Burundi is the country where we have gone furthest in applying our approach. We became engaged there in 1994, shortly after the unspeakable genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Spending less than $3 million a year at our peak, we believe we played a key role in moving the country back from the edge. We carried out our work mostly from the bottom-up, and it was combined with high-level mediation led by Nelson Mandela and the South African government that led to a political settlement, national elections, and interethnic power sharing. While Burundi remains fragile, the progress was extraordinary. The following are key components of our Burundi engagement.
In early 1995 in Bujumbura, we set up a radio production facility, called Studio Ijambo to produce balanced, non-inflammatory programming. In Rwanda, hate radio had incited the killers. We used radio to do the opposite: to defuse violence and build bridges. We recruited a team of journalists – both Tutsis and Hutus. They were often considered traitors to their ethnic group because they were working for the common good. Our programming was broadcast by all the radio stations in the country. From the beginning our largest customer in Burundi was the country’s National Radio. In our peak years, we were producing 15 hours a week of original programming.
Mixed Hutu/Tutsi reporting teams were able to go where neither could go alone and traveled to even remote corners of the country. They provided protection for each other and demonstrated both the reality and perception of balanced reporting. When the government and rebel groups were out of contact, we initiated parallel interviews, which allowed the various factions to hear each other’s perspectives over the airwaves. We invited rebel leaders for telephone interviews, and convened roundtable discussions of government, political party, and civil society leaders.
Our most popular programming was a twice-weekly, radio soap opera series, Our Neighbors, Ourselves. The series, written by a Burundian playwright, told the story of a Hutu family and a Tutsi family who, during 616 episodes, succeeded in peacefully resolving their disputes. Polling showed the series was heard by 87% of the population.
ABC Nightline’s Ted Koppel called our radio programming “the voice of hope.”
Women’s Peace Center
An effective part of our multi-pronged strategy in Burundi was our Women’s Peace Center. Established in 1996, the Center sought to mobilize women as peacemakers. It worked with thousands of women’s associations across the country in organizing, training, and facilitating interethnic dialogue, providing information about women’s rights, and helping resettle internally displaced people. In sum, it was a venue for reaching across the division and bringing the country back together. Consider this story:
Léonie Barakomeza and Yvonne Ryakiye were born in the same locality but did not know each other. In 1993, fighting broke out, and their community was destroyed. Léonie and her fellow Tutsis fled to one side of the river; Yvonne and the Hutus went to the other. In 1996, the two met through Search for Common Ground’s Women’s Peace Center and began working together. Unlike most of their neighbors, they were willing to cross the river that separated them. Accused of treason to their group, they persisted. Other women followed their example, and links grew. They created a women’s association and urged people to return home. Despite meager means, they pooled resources and built 40 brick houses for both Tutsi and Hutu families. Their efforts were recognized, when, along with eight other Burundian women, they were nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.
Young militia members, paid a few dollars a day by military and political leaders, carried out most of the actual violence in Burundi. In 1999, we began an effort to provide alternatives for these youths. It was originally known as the Working with Killers project. One of the first events was a workshop of 30 ethnically-mixed youth who gathered on a Saturday afternoon. Participants talked, played cards, and made music. As the evening wore on, no one wanted go to sleep. The adults finally declared that it was time for bed. There was silence. We learned a lesson about holding workshops for violent enemies: No one feels safe sleeping. Finally, assurances from the adults, plus fatigue, won out, and they went to bed. In the morning, having survived the night, the Hutu and Tutsi youth looked at each other with fresh eyes. They began to talk more deeply, and they discovered the common ground: Both felt exploited by political leaders.
This group became the core of our youth activities. We provided funding, a platform, food, and process suggestions. They organized ethnically mixed soccer tournaments, and they began to tell their stories through comic books, which they wrote and illustrated. They related the horrors they had seen – for example, watching victims die horrible deaths. The comic books were so compelling that the Burundian Ministry of Education added them to the curriculum material for the country’s schools.
Violent conflict is not an intellectual exercise, and in Burundi, as elsewhere, we want to reach people on the emotional level. Therefore, we make wide use of cultural activities. And in Burundi, this meant drumming and dancing. We organized national competitions and held giant festivals in Bujumbura. Studio Ijambo employed a full time disk jockey, and we produced music for peace radio programs. We even enlisted Jamaican reggae star, Ziggy Marley (son of Bob Marley), who has a huge following in Burundi, to record public service announcements (PSAs).
Domestic Shuttle Diplomacy
While diplomats played an extremely important role in Burundi, we realized that conflict resolution would benefit greatly from unofficial and continuing mediation and facilitation. In 1995, we brought in Jan van Eck, a former South African ANC Member of Parliament, to promote dialogue and help solve problems among leaders of conflicting parties, outside official peace talks. He worked directly for us for two years, and independently for another ten. During this whole period, Jan spent about half his time in Burundi. He became a widely trusted intermediary who was in contact with virtually every party to the conflict, including rebel groups with whom almost no one else was talking, and he facilitated many agreements – small and large.