Latest News
  Home About AGLI AGLI Programs Countries Get Involved in AGLI Contact AGLI    
      Most Recent AGLI Articles AGLI Appeal Letters      

Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Fall 2012

                Print Issue  

Download the issue

Love Has Replaced Hatred: A Visit to Gitega, Burundi Prison
Adrien Niyongabo, HROC-Coordinator, Burundi

Understand that you are called to do good to the one who did wrong to you. In that way, instead of pushing the person away from you, which will put all of you into isolation, you bring the person back to you, which will put all of you into communion.
Andre-Claude, Mi-PAREC driver of van that carried people to the prison visit.

Agnes Ndayishimiye is a Tutsi woman living in the Mutaho IDP (internally displaced persons) camp. On October 21, 2004 on the last day of a Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop she was attending, she said, “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 the Gitega prison where our former administrator is kept. I will ask to see him. I will be bringing 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 camp. I will show him that love has replaced hatred. I will be happy that day.

Agnes’s husband and many family members were killed in late 1993 when violence swept through Burundi after the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected Hutu president in Burundi. She fled with most of the remaining Tutsi in the area to the Mutaho IDP camp where she has been living for more than a decade. Andre Ndereyimana, the man Agnes was referring to, was the Hutu administrator of Mutaho District in 1993 and has been jailed since that time, along with many other men from Mutaho accused of leading and participating in the killing of the Tutsi in the area.

Mutaho is about 25 miles north of Gitega, which is in the center of Burundi. The Mutaho area was one of the regions most destroyed by the fighting in 1993. The commercial center of Mutaho—once a large square with two story buildings on all sides and a market place in the center -- was completely destroyued. Many Hutu and Tutsi killed each other in this area, so former neighbors and friends became enemies. The two groups became separated as the Tutsi moved to IDP camps, while the more numerous Hutu stayed on their plots in the countryside. For the last ten years there has been little communication between the two groups.

Other wome from the Mutaho IDP camp in the follow-up HROC workshop agreed with Agnes in wanting to meet with the former administrator and others accused of killing and destruction in the area. The HROC program invites ten Tutsi from Burundian IDP camps and ten Hutu from the surrounding community to come together to try to re-establish normal relationships which have been mostly non-existent for the last decade. The workshops deal with psycho-social trauma and its symptoms, stages of grief, and the differences between negative anger and positive anger. On the last of three days, attempts are made to restore trust between the two groups. One particularly effective exercise is to draw a tree of mistrust showing the roots and fruits of mistrust, and then a tree of trust which allows the participants to envision how they may move from the place of distrust to one of trust.

Why would Agnes and the other women want to meet with the person who is accused of organizing the deaths of their loved ones? The testimonies in the workshops indicate that there is a very heavy burden when someone keeps the trauma, grief, anger, and hatred inside him/herself for years on end. People frequently feel that they are “lightened” when the heavy burden is lifted from them. The women in particular see the effects on their children. Do they want them to grow up in this divided society with the hatred of the enemy? Will not the division bring another round of violence in ten, twenty, or thirty years which, most participants think, will be worse than the last cycle in 1993?

Sebastien Kambayeko, is a pastor of the Friends Church in Burundi, a Tutsi living in the Mutaho IDP camp, and one of the facilitators in the workshop that Agnes attended. He reported that a group of Tutsi widows living in the IDP told him how the two trees: Trust tree and Mistrust tree have impacted them. They emphasized that in order to give a place to the Trust tree, as single parents, they need to prepare the way for their children and grandchildren by forgiving their wrongdoers. One way to do that would be to go to Gitega prison and meet the Mutaho Hutu former officials. The women said, “Maybe they would doubt our act because what they did to our families is woeful, but we will not give up. We will go there for a second time, sit with them and talk. We need peace for our next generation.”

