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Last Updated: 07/14/2003
Post tenebras lux
Athanase Karayenga

The Burundi war is sordid like all the other wars in the world. For this reason it must not be singled out. Burundi is plunged into mourning by a violence that the international community, out of ignorance or oversimplification, tends to simply portray as an ethnic war between Hutus and Tutsis, fanned by ancestral antagonism between these two communities. It’s utterly wrong. The Burundi war is complex and frightfully modern. It is a war for trifling political power and control of the resources. It simply uses the most fallacious pretexts (ethnic group, region, political affiliation) to disguise its true face. In so doing, it utterly resembles so many other armed conflicts in the world.

Post Tenebras Lux

“It is not the belligerents, the main responsible for massacres and other violations, who are the most numerous victims of this sordid war, but rather children, women and old people”.


In just one sentence, extracted from her report to the Fifty-ninth Session of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, this spring of 2003, Mrs Keita-Bocoum, Special Rapporteur, describes the war which has been devastating Burundi since ten years and portrays it in all its horror and absurdity.  This war is sordid indeed.  But what unbearable truths hide behind this discreet and diplomatic language?  In actual fact, countless taboos have crumbled during the Burundi war and the most sacred moral references have been destroyed. 

Children abducted and forcibly enlisted in the fighting troops.  Old people, so much respected in traditional society but massacred mercilessly.  Countless rapes of women perpetrated with untold cruelty.  And yet the word rape is untranslatable and has no equivalent in the Burundian language!  In this sordid Burundi war, the most unspeakable torture has been inflicted upon women in particular.  It should be exposed in strong terms and with particular indignation


Opening of the wombs of pregnant women to massacre the foetuses. Driving stakes into their sexes.  Babies crushed in mortars.  People burnt alive in their homes. Casualties thrown into latrines or buried alive.  Survivors prevented from returning to their homes and their lands and living like hunted animals in makeshift camps, under plastic sheeting provided by relief organizations.  Mass destruction of schools and hospitals.  Cattle relentlessly massacred.  The main  forest in the country, Kibira, and natural reserves transformed into guerrilla headquarters.  Centuries old trees delivered to the saw and transformed into ordinary wood boards for the market.  Such crimes committed against nature and the environment are akin to  “Ecocide”, the ecological genocide, already condemned by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishmnet of the Crime of Genocide.

The object of the listing of such dreadful exactions is not to shock or arouse indignation and consternation.  It aims at exposing a war whose violence has reached a degree of unacceptable barbarity.  Burundi has lost the references of human society and has plunged into the red zone of inhumanity.  Particularly since the assassinations of President Melchior Ndadaye and some of the  highest-ranking dignitaries of the Republic in October 1993, followed by a widespread massacre of civilians.  Massacres which, as a matter of fact, have not ceased for ten years.  In Burundi, impunity covers political assassinations, crimes against humanity, war crimes and, worse still, genocides.

Burundian traditional society was not punishing extreme criminal deviance by life imprisonment or death penalty.  It was punishing criminals who took up arms against the nation, the “bamenja”, with moral sanctions that are even more serious than the loss of freedom.  Banishment (guca), forced exile (kwangaza) and property dispossession (kunyaga) would have been applied to the current belligerents because they hurt the country and wound the human nature which Burundians share with all the other peoples in the world.

Today, on the contrary, “bamenja” are scrambling to share the posts most in the public eye in Government, Administration, the National Assembly and the Senate.  However, one should beware of two dangerous temptations.  On the one hand, dismissing all the politicians, military and rebels and, on the other hand, affirming that they “are all rotten and all culprits”.  This would be a terrible injustice.  This is so because the sacred principle of the innocence of people, even when presumed guilty, must prevail absolutely, so long as a court of law has not delivered any judgement on them. 


Admittedly, not all Burundians are guilty of the crimes exposed above.  But they all are responsible.  Indeed, what have they done, individually or collectively, to prevent the country from falling into the abysses of hell?  Where are the intellectuals, where are hiding the civil society and the famous justices of the peace as well as the traditional conciliators, the “bashingantahe”, instead of proclaiming quite openly their radical opposition to this inadmissible moral drift and effectively demanding that this dirty war cease.  Right now and without any conditions. 


The Burundi war is sordid like all the other wars in the world. For this reason it must not be singled out.  Burundi is plunged into mourning by a violence that the international community, out of ignorance or oversimplification, tends to simply portray as an ethnic war between Hutus and Tutsis, fanned by ancestral antagonism between these two communities.  It’s utterly wrong.  The Burundi war is complex and frightfully modern.  It is a war for trifling political power and control of the resources. It simply uses the most fallacious pretexts (ethnic group, region, political affiliation) to disguise its true face.  In so doing, it utterly resembles so many other armed conflicts in the world. 


War is sordid in the Kurdish cities gassed by Saddam Hussein, in the Algerian guerrilla warfare, in Chechnya, in Jenine, a Palestinian town martyred by the Israeli army, in the Israeli buses blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers, in the villages of Bosnia and Kosovo dislocated by ethnic cleansing, in the Colombian jungle where thousands of hostages are regarded as a common bargaining counter. War is sordid in Ituri, an area of the North-East of Congo-Kinshasa, where even cannibalism has just made a resounding entry into the museum of the weapons of mass destruction of populations.


