Freeland resident works for peace in Burundi

Burundi children pose with an HROC facilitator. Part of Jeanne Strong’s work in Burundi was to educate students in peace-building and healing.

Recent headlines from Burundi paint a portrait of turmoil as citizens protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement to extend his time in office. Amidst the building violence and strife, a group of Burundi peace workers are actively attempting to facilitate communication and understanding amongst their fellow citizens.

In March 2014, Freeland resident Jeanne Strong traveled to Burundi and assisted the activists in their work.

Strong, like the Burundian peace workers, is a Quaker and proponent for peace and understanding between conflicting groups. She is also an educator, and has traveled to Africa on seven separate occasions to assist with various projects including building schools and training fellow teachers.

Strong will discuss her most recent trip during a talk entitled “Lessons in Non-Violence from African Peace-builders.” The talk will take place from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, May 16 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Freeland.

Though she had been planning the talk for several weeks, Strong said, she is thankful for the coincidental timeliness of the event.

In recent days, conditions on the streets of Burundi have steadily worsened.

Nkurunziza has served two consecutive terms and has announced his intention to extend his time in office for a third. Many say his actions are unconstitutional, and argue that he is the cause of much of the nation’s trouble. Citizens are demanding a free election.

The European Union and Belgium have suspended financial assistance to the small Central African country because of the government’s violent response to citizens’ opposition of the president.

Strong said she has received correspondence from friends in the area who say roads are blocked and it is increasingly unsafe to go outdoors.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, 50,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda and other neighboring countries. 

Prior to these recent developments, Strong said the country was still entrenched in the process of attempting to heal from trauma such as the 1994 genocide and associated civil war. The civil war lasted until 2005.

Strong worked alongside workers for a program called Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC). The program is connected with the African Great Lakes Initiative, which was developed by the Friends Peace Teams.

Africa is home to more Quakers than anywhere else in the world, Strong said.

The HROC philosophy is in tune with Quaker principles, Strong said. In everyone, there is something good; each person has the inner capacity to be good; both perpetrators and victims of violence suffer as a result of violence; and healing from trauma must be done both individually and as a part of a community.

Strong and cohorts such as Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) founder Adrien Niyongabo are firm believers in the notion that, rather than finding a way to peace, peace is the way.

Strong worked with HROC to help lead a three-day retreat with 28 women, many of whom were teachers, and several children. She also helped to facilitate group sharing and trust walks, in which half of the participants were blindfolded and led by a partner. She also developed a curriculum for teachers to continue to work with students toward healing and understanding.

After the training, Strong said that many of the educators expressed a powerful degree of change and healing.

One in particular wrote that she had previously been suicidal, having felt nothing but grief and pain since 1993. She had felt that God had abandoned her. Realizing that others had sustained similar psychological wounds helped her to heal, she said.

Another said that HROC training had led her to realize the impact of political strife and the community’s suffering on the children.

Strong noted that the scars of genocide and war are still visible across Burundi. A memorial which reads “never again” in French sits at the site of a former school where 300 Tutsi students were burned to death.

When teachers returned to the classroom after training, they instructed children to draw a picture, either of something hurtful or of something they were grateful for.

All of the students drew scenes of war, Strong said. One in particular illustrated his sister’s suicide.

“That’s pretty amazing for a 13-year-old to say, ‘My sister hung herself because she didn’t want to be raped,’ ” Strong said.

One of the most significant lessons Strong learned while in Burundi was the power of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness has almost become a part of the culture in a way that really was moving for me,” Strong said of the Burundi people.

She also recognized how much both perpetrators and victims suffer from violent acts, and witnessed the importance of allowing each individual a space to share their story.

“You can’t hate someone if you know their story,” Strong said.

HROC has nearly 100 facilitators in Burundi as well as several in neighboring Rwanda.

“These remarkable people in this time right now are standing strong and are willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe,” Strong said, adding that she hopes their active presence will avert another civil war.

“It’s so tragic that the people themselves only want peace,” Strong said. “The power-hungry government officials are destabilizing what the people want.”