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Interview: Theo Mbazumutima, director of Rema aid agency

24 January 2020

‘Peacebuilding is not an event but a life journey’

Rema is a Kirundi word used to encourage people in difficult times. Rema Burundi is a peace-building, non-denominational Christian NGO. It was founded by a group of Burundian refugees living in exile in Nairobi, who returned to Burundi in 2004.

We focus on the long-term reintegration of forced migrants and returnees, and our overall strategy is to provide support to displaced people so that they can build the confidence needed to solve their own problems through constructive dialogue and advocacy.

Rema works in partnership with grass-roots organisations representing these forced migrants and returnees, and collaborates with other human-rights organisations, key government players, and Burundian legislative institutions.

That someone wrote a book about my story — My Country Wept* — was a big privilege. It was a really big encouragement that somebody, somewhere, could believe in me.

It’s essentially accurate — although I recently discovered that I was wrong on my marriage date.

I had a tour in the UK just over a year ago, speaking in different churches about the book, and then sharing what we’re doing to build peace in Burundi.

Sue Claydon of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship came to hear me speak, and nominated me for the Wilson/Hinkes Peace Award for 2019, which I won. I feel very encouraged and surrounded by such a cloud of peace witnesses. This award was a great encouragement, not only to me but also to the whole team of Rema Burundi and all our voiceless beneficiaries, who are mostly living at the margins of our society.

I grew up in a rural area to parents who had just been married during a massive civil war. As I grew up, I came to learn how my society was very unfair towards selected groups of people. My dad had been one of the victims. Everything I looked at, everything I touched, the poverty around me, reminded me of this injustice. Some of my cousins were not lucky like me to have their dads alive, as they had been killed in the 1970s.

I wanted to be educated and save my parents from their poverty — although they were better than most of our neighbours. The 1990s were even harder, and we were displaced to Tanzania. When we came back, 15 years later, we could not go back home. Although we now have a far better life than we used to have, everything around us — our new neighbours, the landscape — are all reminders that we are now permanently displaced people.

I grew up in church, as my parents took me to Sunday school; but my faith become firm with my involvement in the Scripture Union at my secondary school. There, I started to think seriously about God and my life. The environment was not always conducive for good discipleship, but I found friends who took salvation matters seriously.

I ended up becoming one of the leaders of a school Christian Union, and this had a tremendous impact on my life as a Christian. But there were also issues of social injustices and discrimination that kept reminding me that something was wrong in our society, and that all we had was just negative peace. The worst of things — the 1993 civil war — was, however, yet to come.

On 21 October 1993, the President of Burundi was killed. It became quickly obvious that Hutu children had no place in school. The situation [between the Tutsi and Hutu communities] became very tense, and it was reminiscent of what had happened to our parents in the ’70s. We had heard the stories; we knew how children were killed in schools, then. I had quickly to leave the school, located in the central part of the country, and walk east-south towards Tanzania, where I hoped my life would be secure.

By the time I came back to Burundi in 2007, there were pull factors: security had improved, the political climate was less tense following a political negotiation in Arusha, and the protagonists had agreed to build peace together.

There were also some push factors: I knew God had reserved a mission for me to serve my fellow countrymen and participate in peace-building and durable solutions for the many people who were displaced. God had invested a lot in my preparation: training, raising friends with whom I was going to work.

For me, working for peace means standing alongside the victim — in solidarity with them, enabling them to stand for their right in a non-violent way; for violence leads to even more violence, and it never achieves peace. It is an active involvement with the oppressor, not only telling them that what they are doing is wrong, but embarking them on a road of transformation so that they, too, may become peace agents.

And, finally, it’s bringing about a change from structural violence to social justice and positive peace. All this will bring a culture of peace to replace a culture of violence. Peacebuilding is not an event but a life journey.

The hardest thing to do is to convince people that violence and war do not pay. People think that violence is the short cut to peace. This is what superpowers think when they want to “discipline” dictators. This is what married people think when they are in disagreement with their spouses. Communities organise wars against the other communities in the hope that they can quickly resolve their problems. Research has shown that wars are expensive in terms of time and human and financial resources; yet people still pursue violence as a solution to violence. This seems to be the hardest lesson to put across — that active peacemaking pays, not violence.

The bravest thing is to forgive those who wronged us. For me, this was almost impossible, and I believe it takes a miracle from Jesus to do it. Brave people may fail this, because forgiving is not in our nature.

The power of forgiveness and love is surprising. Forgiving our enemies is truly disarming them. On the contrary, fighting them empowers their violent faculty, as they become even worse.

The most rewarding time was when I worked on land conflicts between the returnees and host communities. I was really happy to see how dialogue resolves conflicts which could hardly be addressed in court systems.

Social injustice is the real problem in our country. Exclusion — whether clothed in ethnic differences, religion, regions, or sex — is the major problem. So long as this is not addressed, the nightmare is not over yet. If violence took the Hutu/Tutsi shape yesterday, it will take another shape tomorrow.

I hope that beyond my story people can see God’s love. I feel the book gives a hint of God’s grace through my life. But it cannot be a true representation of his mercy for me: he did far more than I can tell in a book.

Yes, there are so many more things I would still like to do. I’m saddened by the hopelessness among our unemployed young people. Even if I could do something small to encourage some to build their lives, that would be really good.

I’m really angry when my team at Rema miss a deadline. And I miss them often!

Hanging around with friends and a coffee is what makes me happy. I invest in friends.

I love to sit by my window and hear the sound of non-violent rain coming through the banana plantations, and falling on their leaves — peacefully.

The social capital in the stable families which we have in Burundi gives me hope for the future. Even when people are poor and have less, they still support one another.

I always pray for peace in Burundi. You have to lose peace to know how precious it is.

If I had to spend time locked in a church with anyone, I’d like it to be with a wonderful worship team, and I’d sing to quench my thirst. I love singing. I hope one day that we could form a 12-million-member choir in Burundi, and worship together without differences of any kind.

Theo Mbazumutima was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Rema UK (remauk.org) works in partnership with Rema Burundi.

* My Country Wept, by Jessica Komanapalli, is published by Authentic at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99).

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