Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Burundi Diary: In Troubled Nation, Priests and Bishops Care for People, Work for Peace

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Burundi Diary: In Troubled Nation, Priests and Bishops Care for People, Work for Peace

Article excerpt

While the 1994 genocide in Rwanda received world attention, the conflict in Burundi that took place around the same time unfolded to general indifference. French photojournalist Laurent Larcher accompanied the French Pontifical Mission Society on a fact-finding trip to Rwanda and Burundi in July 2001. The report below looks at the effects of the ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi--violence that claimed the lives of approximately 250,000 people during the 1990s and displaced an estimated 800,000 people. Larcher's diary of the trip captures something of the daily experience of people living in a nation still suffering from war and shows the efforts of the Catholic church to play a role in healing the divisions within Burundi society.

The first stop on our trip to Burundi is its capital city of Bujumbura, located the western side of Lake Tanganyika. The Abbe Gabriel, secretary of the Catholic bishops' conference, welcomes us at the airport. We head for the bishops palace, and on the road we learn that the capital of Burundi is in a state of siege. It is defending itself against the Hutu-dominated National Forces of Liberation, often called the FNL, which is besieging the city in armed rebellion. The FNL doesn't yet have the means to seize Bujumbura, but is acting more as a guerrilla force with raids in villages, ambushes against the army and attacks on roads.

In the streets of the capital, there are armed soldiers everywhere. The uniforms are frequently worn and threadbare, the soldiers often very young. When brief engagements with the rebels take place, the army has the reputation for not distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Starting at 4:30 p.m., the axis roads that link the city with the outside are closed. At 11 p.m. there is curfew. Apart from these restrictions, an almost normal life is possible in the city.

Another rebellion is taking place in the north of the country. This rebel movement is larger, more successful and more dangerous. The Forces for Democratic Defense, the FDD, is also dominated by Hums. Its leader, Jean Bosco, won a name for himself in the Congolese war. Now with the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the path to normalization, Bosco's Hums, supported covertly by the regime in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's capital city, are returning to Burundi. Thus two zones of major tension exist in the country, to which is added the pressure exercised by the refugee camps. In addition to camps of displaced Hutus and Tutsis in the interior, there are camps outside Burundi, mainly in Tanzania, with an estimated 377,000 principally Hutu refugees.

Bishop Evariste Ngoyagoye welcomes us warmly when we arrive at his home. He is surrounded by a cadre of young priests of various ethnic origins. They are happy to see us. "We have the impression we are forgotten," explains one of them. We get to know one another over a local beer. The Arusha accords are discussed. The majority is skeptical: As long as the military leaders of the rebellion will not be invited to the negotiating table, nothing solid can be built. This evening one priest is missing: the Abbe Jonas. Operated on two days ago for appendicitis diagnosed late, this young priest of 35 years is still in an unstable condition. Everybody is worried.

After a short night, everyone at the bishop's palace prepares for one of the most important days of the year. Today, seven seminarians of the diocese will be ordained priests. The ceremony will be held in a symbolic place: Ngara, one of three districts north of the capital. Last Feb. 27, the FNL laid siege to Kinama, near Ngara. The army retook Kinama March 10. There were hundreds of deaths, principally of civilians. Houses must be reconstructed and a climate of trust reestablished.

Fragile peace

"The social tissue is fragile," explains the Abbe Gabriel. "It is still marked by the massacres of October 1993 and those of 1995. …

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