Episcopal Church in Burundi supporting fragile peace process

January 13, 2000

A delegation from the Anglican Peace and Justice Network (APJN) returned from a late-November trip to Burundi sobered by the continuing violence but cautiously hopeful that the fragile peace process may have a chance.

"We were eager to express our solidarity with members of the Episcopal Church in Burundi, to listen to their stories of faith and suffering, and to encourage their participation in peace efforts. But we also wanted to see the situation for ourselves," said the Rev. Brian Grieves, the Episcopal Church's director of peace and justice ministries. Bishop Pie Ntukamazina had issued an open invitation.

Burundi gained its independence from Belgium in 1962 and struggled with democracy until 1966 when ethnic Tutsis dominated the government. That lasted until 1993 when a new democracy was established. The assassination of the new president after just three months in office unleashed an era of chaos and retributions by the ethnic Hutu factions. The genocide killed an estimated 150,000 Tutsi and, since then, another 50,000-100,000 people have been killed in civil strife.

A 1996 coup "had the effect of calming the chaos that had gripped the country since 1993," the delegation report said. "After a tense period, and with the helpful intervention of the Episcopal Church of Burundi and others, the elected National Assembly or parliament resumed its functions," forming a government of national unity.

"Since that time a painfully slow peace process has been established with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania serving as mediator" in a process named for the Tanzanian city of Arusha where the meetings were held. The struggle has been to include those rebel groups who have engaged in armed conflict throughout the country. "A cease-fire to end the violence is not possible until these factions are brought into negotiations," the delegation concluded.

Atmosphere of distrust

"There is enormous distrust among the various political groups," the report observed. "Civil society has a very low regard of politicians," regarding some of them as "perpetrators of the genocide." Yet there are signs of hope because "the government and political parties working within the country have made impressive strides in reaching agreement on a framework for peace and a new government."

The agreements call for a transition period of five years and a period of "democratic consolidation" for another five years. And there is agreement on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled on the experience in South Africa. "The progress in developing these agreements is remarkable given the recent genocide," the report said. Yet the efforts have not been supported by the international community, provoking resentment in various parts of the government.

The death of Nyerere has threatened to halt the peace process, but Nelson Mandela, who retired recently as president of South Africa, will assume the role of mediator and "bring new impetus to the pursuit of a just peace."

The delegation learned very quickly that the relations between Tutsis and Hutus are "very complicated," concluding that "it is simplistic and even racist stereotyping" to assume that each hates the other. "Certainly, there is no doubt that there are factions in both ethnic groups who exploit ethnic differences and fuel hatred and commit horrendous atrocities. But it is also obvious that most Hutus and Tutsis are prepared to live together as neighbors much as they have done for centuries prior to the arrival of the colonists."

While it is easy for many in the international community to reduce the conflict to an ethnic one, the team observed that "many persons from the two ethnic groups, both in the church and the government, working together to overcome the chaos and discord created by the genocide.

In reality, attempts to forge a peace agreement are complicated by divisions in the neighboring states of the area called the Great Lakes region. An accord that has attempted to end the conflict in the region "is extremely fragile and appears to be unraveling," warned the report. "The delegation was very disturbed by the extent to which the violence is perpetuated as a direct consequence of arms transfers."

A role for the church

"The Episcopal Church of Burundi has provided significant leadership during the current conflict, encouraging the different groups to join together for the good of the nation and to forge ahead towards peace," the report concluded. In the wake of the 1996 coup the church's role "may have prevented a further downward spiral of the violence and chaos," serving with other churches as facilitators between the elected officials who went into hiding and the leaders of the coup. "This facilitation process made possible the success of forming the present government of unity" by helping to keep the elected officials in the country.

In its recommendations, the team called on the new mediator for the Arusha talks "to work urgently to bring all legitimate parties into the peace process, with the support of the present groups now in the talks, so that all voices can be heard." And it said that a cease-fire is "the highest priority," followed by the return of all those who have been displaced by the war. It also called on church partners throughout the Anglican Communion to send relief to the church in Burundi to alleviate the suffering in the refugee camps.

The APJN report called for an international inquiry into the arms trade in the area and supported a meeting of Anglican leaders in the Great Lakes area to discuss peace initiatives.

In its conclusion, the team said that it was leaving Burundi more hopeful than when it arrived and would not "underestimate the enormous task that lies ahead for the leadership of the country. But it did find both a faithful church and many men and women in the government who hold the promise and the key to success. The churches role in reconciliation, justice and truth will be crucial to the implementation of any peace agreements," it said.


-James Solheim is director of the Church's Office of News and Information.