The women gained permissions from the Provincial Administration to visit the prisoners. On Saturday, August 20, 2005, eighteen people from the Mutaho IDP camp, including some men, went to Gitega to visit the prison. Before they went to the prison the group gathered at the conference center in Gitega called Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (Mi-PAREC) to meet Pastor Elie Nahimana, the General Secretary of Burundi Yearly Meeting of Friends, Levy Ndikumana, the Director of Mi-PAREC, and me, the Coordinator of the HROC program. Levy told the group that the Gitega Prison Director was very happy and excited to receive us as promised. The first day he allowed us to meet with a delegation of the prisoners from Mutaho for a short time. A few seconds after the gate was opened, five men came up including the former Mutaho Administrator, the former President-Judge of Mutaho tribunal court, two former teachers and one farmer.

They immediately started hugging each other—a very touching and emotional scene!!! Unbelievable! Watching them hugging each other with such open smiles and nostalgia, I could not think that horrible killings happened between these people. I could hear some saying, “Yes, he is the one. Let me hug him!” “Oh, yes I do recognize you! You were my neighbor. How is your family doing? Good to see you!” “Amahoro, Amahoro! [Peace, peace] Praise God for we can meet here after so long a time!” “This one looks like the ones that I know. Are you the daughter of...?” “Yes, I am.” Ohh! Amahoro, amahoro! Thanks to God for you are still alive.
After the greetings, Andre Ndereyimana, the former Mutaho Administrator, said, “I am Andre Ndereyimana. You would understand that, as a head of the administration in those times and knowing what happened in our area, I have a lot on my back.”

Pastor Sebastien shared with the group their motivation for coming, he said, “We know that many of you who are kept here have held us in your hands on our birthdays, others are our brothers and sisters. We remember that we used to be living in harmony. That is why we have been missing you so much for these last ten years. We came here to testify how we love you. This may look contradictory, but it is real! You are still important to us. We still hope that one day, you will be home with us again. God’s will is always good. This idea of coming to visit you started at a HROC workshop we attended in Mutaho. Many in the Mutaho IDP have supported it, but only eighteen could get space in the van today. Many others would wish to visit with you on Tuesday to share what is in our hearts.” Then he asked one of his colleagues to hand over the envelope of money that the group had been collecting for their “friends” in prison. The delegation of prisoners was very touched and surprised by the loving heart showed by their former neighbors. They were also very thankful for their initiative in supporting them morally and financially, as life is not easy in prison. The group would have preferred to stay for long but as the time given was over, they gave each other a goodbye hug hoping to meet again the following Tuesday. Mi- PAREC volunteered to cover transportation cost for the group from Mutaho on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, 23rd of August 2005, eighteen people from Mutaho, mainly from the Mutaho IDP camp, came for their second visit to their former neighbors who are in the Gitega Prison. If more transportation would have been available, many more other people would have joined in the visit. Nevertheless, those who were able to come were representing all those with such willingness. As in the first visit, the group was joined by Pastor Elie Nahimana, Levy Ndikumana, and myself.

After we entered the prison, we were welcomed by one of the prison officials and with the prisoners native to Mutaho. I remember this scene when folks were greeting each other. It was moving! Around twenty prisoners were hugging with those who came to visit them. And, Louis from Mutaho IDP camp said: “Is that old man my former neighbor? Oh, no, that one is too old!” And when he came closer, they hugged and laughed. “Do you know my friend, I could not recognize you.” And the prisoner answered, “Don’t you see that I have become old! It is not a joke, my brother. This place would have taken me half of my life, I tell you! The conditions are too bad! Tell me, how are my wife and children? I heard that some died from malaria. How are the remaining doing?” And Louis said, “Fine! But you would know that poverty is shaking every one there. But they are doing fine— they can manage.” After the greeting time, individuals introduced themselves. Levy Ndikumana was the master of ceremonies. He expressed his joy at seeing the visit happening and indicated it as a big step towards reconciliation after what happened in the Mutaho community. He wished a very enjoyable time to all gathered.

