There is very little about Bujumbura that looks like a country emerging from a civil war. The buildings are shiny and new, the main roads smooth, it has a snazzy new airport terminal, new buildings are going up everywhere, and the people are no different from those in any other small African city. This is fitting; Burundi has made enormous strides in the last few years, successfully integrating some rebels into the army and demobilising the rest, holding successful multiparty elections, and expanding free primary education nationwide for the first time.
Looking deeper, the impact of the war is clear. There are the physical hints; like in Northern Uganda, every other car bears the logo of an NGO or international organisation, and Burundians seem to use the word ‘Peace’ in signs for everything from supermarkets to Forex bureaus. It is also clear in the lack of development in the city; compared to other regional capitals, such as Kampala or Kigali, Bujumbura is tiny, and underdeveloped. While driving home we see people washing in the drainage ditches in the middle of the road; a sure sign of poverty. But more importantly, when people talk, they refer back to the war. Pierre Claver, the country director of Survivor Corps, who I will be working with this summer, tells me that all of his siblings abandoned the Catholic Church for Protestantism, ‘because of the war’. I share a Primus (or seven) with my hosts, Nana and Bryan, and some of their friends, and the conversation turns to the war – talk of bullets overhead, bombs landing, and arrests for breaking curfew. In the afternoon we meet General Joseph, a former rebel now working for the government on the DDR programme. I am expecting someone middle aged or older, but to my surprise he is no older than his mid-thirties; war makes young leaders. He is, however, fascinating to talk to; he tells us that they are currently working with between 33,000 and 35,000 former combatants of all ethnicities, ages and genders.
We also met Eric, director of CEDAC, an umbrella organisation for former combatants, a massively motivated man who is working for free alongside his studies, committed to promoting reconciliation between former combatants of different sides, and their victims. He talks about the need to get the two sides talking, to provide economic alternatives to violence, and about the Peaceful Elections campaign, where former combatants are trained to promote the importance of democracy and peaceful elections.
Both of these early meetings have left me profoundly optimistic about Burundi’s future, But perhaps the most hopeful sign came in the conversation with my hosts, when Bryan’s brother, who lives in Canada and who hasn’t returned to Burundi in the last ten years, told me that he has been back twice in the last two years, and is thinking of returning to Burundi with his family. Although I am aware that the situation will appear differently in rural areas, I am very much look forward to meeting some of the survivors who work with Survivor Corps and CEDAC, and helping tell some of their stories about the work they are doing to promote peace in the country.
Posted By Laura Gordon
Posted Jun 11th, 2009