In Burundi, just like anywhere else in the world, war does not constitute the final solution to settle a conflict when all the other solutions have failed.  Quite to the contrary, it is the most stupid solution to settle real or presumed conflicts between human groups. As a result, Burundians would be wrong in thinking that their civil war is special or specific.  Burundians are neither worse nor better than the other African peoples which have suffered or are still suffering from the devastations of war. Biafra, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, to name but a few, have known or are still undergoing violence which appals human conscience. 

At present, Burundians must be courageous enough to look straight in the face at the violence which they inflict upon one another.  Because such violence puts the country out of the standards of human societies, on the fringes of humankind.  It is necessary for them to recognize the magnitude of their tragedy as other people did before them.  Germany recognized and expressed her regrets for the gas chambers, the holocaust and the Nazi crimes. France recognized and regretted the torture inflicted upon Algerian fighters.  South Africa, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recognized the abominable crimes of apartheid.  Rwanda and Sierra Leone are prosecuting the instigators of genocide and other crimes against humanity.  Even though the legal system applied in these two countries remains imperfect and have serious flaws.  As a matter of fact, the International Criminal Court for Sierra Leone is only prosecuting the organizers and not the executors of the “short or long sleeve” torture. This is a cynical and cruel mutilation of the victims by chopping off their limbs at the level of the forearm or above the elbow.  The International Criminal Tribunal of Arusha is, for its part, a perverse system for the Rwandan genocide victims because their rights to compensation cannot be executed by the international jurisdiction. 


It is crucial therefore for Burundians to desist once for all from the incredible violence they generate chronically.  For this people, the most dangerous attitude would be to isolate itself and wallow in self-pity, refusing to assume full responsibility for the disgrace, not to take up the rebuilding of the broken memory of the nation and not to revive the desire to live together.  As a matter of fact, no political legitimacy will be possible if this painful therapy is not undertaken, if justice is not done, if the rights of the victims are not recognized and if mourning is not lifted according to the tradition of “kuganduka”. 


Moreover, the war has ruined the State, businesses and families. If Burundi wants to become again a developing country, at least, after having plunged into dire poverty, if the country wants to recover dignity and respect in the entente between nations, then the task of rebuilding the memory of the nation is an absolute priority.  To be a Burundian should no longer be synonymous with the shame which the generations will carry in their hearts as one indelible curse. 


In a caricatured way, one could think that Burundians, just like other humans, lack “an essential software” in their genetic inheritance.  Indeed, humankind seems to be unable to give priority to peaceful resolution of conflicts through non-violent means. Software developers should take up the task! 

A piece of advice to teachers too.  Indeed, according to the best specialists, culture, information and education constitute the most effective means of developing such a software designed “to construct the defences of peace in the minds” as stated by the first sentence of the UNESCO Constitution.  For education in particular, it is necessary to move very quickly.  Because, as pointed out by H.G. Wells, “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.


And in this connection, the latest Iraqi war provided the world opinion with a gripping illustration of such a desperate race between education and catastrophe.  Millions of TV viewers saw the mother of Jessica Lynch, the 19 year-old girl, presented, wrongly, as it appears, as the emblematic heroin of this war by American propaganda.  When the mother learned that the girl was a captive of the Iraqi troops, she said, anguished to death - which parent in the world would not be? - that her daughter had enlisted in the army to earn money and pay for teacher training tuition fees.  Did you read correctly?  In order to be trained for the noblest possible profession, viz. the education of children, Jessica Lynch had first to enlist in the army of her country whose supreme leaders promised the Iraqi people “shock and awe”!


This Iraqi war, which, incidentally, was justified by a ludicrous lie about weapons of mass destruction that the Baghdad regime was said to possess, has also provided its share of unbearable horrors.  Haven't its instigators just stated, seriously, that this pretext was put forward and exaggerated only for “bureaucratic” reasons? Since force is put at the service of power and not that of law and morals, then the world can tremble!  The globalisation of cruelty, barbarity and blind violence is making great strides. 


In defence of Burundians, though this is a meagre consolation, it is to be noted that even the international community, which is more powerful and better organized, failed to spare the world the terrifying sight of massacres, injuries, destruction of infrastructures, looting of hospitals and banks and... ransack of Iraqi museums.

If the fanatic proponents of the shock of civilizations, the fundamentalist promoters of wars of religion, the torturers, the dictators and the genociders of any country and of all types wanted to crucify Jesus, today, and drive nails into his hands, they could not do so any more.  Because Jesus was born in Baghdad.  His family was decimated by an American surgical bombardment.  His body is burnt and mutilated.  He is twelve years old.  His name is Ali.  He has no arms any more. 


Against the darkness into which a “sordid war” has plunged Burundi, Kirimba, a group of intellectuals from Burundi, will try, in a modest way, to oppose the lights of knowledge, science and ancestral wisdom.  Against the obscurantism and silly ethnic discrimination which inspire the current Burundian political institutions, Kirimba will propose the lights of citizenship and human rights.  Ubuntu (humanism), Intahe (rule of the Law) and Intwaro Rusangi (Democracy) can rebuild Burundian society devastated by war and bring about the renaissance of the country.  The motto of Geneva “Post Tenebras Lux” (After darkness, the light) embodies the dream of Kirimba for Burundi.  The sun rises in its banner. Precisely to express the urgency for our country to enter, at long last, the new Age of Enlightenment.




Athanase Karayenga