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Last Updated: 03/18/2004BURUNDI’S UNKNOWN HEROES
Susan Koscis, Search for Common Ground
BURUNDI’S UNKNOWN HEROES
The story of Burundi’s heroes is one of humanity against all odds. It is a story of courage in the midst of crisis, of defiance in the face of danger, of compassion in a sea of callousness. When everyone around them told them to accept the status quo of blood and brutality, these Burundian heroes chose to listen to their internal voices. It meant risking their own lives, and those of their family in some cases, to save that of another. For many, it meant ongoing danger and difficulty long after the moment of their act of courage. It was a moment for which they had not prepared or planned.
Since independence, Burundi has known cycles of violence, assassinations and political coups. Political extremism latched onto ethnicity, creating fear, mistrust and panic among the population, shattering ethnic harmony and coexistence. Neighbor turned on neighbor. But, not everyone succumbed to the madness.
Burundi’s heroes are ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They chose not to stamp out, but rather shield, the flame of life. A Hutu life, a Tutsi life, yes. But more importantly, a human life. As one hero said simply and eloquently, “I didn’t save them because they were Hutu or Tutsi. I saved them because they were human beings.”
Here are some of their stories…
“We are the same people.”
It was October 1993 and the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadye, had just been assassinated. Innocent Tutsi civilians were killed by Hutus in revenge for the assassination, seen as being carried out by the Tutsi-controlled army. This sparked further revenge attacks, with Tutsis killing innocent Hutus to avenge the death of Tutsis. It was a blind cycle of violence. In Ijenda in the mountains outside of Bujumbura, a gang of Tutsis arrived, seeking to kill Hutus. Rebecca Hatungimana, a married Tutsi woman, immediately took action, hiding 41 Hutu neighbors in her house. Along with her husband, a military officer, they defended their compound throughout the night from the attackers armed with spears and machetes. Rebecca fearlessly warded them off. Her husband risked his life to defend the property and animals of the Hutus. During the day, Rebecca’s children escorted the Hutus to the fields in search of food, before returning to the compound by nightfall. In Rebecca’s own words, “I did this because I’m convinced that human life is sacred, and that no one would have benefited from the death of my neighbors. I did not protect them because I am a Tutsi or a Hutu, I did it because morality obliges me to act. We should not put forward our own ethnic group, but rather our humanity. We are created by the same God. We are the same people.” Later, when tempers and passions subside, her Tutsi neighbors thanked her for her bravery. “You prevented us from becoming murders,” they told her, with a mixture of regret and appreciation.
“I told the killers that I would do it myself”
It was just three days after the assassination of the Burundian president in October 1993. In the neighborhood of Rwasa Tito, a young recently married Hutu, the violence was raging. The local administrator was killed. That night, four Tutsi men visited the home of the administrator’s nephew. They asked if they could stay the night, and the nephew agreed. Around 11 p.m., a group of Hutus from another neighborhood arrived…seeking to kill Tutsis in the neighborhood. The nephew panicked; he didn’t know what to do. Tito, a neighbor of the nephew, watched nervously. He approached the house and lied to the Hutu gang, telling them that he was also amongst those seeking to kill the Tutsis in the area. “You shouldn’t come here to teach us our job,” Tito told the other Hutus. “Give me these Tutsis and I’ll know what to do.” The Hutu gang believed Tito’s story, and handed over the Tutsis to him. Tito promised to present “the Tutsis heads” the next morning. But instead, Tito took the four Tutsis and hid them in the compost pit behind his house. The next morning, when the Hutu gang asked Tito where the corpses were, Tito lied again and told them that another group of Hutus came seeking to kill Tutsis, and Tito was obliged to hand over the four Tutsis. For two weeks, the four Tutsis stayed hidden in the compost pit. Then, feeling frustrated, two of the four tried to escape from Tito’s house to presumed safety in the center of town. Unfortunately, they were caught along the way and murdered. The other two, Nyandwi and Batiste Niyondiko, stayed for another two weeks at Tito’s house until the military arrived to escort them to safety. Tito was relieved, but it was not the end of his problems. His neighbors threatened him, some with threats of death. Finally, he decided to flee to Tanzania. At the time of the interview with Studio Ijambo, Tito had come back just two days earlier after 10 years as a refugee.