Andre Ndereyimana, the former Administrator of Mutaho Commune in 1993 and now kept in the Gitega prison, thanked the people from Mutaho IDP for their visit. It showed a real caring heart for those in prison, “I am very touched to see you again. Last time, when we met for a short time and you said that you were going to come back, I could not believe it. Because, I said to myself that Mutaho is too far from here and I do not see how these people would get this energy and courage. And today, you accomplished what you had promised. It brings a big relief to us. You know, since we entered here in this prison, we do not know how the moon is like, neither the stars because before the night comes, we all are obliged to enter our rooms until the morning. It is too painful being here. From one morning to the next one, we are locked inside. It is during that time that one remembers all of what happened. And what follows the bad emotions, regrets, images of what we saw and so on. It is too heavy for us. So, to see your coming to visit us is like a miracle. The heavens are open for us and we rejoice. This gives us hope that another day, God will give us an opportunity to meet in the community.”

As it is a custom for all Christian gatherings, Pastor Sebastien Kambayeko led us into worship using the passage in Eph 4:25-27: “Therefore, each one of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger, do not sin: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold.”
It would have been our preference to stay for more time, but when the worship was done, we had only five minutes to say good-bye to one another. That was then the time folks started sending little messages to their families. “It is too bad that we did not get time for testimonies. It would have been a very wonderful way to put on the surface what this day has brought to us,” said one of the prisoners. However, during that short time for a good-bye hug, we asked two prisoners to shared how they were feeling. “How did you feel when you saw the people from Mutaho here?”

“Beyond the belief, beyond my belief! Sitting with them here, I just forgot the sentence pronounced against me. They brought me a new light. It is a new birthday for me!”
When we asked Athanase Barajingitwa, a Hutu and former primary school teacher, how he finds his stay in the prison, he said, “I would say that there are three categories of prisoners who are communally accused of what happened in 1993. 1) Those who really did kill, 2) those who are suspected of having collaborated with the killers or other wrongdoers, and 3) those innocently accused of genocide though they did nothing harmful. The last category is for people who were only disliked by their neighbors because of their ethnicity. In order to have them pay the ‘broken pots,’ bad things were put on their backs so that they would be jailed.”
“The people who came to visit you acknowledged having been helped by the HROC and conflicts resolution workshops they have attended. What do you think about such opportunity here in the prison?”

“It is really powerful and impressive! I would want to attend them.”

“Would you be willing to be trained as facilitator and afterwards volunteer to facilitate such workshops here in the prison?”

“That would be super. It would be much more impressive if we can go around the country with you conducting those workshops. I am sure that soon I will be released!”

We wished all goods things to Athanase and may all his wishes be done.

Outside the prison, I was able to question some of the Mutaho IDP people. I was impatient to hear from Angès Ndayishimiye, the woman who the first suggested the idea. I asked her, “How do you feel after this visit in the prison?”

“Great joy, enthusiasm, proud! I am very excited because I have been able to unfold the love, forgiveness that I have been holding for a long time. I miss words to express my feelings. It is a special day for me and for us!”

“Did you get a sense of having achieved something by going to the Gitega prison today?”

“Oh, yes! I have showed my loving heart to those in prison. I am sure that it has been a good surprise for those in the prison to see so many people with such caring heart coming from our IDP camp. They would never have imagined that! Well, I am certain that I have planted a tree of trust (big smile!).”

Another handsome man we talked to is Marius Nzeyimana, a Tutsi from Mutaho. Many of his relatives were badly slaughtered. Marius is now staying in the IDP camp with many of his in-laws who are orphans and widows.

“Marius, could you tell me what you are feeling after this visit?”

“As my colleagues are, I am also very happy, joyful, overwhelmed! It is a new step we made, an important one towards the recovery of our community. ‘The wheel has turned!’ We should not stay stuck in the past. We need to rebuild our country, our communities. Actually, I would not want to interfere with the justice’s job [punishing those found guilty], but it would be my strong wish to see those in prison [Hutu] being released. It is true that I have lost many of my relatives and loved-ones. They are no longer alive. What sense would it make to lose two persons when you can rescue one? Even if the one to be rescued used to be your enemy, one needs to get the necessary strengths to rescue that person. That is where my forgiving power comes from.”

