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Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities – Burundi
Elin Henrysson, Quaker Peace and Social Witness Peaceworker

When war hits a community, people’s hearts are wounded, their loved ones lost, and their belongings destroyed. The closer the perpetrator is to the victim, the deeper the wound. This is what happened in many Burundian communities during the civil war that lasted from 1993 to 2005 and claimed 300,000 lives. Communities were torn apart along ethnic lines as neighbor killed neighbor and friends destroyed and stole each other’s homes and property. HROC-Burundi was formed in an effort to create spaces of healing in the midst of this cycle of violence.

Healing Wounded Hearts
In 2003, Adrien Niyongabo, a Burundian who had himself directly experienced violence, was convinced by his Quaker faith to join other Quakers in Rwanda to develop a community healing curriculum, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communties (HROC). At that time they were struggling to face the consequences of the 1994 genocide The result was a three-day workshop that brought together twenty community members from both sides of the conflict to learn about trauma, to share and begin to heal from their inner wounds, and to start to rebuild the broken tissue of their community. The curriculum is grounded in Quaker values, with the notion that “there is that of God in everyone” at its heart. With great courage, victims and perpetrators choose to sit together, to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to share food, to cry and laugh together.

After developing the curriculum in Rwanda, Adrien returned to Burundi to begin organizing the workshops there. To date, HROC-Burundi has reached over 3500 people, working in eight provinces of Burundi. The program has developed organically, and is now composed of a series of basic trauma healing workshops, follow-up workshops, community celebration days, advanced workshops and Healing Companion trainings. The staff has grown to three people, as Desire Nzeyimana and Florence Ntakarutimana have joined the team as the accountant and trainings manager.

An abundance of testimonies and stories from participants witnesses to the power of the HROC curriculum to transform hearts and communities. One man said, Before the workshop, I liked to be alone most of the time. My heart was exhausted from carrying all the bad stuff I had. After the workshop, I remember that is when I slept more deeply than any other single night since 1993. In another example, a group of workshop participants were inspired to bring food to prisoners – the perpetrators of violence in their communities – as a sign of reconciliation.
HROC has now expanded the trauma healing workshops to three new key communities, focusing on Integrated Peace Villages. These government-sponsored settlements provide housing to some of the most vulnerable Burundians, including ex-combatants and returned refugees. With a target of sixty workshops over a period of three years, HROC is providing vital spaces of healing for people struggling to build meaningful lives in the context of unhealed wounds from years of traumatic experiences.

Restoring Hopeful Communities
As HROC-Burundi continues to hold workshops, it has become clear that along with the essential benefits from trauma healing, a vital component for rebuilding strong peaceful communities is the development of skills and opportunities to meet the practical needs of people struggling with poverty and lack of access to essential services. In line with this expansion of HROC’s healing vision, the organization has come alongside communities in small-scale development initiatives.

In 2009, a group of widows who had taken part in the HROC basic workshop envisaged a way to keep supporting themselves by raising shared goats. They asked for HROC’s support in purchasing female, pregnant goats. Women partnered across the ethnic divide to raise the goats, each returning home with her own goat after the birth of kid goats. In an overwhelmingly agrarian society with exhausted soil, goats are important sources of fertilizer, occasional meat and can serve as insurance for larger expenses like hospital bills or schools fees. But these goats do more than support agricultural livelihoods. They continue the process of healing and relationship-building by offering an opportunity for former enemies to cross each other’s thresholds. HROC has now expanded the goat project to fifteen other communities across Burundi, and many groups are now exchanging their sixth generation.

In 2010, a group of ex-combatants who had taken part in the HROC basic workshop approached the organization to ask for support in learning skills for peaceful, sustainable livelihoods. They were looking for a way to contribute positively to their communities. As a result, a group of ex-combatants, internally displaced people and surrounding community members were trained in the construction of bio-sand water filters. There is no lack of water in Burundi, but many people drink untreated water from rivers and streams, often falling sick. The group has now constructed ninety-eight filters and is in the process of forming a cooperative to sell the filters and support themselves. So far, fifty families and institutions such as schools or clinics have benefited from the filters. The filters not only lead to healthier lives, but also serve as a redemptive symbol of community healing. HROC is hoping to expand this initiative to other parts of Burundi, reaching communities that are in particular need of clean water.

Building Democracy
When Burundi started preparing for elections in 2010, HROC found itself particularly well placed to empower communities at the grassroots level to act for an open, democratic society. HROC trained eighteen communities as peace and democracy groups to report, mitigate, and respond to incidents of violence during the election period, using the innovative FrontlineSMS reporting system. The organization also mobilized 135 national and international volunteers to act as election observers, providing oversight and a peaceful presence at the polling stations.
Unfortunately, the elections resulted in a de facto one party state as opposition parties pulled out, and the country has since seen mounting instability. As a result, HROC is continuing to support the Democracy and Peace Groups to respond to developments in their communities and to act for peace. To ensure sustainability, HROC has also trained each Peace and Democracy Group as a self-help group, providing savings and credit at the community level.

Looking to the Future
In 2012, HROC-Burundi is looking forward to start a new initiative focused on primary school teachers. Schools were often sites of violence during the war and many teachers suffered from traumatic stress, which is then passed on to their students through harsh treatment. HROC is partnering with five Quaker schools to conduct trauma healing workshops with teachers, followed by skills-building sessions, finding ways of integrating what they’ve learned into their curriculum and relationships with students.

HROC also aims to continue the vital work of healing inner wounds with a focus on key locations including Peace Integrated Villages and refugee camps. Furthermore, the organization is eagerly pursuing the expansion of the bio-sand filter project and is actively seeking ways to support the Democracy and Peace Groups to effectively and strategically advocate for peace. In each of these ways, HROC-Burundi is committed to remaining a place of healing, hope and peace for individual hearts and communities.

I really appreciate your way of bringing us together with our friends from the village. Sometimes I see them as those who have come to take our land and property, like our enemies. Ask them! We didn’t visit each other. They were in the [internally displaced persons’] village and we were in our home community, and that was that. Together in this workshop I’ve become convinced that they are my brothers and sisters, that we need to live together in peace and develop good relationships. (Augustin, member of surrounding community)

I have found the information during the HROC workshop to be very important. It has opened my eyes. Looking at the causes, symptoms and consequences of trauma I have seen that in me, in my family and in my community there is a lot of trauma. I sincerely hated people who were not from my ethnicity. I saw them as the reason for my misfortunes here in the village. But I have decided to forgive. I would like the tree of peace and trust to grow in me and in my community. (Francois, ex-combatant, integrated peace village)