“We stayed together to the end”
It is an early morning in 1997 in the dormitory of a boarding school in the southern Burundi town of Buta. Ethnic killings have occurred around the country recently, so when children wake to the sound of gunshot, they immediately hide under their beds. After a few moments, a group of rebels enter the dormitory, shooting and shouting. “Separate yourselves!” they shout. “Hutus on one side and Tutsis on the other.” The students immediately understood what that meant. If they followed the rebels’ orders, their Tutsi classmates would be massacred in front of their eyes. They refused, remaining under the beds, as the rebels continued to shoot at them. When the students didn’t move, the rebels threatened to use machetes to kill all of them. The students crawled out from under the beds and moved, together, outside the dormitory. The students still refused to separate into two groups. Angry and willing to wait no longer, the rebels threw a grenade into the middle of the students, killing 46 of them and wounding many others. Hutu student Leon, who spent a year in a hospital recovering from his wounds, remembered how he felt on that morning: “I did not do what the killers told me because I I knew that it would get me nowhere. Even if I would have survived, my friends would have been killed.” Another survivor Fulgence is resolute about why she did what she did. “My ethnic group is human being,” said Fulgence, “We stayed together to the end. No one sold out the other.” When Leon looks back on what happened, he is proud of the behaviour of his classmates. So is fellow survivor Didier: “People remember that Buta is a place where martyrs died. It makes me feel good that I am a part of the martyrs. I think that it should be an example to everyone that people of different ethnic groups can live together, and would even die for each other.”
“No” to revenge.
It was the morning after the assassination of the Burundian President Melchior Ndadye in 1993. Revenge attacks against Tutsi civilians had already begun. The cousin of the assassinated president, Evariste Ndabaniwe, warily headed to work at a brewery in the central Burundi city of Gitega. At the entrance he met a large crowd that had gathered outside, threatening revenge attacks against the Tutsi employees who were inside the brewery. They were armed, angry and not prepared to listen. But Evariste, a manager at the brewery, challenged them. “Do not do this in the name of the Ndadaye family,” he told the angry crowd. “I too am sad about this death, but it is not a reason to kill others. I cannot accept that my brother’s death be followed by blood.” The angry crowd refused to listen and started to break down the gate. Evariste continued: “If you kill anyone, you must start with me,” he warned them. The angry mob was adamant, and for eight hours, there was a standoff with the employees trapped inside the brewery unable to leave. Only after police arrived did the mob finally disperse. No one was injured or killed. Evariste’s persistence and courage prevented more blood from being spilled.
“A military officer willing to defy his peers”
In Rutana province in the southeast of Burundi, Jean is a respected Tutsi local government official. In 1972, Tutsi leaders undertook nationwide killings of Hutus who had received education or attained status within the society—another example of the senseless and systematic brutality of some. Jean was proud of his three sons, all of them rising to senior ranks within the Burundian national army. It was this same military, however, that rounded up the Hutus around the country for killing. When the military came into his neighborhood looking for the educated Hutus, Jean reacted by taking 36 Hutu men, women and children – about 15 households in all – and sheltered them in his house. The military learned of this and used force to enter Jean’s house, captured seven Hutu men, and took them to the prison at the center of town. Jean immediately reacted and contacted his sons, who were based elsewhere in the country. One of his sons arrived quickly and, defying his peers, was able to negotiate the liberation of the seven men. He also arranged for the posting of 11 soldiers at Jean’s house to protect the other Hutus. The Hutus stayed there in safety for another three months until the wave of killings and assassinations ended.