“How did you get to that commitment, Marius? I find it very courageous!”

“We have attended many workshops organized by Mi-PAREC on conflict resolution. I was still traumatized, though I was not aware of it. After I attended the HROC workshop, I realized how traumatized I was and found how I could heal. Holding all the bad emotions inside of me had kept me a prisoner of hatred. As soon as I realized that, I could let it go and I found the strength to forgive. HROC has been a real catalyst in all that!”

Pastor Sebastien Kambayeko, the HROC lead- facilitator from Mutaho IDP camp, did not want to hide his pride.

“My heart is full of happiness, joy and excitement. The dream has become reality. Last Saturday, after our short visit with the prisoners’ delegation, I was astonished by the congratulations that we received from those with whom we are staying in the Mutaho IDP camp. Years ago, not many in the IDP camp would have appreciated such a visit to the former Mutaho leaders kept in the prison. Instead, we would have been threatened. Praise God for that! I express my feelings of great gratitude and thankfulness to my teammates here, to HROC and Mi-PAREC for their undeniable support. It is true that I cannot change people, but I am sure that people could learn from what has been achieved.”

Pastor Elie Nahimana and Pastor Levy Ndikumana also took the opportunity to thank all the actors for this big achievement.

Pastor Elie said, “This is a great event for our Friends Church in Burundi. Most of the time, many people quickly recognize this or that organization because they see the many houses and roads built or can count how many people have been given food, blankets and so on. It is not often that the community healing and peace building organizations are familiar to those who would not have been in the program. I am fully convinced that the valuable work done by HROC and Mi- PAREC has brought a lot to the Mutaho community and elsewhere. One of their fruits is this visit that you have made. It is a big testimony that you have showed. We strongly recognize the good collaboration in peace building between the Friends Church in Burundi and local administration. We wish to keep this collaboration with the new government too. As Friends, we will never give up, with our diverse services, to be near the population, especially the vulnerable ones.”

Pastor Levy Ndikumana stated, “We praise your ongoing efforts in spreading out the peace building work. I am very excited to realize that among the peace committees that we are working with, the Mutaho one is among the best ones. It would be my great joy to see Mutaho being rebuilt after the massive destructions that occurred there. This would never happen if the Mutaho folks are not involved in peace building, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa together. We congratulate Pastor Sebastien Kambayeko for his leadership. He has been a wonderful contact person in Mutaho. I think that we need to have many like him. We are very enthusiastic to hear you saying that the HROC workshops and Mi-PAREC conflict resolution seminars have enabled you to get to this stage. This shows how complementary these two programs are. Back in your communities, please keep peace with everybody. We are now observing many changes in our country’s leadership. The 1993 conflicts should have been a lesson to all of us. Then, we should not let ourselves be used by anyone who would want to disturb the peace in our community. Instead, resist them and be an instrument of change for the community’s well being.”
I approached Aimé-Claude, the driver from Mi- PAREC, who helped with driving the group back and forth from Mutaho, “How do you see this visit?”

“There is no way that you can do such a thing without being led by God’s Spirit! The Spirit led this group! I have a great respect for them.”

“What do you mean by being led by God’s Spirit?” “Understand that you are called to do good to the one who did wrong to you. In that way, instead of pushing the person away from you, which will put all of you into isolation, you bring the person back to you, which will put all of you into communion. This group has showed a wonderful way of communion. May all Burundians follow this excellent example.”

Three years later in 2008 some of those in the Gitega prison had been released and were reintegrated back into the Mutaho community. 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. Révérien Ntukamazina was in Gitega prison when those from the Mutaho IDP camp visited and was later released, so he has integrated back into the Mutaho community:

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.

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.”

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.

André Ndereyimana was being held in the prison in 2005, but by 2008 he had been released and was reintegrated into the Mutaho community:

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.
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.

Espérance Nijimbere was among those from the Mutaho IDP camp who visited the Gitega prison:
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.

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 Nzeyimana was 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.

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.

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.