Emily Parker interviews Theodore Mbazumutima about his book 'My Country Wept' and how he is using his experience of civil war to help other refugees.
Emily: For those who are unaware could you start off by telling me something about the history of Burundi and the civil war?
Theo: The history of Burundi is probably too long to talk about in a short interview, but maybe just the moments that are most important in that history.
Many people would be familiar today with the civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis, which happened in Rwanda, but not necessarily in Burundi. Around the same time, and long before that, there was also war between Hutus and Tutsis. It was more of a political problem, with the two tribes fighting for power. The two tribes were there before independence, but the animosity between the Hutus and the Tutsis was exaggerated by the arrival of the Belgians as colonisers. They applied 'divide and rule' and prioritised the minority Tutsi, over the majority Hutu. Tutsi were educated and taken up for administrative work, whereas Hutus were left to cultivate the land. A few of the Hutus were educated through the missionary schools. With time, this created a big rift between the two tribes and the educated Hutus started fighting, so that they could also come to power. But this did not work.
After independence things got really bad. My father, who was in primary school after independence in 1962, was a victim of this social and political injustice. For example in schools (and this is what I start the book with) there was great injustice. Children of Hutus were systematically excluded from education or simply not given, what were considered to be, good options like law, economics and medicine. They became teachers or nurses.
So in the 60s and 70s the Hutus started to try to fight for their social justice, political rights, civil rights and socio-economic rights. The struggle continued and there was great repression, which some might even call genocide, by the then Tutsi government in the early 70s. Thousands of Hutu refugees went to Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo and some went to Europe. There were many killings of Hutu children in schools and civil servants who were Hutus or in the army. Many people refer to this as the 1972 Hutu genocide. Most of the children in schools were killed, those in secondary schools especially. A few schools managed to secure the children, who were studying there, but this created a lot of fear among the Hutus to take their children to school. By then my father was still a student, but he stopped going to school. So when I was born, I was born to parents who had not had much education. I start my book with a conversation that I had with my father around that problem. He explained what happened to them and how this would affect me for the rest of my life.
Emily: In the book you share a lot of really key, significant moments. You've lived through an awful lot of hardship, but there have been a number of moments where God provides for you in absolutely miraculous ways. Could you tell me about some of those key moments, particularly how you ended up leaving Burundi when there was a change in the political situation again?
Theo: The political struggle of the Hutus produced fruit in 1993, when the first president was democratically elected.
When I speak about Hutus and Tutsis, I don't mean to say that Tutsis were all bad or that all Hutus were not beneficiaries of the bad regimes that were there. It is simply a way of generalising it for people to understand. Issues were much more complicated and there have always been Tutsis, who also suffered under these regimes. We don't have 'bad Tutsis' and 'good Hutus.'
In 1993 the Hutus came to power and by then I was at secondary school, doing my O Levels. I lived in a boarding school, in the middle of the country, in a town called Gitega. Three months after the president was elected, he was killed by the army. In my mind, I started thinking that what happened to my father was going to happen to me. We had heard all the stories of children who were killed in boarding schools in 1972, so the idea that came into our minds was now we are going to be butchered like my father's generation. The first thing we did was to try and run as quickly as we could and evacuate the schools, because they were potentially places where we could be killed. Those who didn't leave, pretty soon, were killed. Many of my best friends were killed in schools or if they left the school, but didn't manage to get out of the country, were killed trying to run away. In 1993 it was more like a civil war. The Hutus were also killing Tutsis, as a revenge mechanism because they viewed them as having killed their president.
It was not an easy time; my friends and I tried to walk from the central part of the country, Gitega, to Tanzania. Why Tanzania? Where I was born was not very far from Tanzania and I knew that, most likely, if I got to Tanzania I would find my parents if they were still alive. There was a chance I might see one of my relatives that my dad used to tell me about, who had gone to Tanzania in the early 70s. So Tanzania was our best option and we had really miraculous provision by God.
As we were running away we came across a big group of Hutus. We were running away from Tutsis, hoping we would be safe if we got to a group of Hutus. But, here, the Hutus were asking us to prove we were Hutus by standing in solidarity with them and going to kill Tutsis. There were Tutsis in the village who had not managed to escape and had been taken hostage by groups of Hutus. Remember they were in the minority, we're talking about 14% or 15% against 85%. So for those who were not in the centre, where there was the army to protect them, it was very difficult. Many Tutsis died as a result. So this was our test: our own tribesmen were telling us we need to kill Tutsis, so we can prove that we are Hutus. This didn't only happen to us; it happened elsewhere. Failure to do that would mean you would be killed.
We were Christians. I was the eldest boy in our group and they were looking at me. I was also the leader of our school's Scripture Union, so they were looking to me for a word of wisdom. I was still very young. I had never experienced anything like that. I was shivering, but managed to say with a lot of fear that we're Christians, we don't think we should kill. That was enough for them to conclude that we were not Hutus. Being Hutus for them meant we would stand in solidarity with them and kill the Tutsis. So they ordered us to lie down, so they could kill us. I have to say in Rwanda and Burundi lots of people lost their lives in such circumstances. We lay down, and I remember praying. I have to say nobody should see me as a hero, or as somebody who really trusted in God. No, I wasn't even trusting in God at that time. I was thinking I don't know how God can save me because I'm powerless. I don't see what He can do; it's in the middle of nowhere. It was so absurd and difficult to think how we could be saved. I nevertheless prayed, "Lord forgive me and receive me but if, Lord, you can save me please, I will serve you the rest of my life." Those kinds of words I said, but really without a lot of faith. But God is God and He is wonderful in the way He judges and the way He does things. All of a sudden as they were sharpening their pangas, ready to kill us, there was the sound of an aeroplane. I don't know if it was an army helicopter or a different aeroplane, but there had been a rumour that in 1972 Hutus had been killed by an aeroplane. An aeroplane would symbolize the army. Even if it was a commercial aeroplane, a Hutu would run away from it. They were that terrified by aeroplanes. So they ran away and went to hide in the banana plantations, in houses and wherever they could take cover. I heard God tell me "I have saved you; why don't you go?" So I told the boys, "Let's go, God has saved us." We rushed very quickly and this is how we survived that day.