“He is my brother”
It was October 1993, and Tutsis were being hunted in the neighborhood of Kamenge in the capital city of Bujumbura. Angry following the assassination of the Hutu President Ndadaye, Hutu youths were seeking revenge through indiscriminate attacks on innocent Tutsi civilians. On one of these bloody days, Hutu resident Nimbona Natanaye witnessed a young Tutsi street seller surrounded by a group of Hutu youth. The seller was tied up and being beaten. Then the attackers began to pour burning water on him. Unable to take any more of this, Natanaye immediately jumped in front of the crowd, saying that the Tutsi seller was his brother, and the gang should halt their attack. The gang was far from convinced. When Natanaye insisted, he himself was seriously beaten and knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. When he regained consciousness a few moments later, he repeated the same message: “He is my brother.” His persistence and conviction began to convince the crowd. After all, why would a Hutu risk his life for a Tutsi, they asked each other? The Tutsi was released. Natanaye took him to hospital for treatment. After he was released, the two stayed at Natanaye’s home in Kamenge, but neighbors were suspicious of his fraternal claims. When the increasing threats became too much for Natanaye and his Tutsi ‘brother’, they decided to move to the neighboring rural province, telling everyone upon arrival they were brothers. There they are accepted, and lived in the same room for ten years. “We shared everything. We had three shirts between us, recalls Natanaye. “If one person washed the shirt one day, the other would wear it the second day. No one could ever say that we were not really brothers.”.
“I feel only love in my heart”
Gordien Semapfa, a Hutu from the town of Butezi, dared to save the lives of his Tutsi neighbors when other Hutus around him were doing the opposite. With the assistance of his nephew, Gordien managed to snatch 26 Tutsis from the hands of a spear-wielding mob of Hutus and lead them to safe haven. For one week, he took care of all their needs, and ensured that other Hutu killers did not learn of their whereabouts. One of those saved, remembering Gordien’s courage, said, “It’s not ethnicity that makes you a killer, it’s your heart. Gordien decided not to break God’s laws.” Gordien believes this spirit of love for everyone can be contagious: “Today, perhaps there is only love in the hearts of two people. If I befriend a Tutsi, then maybe another Hutu will imitate me and vise versa. Then, there’ll be four people, and then more and more and more. I don’t understand ethnicity. I feel only love in my heart for my people, and I’ll continue to fight for my neighbor, as he will do for me.”
We reap what we sow
In 1972, Barasukana was a young Tutsi ‘colline leader.’ He was responsible for the welfare of between 500 and 1,000 residents of his village in the Bururi province in the mountainous south of Burundi. All over the country, the government—with the assistance of the military—were targeting educated and well-off Hutus, abducting and killing them. Although just 25 years old, Barasukana was determined to ensure that nothing happened to the Hutus living in his colline. When he saw Hutus accused of false allegations and taken to the prison in the center of town, Barasukana followed them and refused to leave until he convinced the military of their innocence and ensured their release. At the end of the crisis, not a single Hutu from Barasukana’s colline had been murdered. Twenty-one years later, following the assassination of the Hutu president, it was the Tutsis, including Barasukana, who were at risk of death in the colline. But the residents did not forget Barasukana’s courage in 1972. The entire village united to protect his life and his property. His life was spared, but two Hutu residents gave their lives defending Barasukana’s cattle. To this today, the colline is united and strong.
“I will make her my wife.”
Jean Johan, a well-known Hutu trader, lived in the northeast province of Karuzi. In November 1993, less than a month after the assassination of the first democratically elected Hutu president, there were killings all over the country. A group of Hutus from a neighboring province came to Jean’s neighborhood with the aim to find and kill Tutsis. When Jean heard of the danger for one of his Tutsi neighbors, he went and found the husband had been killed. the widow and her 22-year old daughter Aline. He took the widow and daughter Aline to his house for safety. All around them, other Tutsis in the neighborhood were hunted down and massacred. Jean hid Aline and her mother in a compost pit in his backyard. When the killings were over, they came out of the hole, but chose to stay at Jean’s house for another three months. The danger was not just for the neighbors, though. Jean was now accused of being ‘pro-Tutsi’ by neighbors who had supported the killings of the Tutsis. It became more and more serious, with people threatening to kill Jean. One evening, Jean asked his wife for advice. She understood the danger posed to the Tutsis’ lives. She advised her husband to take Aline as his second wife, since this act will stop the threats, she said. Jean took the advice, and married Aline. Ten years later, Aline has two children with Jean, and they live happily together with Jean’s first wife and their children, as well as Aline’s mother.
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