who are in our communities.

For example, if I have purchased something on store credit, but then I delayed to pay back my debt, I would always feel ashamed, and if I came upon the shop owner I would want to change my path because I feel he is accusing me. The same way, when someone has done something wrong to you, especially these killings, he or she will come to avoid you, whatever he or she did, but it’s up to us to start because we are the victims, to start letting them approach us, because we have loved each other, and we need them to see the love we are carrying for them and draw them to us. So that’s what we did.

One of the more important roles of the visit was the way it helped prisoners become re-integrated in their community when they were released from prison:

Marius: We say in Kirundi, “The medicine of bad actions is not more bad actions.” I learned this to be true – now our relationship is like brothers. The man who killed my brother now comes to help me cultivate my plot and I go help him to cultivate his. This makes other people in village question themselves, saying, “Hmmm, Marius is a Tutsi and the other man is a Hutu, how is it that they are helping each other when they know what happened between their families?”

So the visit to Gitega was very, very fruitful. Fortunately, after the visit, some of the prisoners were released and now they are back in the community. And now we are sharing. When we meet at the bar, we share the same beer, whereas that was never possible before. So it has really strengthened our relationship and it has created a sense of forgiveness in our community. That’s why I am asking you to do more HROC workshops for everybody living in our community.

André: The visit to us in prison meant a lot to all of us and it was a very strong foundation to our re-integration. Once we were released we were afraid of going near the IDPs because of all that had happened between us.

Then something happened – I was walking around and there was a group of IDP people nearby and one of them would recognize me from the prison visit. He would rush and come and hug me. That was really special! And the others around me would be wide-eyed, saying, “What is happening? I don’t understand --this guy is hugging a former prisoner!” It was really touching, just to see how deep the conversation was with the person from the IDP camp, and it was also a big part of feeling welcome in the community. Now, when we are out we sometimes stop by where they live and they stop by us, and this is only because we feel supported by what we have shared.

Révérien: From the workshop I attended after I was released, I learned how to live in harmony with others, especially those who were accusing me of having killed or helped to kill their relatives. It was not easy. When I was in the prison, a widow came and accused me of having facilitated the killing of their relatives as I was a leader in the commune. But it wasn’t true. Another woman falsely said, “One time you followed me with a machete and tried to kill me.” It was only later, after I had been released that she retracted her claims. I really felt pleased to know that she was recognizing what she had done. And I said, “You are my neighbor, please don’t be afraid anymore. If you come to the community to cultivate your plot, if you don’t want to carry your hoe home, I can just keep it for you. Or if it gets dark and you don’t want to go home, stay at my house, you will be safe.” And we got once again connected, and that was my experience from the HROC workshop.