There are so many episodes that I can't tell you all of them in this interview, but they are in the book. It was very difficult to go across the road because the army kept controlling all the tarmacked roads, so they could see if there were Hutus or students running away and they would shoot at you. So we were about to cross this road when the army saw us and started shooting at us, so we ran and kept running. The geography of Burundi or Rwanda is all hills and valleys. In a short time you are down a hill, in the valley or up a hill. We managed to run down the hill into the next valley and lay down there. There was water going over us, but not a lot. The army kept on shooting, not only at us, but also at the population that was there. There were people screaming. After a while they left and none of us were injured, so we continued with our journey.
I could see that God was with us and my faith started growing; God had saved us twice. But it didn't take long before we came across a big group of Tutsis with all sorts of weapons. They closed us in, we were in a big circle, and it was clear they were about to kill us. They were getting ready so that none of us would escape. We were already traumatised by then; we had gone through a lot. Every step was very dangerous. We could be killed by Hutus or by Tutsis. We were with children who looked like Tutsis as well. So it wasn't necessarily safe to be in that Hutu group, or even in a Tutsi group. It isn't easy to say this is a Hutu or this is a Tutsi, just by looking at them. This time the Tutsis were the very guys we were running away from and we had fallen into their hands. There was no doubt they were going to kill us. I prayed, I don't know what I did but it was a prayer out of desperation, not out of faith. I was desperate for God's intervention. I said, "God, will you please forgive us and save us." I couldn't see how God could save us now in this situation.
All of a sudden a young lady, my age, came running from nowhere. I don't know how she had seen us or why she had been there at that time. Some people may call it coincidence, but I think coincidence comes once. It's not through the whole journey that you keep getting saved by coincidences. This lady came and jumped on me and when I looked at her it was Godanse. She was with me at my former school, when I was doing my O Levels, and was a friend of mine. But she had not managed to continue with her education. She failed and in Burundi when you fail you want to go home. We still have that, but it's not as bad as it used to be. Godanse was Tutsi and, because she was my friend, she had seen me. This was her home and she was not far from where we were. All the officials had come to see what was going on. She had seen people were being encircled and were about to be killed. She jumped on me. She did not say a word. She got hold of me, squeezed me, and looked at those guys, no comments, not a single word. It was a freezing moment for minutes, not for one minute but something like five minutes, no movement, nobody moves, she doesn't talk, they don't talk. One person started moving away, another one moved away...I knew that Godanse had decided to die. I didn't know why she didn't die, of course now I believe it was God, but she had taken the decision to die with me. Yes we were friends, but I didn't think we were that close to the extent of her giving me her life. She's Tutsi and I'm Hutu. I don't know if it had been the other way round, if I'd have been that courageous. I probably would have felt sorry for her, but maybe she would have been killed.
She took my hand and pulled me out, and the other boys followed. She took us to her home and gave us something to drink and at a neighbours we were able to get some food. We were very hungry, tired, thirsty, fearful, traumatised, and a tender age as well. She escorted us for kilometres until we were away from her area. There were communes separated by 30/40 kilometres, so not a short distance. Then she said "If I carry on it is very dangerous for me, the Hutus will kill me on the other side, but because you are Hutus you should be safe." She bid me farewell and went back. I stood looking at her running so fast, going back and I could not believe how courageous she was. God would use Godanse to challenge me when I grew up with bitterness against Tutsis. Godanse always came to me, accusing me really positively, God challenging me. "How about Godanse? What did she do? But she was Tutsi." This challenged me to understand that Tutsis are not really that bad, but there were a few leaders practicing bad politics and bad governors and they had made the people suffer, but not just Tutsis. And at that minute Tutsis had protected Hutus. We then got separated from the other boys and continued towards my home.
When I arrived at home there was nobody. My family had run away to Tanzania as I had thought. Only my sister, Christine, was still there with my grandparents who couldn't move because of their age. When the army was shooting at them, people ran in different directions and somehow she got separated from my parents. It was a relief that I could see her and I said I am going to be with her; I'm going to try to carry her towards Tanzania. My grandmother was preparing some food for us for lunch, but before we ate the army came, shooting indiscriminately. We ran in different directions and I would not see my sister again until much later. We didn't know if she had died or survived, but my mission to try to carry her to Tanzania did not materialise. That evening, 23 people from my family were killed. Only my aunt survived. They were put into a house, the house was padlocked from outside and torched. They all died in that house. My aunt saw all her children dying one after another. Miraculously, she managed to escape through a window and she had her baby tied on her back. She had to untie her own baby and then left my cousin, with all my other cousins, to die in that fire. They were burnt to death. She escaped with injuries; she's all right now, but obviously traumatised. I have been able to forgive, she has not. I have been with her and she is still very, very bitter. Forgiveness is a miracle. God saved me and saved my sister, although, yes, we lost many people in my extended family. We live together and we have big families. I know my aunt is still suffering, but she managed to have some more children later. She saw her children burn to death by the army and by our own neighbours, Tutsis, who had come with the army. They were also quite angry because Hutus had also killed Tutsis in that village. There were issues of counter attack as well.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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