in Mutaho, Burundi:
Aftermath of the Visit to the Gitega Prison
By Adrien Niyongabo
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
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
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
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
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
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.