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Casualties of Ethnic Violence

By Tilly Grey

Her name is Theresa Kanyonga. She is 15 years old, beautiful, soft-spoken and very sad. Six years ago, she lived with her mother, father and younger brother in a roomy, adobe-brick house set in the lush, rich hills of Burundi, East Africa. She attended school and church. The family had three cows, five goats and a plot of land to farm. They were not rich, but life was good.

Today, her mother is dead, her father is missing. She and her 13-year-old brother, Omer, struggle to survive in a country where, in recent years, neighbor rose against neighbor in a demonstration of ethnic violence that left thousands dead, houses in ruins, and children without childhoods.

Theresa is a typical “orphan head of household” in Karuzi Province, Burundi. She and Omer are among 600 families named as beneficiaries in a new Habitat for Humanity and World Vision Burundi partnership aimed at helping the most vulnerable survivors rebuild their homes after the civil war.

These two children probably did not understand the politics of October 1993 that caused Hutus and Tutsis to go on a killing spree that displaced 90 percent of the population. In just two days, 25,000 people died in Karuzi Province alone.

When the violent rampage came to their village, Theresa and Omer hastily fled into the forest with their mother to hide. For days they lived from hand to mouth, constantly on the move in their quest for safety from both Hutu rebels and Tutsi military.

When at last it seemed safe to return home, they found that most of their belongings had been stolen. Worse, their father had disappeared in the first few days of the violence. To this day, they do not know if he was killed, or fled the country to a refugee camp in Tanzania or Rwanda.

For the next two years, civilians such as Theresa’s family were caught in the middle as attacks and counter-attacks raged on. One resident described those days to the human rights agency, Human Rights Watch: “There is pillaging day and night, but it is done by different actors. In the day it is the soldiers, and at night it is the assailants. They threaten people, demand money and food. They take young people to join their ranks.”

Even now, Theresa finds it difficult to talk about her experiences and, understandably, the events of her “childhood” years are blurred in her memory. She thinks that it was during this period of time that her mother died.

Finally, in February 1996, in an effort to bring stability to the country, the military governor of Karuzi Province ordered “all people innocent of committing crimes” to immediately move to a “regroupment camp”—a large field protected by soldiers. Since the government and military were controlled by Tutsis, it was mostly Hutus who were driven into these camps. Anyone left in the hills was considered a danger to the government.

Meanwhile, Tutsis were afraid of being killed by Hutus if they went to regroupment camps, but they also feared for their lives if they stayed at home. In the end, they flocked to set up settlements around army posts where thousands still live as “internal displaced persons.”

For six months, Theresa and Omer scratched out an existence in the forests and avoided the soldiers who combed the hills killing rebels and civilians alike. By August 1996, they joined thousands of others who were struggling to survive in Canzikiro Regroupment Camp. There were no facilities. They built their own shelter from sticks, straw and banana leaves. “Eventually they gave us plastic to put over the houses, but the mice ate it,” reports a camp survivior.

Some people were able to leave during the day and plant their gardens, but most—due to the security situation—were not. Without access to their fields, people had few options for finding food. Government and relief organizations set up therapeutic feeding stations, but it is believed that 10 or more people died daily in this one camp.

Theresa and Omer survived until the governor of Karuzi declared it was safe to return home, gave everyone a ration of food, and ordered the camps cleared during the next two days—Dec. 21-22, 1997.

But when the children arrived home, they found that the roofing sheets, doors, windows and even the wood used for framing the roof had been stripped from their family’s house. The adobe-brick walls had been knocked down, and even the few pots and tools they had were gone. In fact, hardly a building was left standing in Karuzi Province—and another 50,000 Burundians were dead.

Humanitarian agencies considered the Canzikiro camp to be one of the most desperate in all of Burundi. It is the most vulnerable families returning from this camp—orphan heads of households, widows, widowers and married couples with children—who have been chosen to benefit from the Habitat and World Vision house construction partnership.

The two organizations have provided homeowners with iron-sheet roofing material, wooden shutters and doors, and a strong padlock. The program encompasses six “hills”—each hill is an area made up of several hundred households and is administered by a “chef de colline” (chief of the hill).

Homeowners rebuilt their walls and installed the materials themselves. All homes on one “hill” had to be ready before deliveries of doors and windows were made to any single family, ensuring that the beneficiaries would help each other.

“Before ‘The Crisis’ we had enough,” Theresa says. “We had some tools and dishes. I liked going to school and reading. I still have a Bible but there is no lantern for light.” Now, they rely on the monthly food distributions supplied by relief groups and have found people who will pay them to work in the fields. Theresa no longer goes to school, but likes cultivating a common field with other orphans. Omer is attending school two days a week.

When asked what they want for the future, they shrug and have no answer. For today, they are content to have wooden windows that close, a sturdy roof, and a lock on their new door so the donated clothing, a simple wool blanket and cooking pots will not be stolen.

Tomorrow is a long way away.

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.”
—Kirundi proverb

“Using children as combatants is reprehensible. It’s time for all governments, including our own, to take the necessary steps to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are protected from the horrors of war.”
—Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

“War forces vulnerable children as young as 8 to become soldiers. It deforms their sense of right and wrong, turning 12-year-olds into cold-blooded killers. It ends hope.
…Children should never be used as weapons of war.”
—U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton

“Are children’s rights to live in war, without light, sunshine, nature, happiness, air? If they are not, then why at the end of the 20th century are there still wars and children still beg from day to day? Is there anyone who thinks about children in these situations? Are there, in this planet, children’s rights? Do the children in Yugoslavia, in these hard days for their country and their lives, have any rights which are not just written on the paper?”
—M.S., 15, Yugoslavia (from Voices of Youth/UNICEF)

Tilly Grey is Habitat for Humanity International’s Africa/Middle East area correspondent. She visited Habitat’s work in Burundi in early 1999.