Dieudonné Nahimana was a teenager when he saw first-hand the devastating effects of ethnic conflict in Burundi. Today, he draws on his experience of the 12-year civil war between Hutus and Tutsis to nurture a new generation of leaders who can rebuild the east African country and prevent it returning to war.
His nation-building project New Generation, in Bujumbura, coaches ex-child soldiers and victims of war to become ambassadors for peace in a nation where ethnic tensions have simmered since the end of the conflict in 2005.
“Undeniably, our young population represents the future of our country,” says Nahimana. “But it is hard for them to grow and evolve with an ideal of peace in our country since they have never known Burundi in its peaceful years.”
Yet, he says, those who have experienced war are best-placed to forge peace. “If someone is a victim of something, he has more capacity because of what has happened to him,” says Nahimana, who founded New Generation to provide shelter and schooling for thousands of children who had been left orphaned and homeless by the war and genocide, and the Aids epidemic.
At least 300,000 people died in the violence that erupted after the murder of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye by Tutsi soldiers on 21 October 1993. Today, 60% of Burundians are under 25 and many are reaching an age when they are starting to think about settling scores for the violence they witnessed as children.
New Generation’s work is underpinned by teaching non-violence. Nahmina says: “I say to them: ‘If you want to punish someone [who has hurt you], the first thing to do is to forgive them. That is their punishment. If you do not forgive them, you become their slave.”
Nahimana himself rejected “the ideology of revenge” in the aftermath of the murder of Ndadaye. His father and 18 other relatives were among those who were killed.
“People were warning my father about the tensions but he did not leave his area because he didn’t believe anything would happen,” says Nahimana, who was living away from the family home in northern Muyinga province at the time. The day after Ndadaye was killed, neighbours invaded the family home and took away his father and other relatives to be executed.
Then 17, Nahimana drifted to Bujumbura, where he spent three years living on the streets, surrounded by other young men arming for revenge. At first, he felt angry at his father for failing to prevent the family’s tragedy. “Then I started to see beyond my situation. I couldn’t join in the violence despite what had happened, perhaps because my family had not raised me to think that way. I decided to take my revenge against this ideology.”
Nahimana led a group of 40 who took over an empty building. They often went without food and were in danger but they formed the genesis of a project that would provide a new generation of role models. “I knew I could help these children because I knew what they were feeling. They felt that everything was against them. I told them they had the opportunity to be a solution.”
But how do you rehabilitate a child who has witnessed or taken part in such appalling violence? “We create an environment of people who see beyond the situation, and every day we talk about dreams,” Nahimana says. “We tell them that we can help them become what they want to, but they have to sacrifice something.”
A key challenge is to address the fear that many boys have grown up with: men and boys were first to be killed in the genocide, followed by pregnant women in case they were carrying a male child. “Many young people still live in confusion and disarray because they have been unable to bury loved ones,” he says.
Officially, the project has now trained 5,000 young leaders to change their ways and break the cycle of retribution as it provides homes, healthcare, education, sports, entrepreneurs’ training and re-integration into their communities. Several former street children are now studying political science at universities.
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“My dream is that by 2020 this new generation will dominate leadership roles in business, churches and politics throughout Burundi,” says Nahimana, explaining that he encourages young people to take on “decision-maker” roles and “positions that matter”.
While an official truth and reconciliation commission has stalled, Nahimana’s initiative has introduced its own “healing memories project” where young people take part in clubs that hold debates on the civil war, confess to their involvement in the violence and talk about their losses.
Nahimana, who was honoured at The Hague with the Thinktank Africa award in 2004 and has represented Burundian civil society at the UN, publicly forgave his father’s killer to demonstrate reconciliation. He believes his project can be exported to other countries that are trapped in a cycle of revenge and retribution, and New Generation has opened a branch in neighbouring Rwanda.
Undoubtedly, Burundi faces a challenging period in the months leading to presidential elections in 2015; historically, polls have coincided with violence perpetrated by the youth wings of political parties, and sporadic clashes have led to fears the country could slide back into violence. Nevertheless, Nahimana is hopeful that “in 100 years’ time, people will be talking about how Burundi reconciled”.
Written by Jo Griffin for the Guardian.