“One day, we had a car accident. We were stranded. Luckily, a group came to help us, but I quickly realized they were Hutus. I grew very anxious.“
“On the ground, it could be dangerous for me in a Hutu area because I wasn’t Hutu,” Agnes explains, “Or it could be dangerous for Adrien when we were in a Tutsi area.”
“That day, I looked Adrien in the eye and pleaded, ‘You have to do something.’”
Though from different worlds, Adrien and Agnes were both born and raised in Burundi.
Growing up, Agnes thought she’d be a judge like her father. But by high school, Agnes wanted to become a journalist, to push Burundians to face—and improve—their country. Adrien, too, loved journalism, so he applied to the University of Burundi.
But in 1993, political tensions and violence sparked massacres throughout the country.
Many of Adrien’s professors and fellow students were murdered. He only survived by a quirk of fate; he was traveling out of the country that day. Agnes also suffered. Many relatives were murdered in reprisal killings. Her mother fled the country.
“Hutus and Tutsis used to live together in the same neighborhoods, but now Tutsis were chased out—and the same for Hutus,” Agnes remembers. She summoned strength from her commitment: “To do our job as journalists, we must transcend what is happening.”
“Our common ground was suffering.”
She asked her colleagues, “Do you feel like you are more Hutu or Tutsi than Burundian?” Adrien was the only one who responded that he was more Burundian: “I am a journalist first.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, one that would save their lives more than once.
Together, Agnes and Adrien founded Search for Common Ground’s Studio Ijambo, the first multi-ethnic radio production company in their region. It was 1995, just after the Rwandan Genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were murdered by their neighbors in just 100 days.
Hate-filled radio programs ignited the genocide. It spilled over into Burundi, another reason our new strategy is to focus not on national boundaries but on the boundaries of a conflict. Agnes and Adrien fought hate radio by crafting the first independent programs.
Agnes and Adrien received threats for working together. “We would share a bottle of beer,” Adrien remembers, “and others would look at us and say, ‘How can you share with her?’”
The Minister of Defense even called Agnes an ‘ethnic traitor’ – equivalent to a death sentence.
“I was nervous sometimes,” Adrien confesses. “We had many difficult conversations… but we can still work together. We have differences, but we are not that different.”
That fateful day, stranded on the road, Adrien reached out to the Hutus who came to help them.
“Who is she?” they questioned, glaring at Agnes.
“She’s a colleague. She’s a very good person….” Adrien explained.
Eventually, Agnes remembers, “He brought them around to see me as a person, not just a different ethnicity.”
“It works. We were protecting each other.”
As a team, they could go places no other journalists could and get both sides of the story. Even those who called them traitors listened to Studio Ijambo. It was the only reliable news source.
Over time, Agnes and Adrien began to hear stories of Burundians who, like they, had protected people from the other ethnic group.
“We started highlighting heroes,” Adrien explains, “those who risked their lives during massacres and killings. Hutus who saved Tutsis and vice versa, who had never been heard of. We searched out these people and aired their testimonies. First, they were perceived as traitors. Over time, they came to be heroes because they hid their ‘enemies’ and saved their lives.
“We called them ikingi or ‘pillars’ of humanity. We organized a national summit of heroes,” Adrien continues. “So people could see: there are reliable people, people who care about human lives, people who deserve respect.” They were farmers and military officers and business people–from every walk of life. Within a year, the country went from not talking openly about ethnicity to those heroes of humanity standing on stage together, for all to see.
George Moose, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the time, credited Search’s Studio Ijambo with helping prevent genocide.
You can empower such pillars of humanity, who risk their lives to protect their so-called enemies, healing hatred and violence. By supporting Search’s local teams around the world, you stand with them; you share their suffering. Together, we can stop genocide, atrocities, and war.
It’s happening around the world. In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims are standing together to protect each other and share each other’s pain.
Islam and Christianity are the two largest religions in Nigeria. The religious divide is intertwined with ethnic, political, and socio-economic tensions. In the midst of poverty, unemployment, inequality, and corruption, religions now perceive each other as a major threat.
Tensions flare up in riots, killings, and destruction of property, including attacks on holy sites.
The destruction of places of worship hits people at the core of their identity and reinforces religious tensions. The violent extremist group Boko Haram exploits these divides, attacking holy sites to exacerbate religious conflict and incite community violence.
This year, Search’s Nigeria team identified key religious leaders with widespread influence in their communities. We brought them together in national, regional, and local events.
For most, it was a first-time experience.
One Muslim attendee confessed, “Recently, I was invited to a church program. I refused; I feared how society would perceive it. This meeting has given me the courage to attend such events.”
As a starting place for cooperation, we pitched the idea that places of worship should be safeguarded, even in the midst of violent conflict. At our national event, major Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leaders signed onto the Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites. Developed by Search and our partners, the Code recommends guidelines and policies to protect sacred places worldwide.
This isn’t just a kumbaya session. It’s a roadmap for action.
One Christian leader bemoaned the many worship centers destroyed in his state. He now believes that faith communities can work together to reconstruct each other’s mosques and churches and restore trust. A Muslim participant agreed, saying, “I’m excited at the depth of practicality, showing interreligious collaboration can yield real results.”
Participants also committed to reduce religious hate speech, noting that it can increase recruitment by groups like Boko Haram. One Christian leader reflected, “We now recognize religious leaders have a role in addressing conflict. We have a moral responsibility to speak up and protect all, no matter the religion.”
Nigeria joins communities in Jerusalem, Indonesia, India, and more in endorsing the Code. Senior leaders from over ten faiths and numerous religious institutions have also signed.
Like these leaders, we all have a choice: to isolate within our own identities or to protect those who are different. Here are four ways you can be a protector:
- Urge your faith community to adopt the Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites.
- Learn how to protect victims of verbal and physical violence in your neighborhood with a practical guide from our partner I Am Your Protector.
- Help us test our new mobile game, Battle for Humanity, that builds real-life heroes.
- Give now. Support our local teams in Nigeria, Burundi, and around the world. They risk their lives to protect their own and each other’s communities.
When you don’t feel like reaching out across the aisle or the tracks, remember Fatima.
A Lebanese woman, Fatima resented Syrian refugees overwhelming her country and taking precious food, homes, and jobs. After spending time with them in our program, she changed. Years later, Fatima still has Syrian friends. She teaches English to Syrian and Lebanese children. What changed? “We also lived through war,” she realized. “We share the Syrian’s suffering.”
Like Fatima, you can stand with victims of violence in your community and around the world. Show them they are not alone. We share their suffering.
One simple step is to give. We need to raise at least $260,000 from individuals like you before the end of 2017 to keep up our critical work.
Will you give now to empower local heroes, risking their lives to build peace?GIVE NOW
President & CEO