Over the past month I have listened to the stories of more than 50 people in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and here in Burundi. They were people who had lived through conflict and had participated in trauma healing and reconcilaition workshops as part of our “Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) Program. I have learned many things from them and been inspired time again again by people’s resiliance and desire to achieve peace within their communities.

I will share just one more story with you, of Jerome who I met last week in Mutaho, Burundi. He asked us to publish and share his story, and though I have rearranged the order of his narrative and shortened it, it is otherwise as close as to his own words as I could come given the translation from Kirundi.

Jérome Birorewuname:

“There’s a gift I received in the HROC workshop. Two times I was taken, and people tried to kill me. I still have scars on my head, neck, and leg, shaped by a machete.

First, there was an old man there who had tried to kill me. He was like my father, he was my neighbor, and he had been feeding me with his kids, you know we were just like family. But surprisingly he was the one who brought the machete and cut my neck. They thought that I had died but I had not. I was with other people. They were even stronger than me, but they died immediately.

When I was in the HROC workshop, there is a session where you share about your sufferings,and that man shared about his sufferings. He claimed that during the massacres in our community he was not present, that he was in Cibitoke. I got angry because I knew he’s the one who took me to the killers. They had tied my arms in the back, and he was the one who was pulling me there. On our way to that place, he was telling me terrible things that I still remember. So because of anger, I walked out. I called one of the facilitators and I asked for a private time, so I may meet with that person.

Now before the training, each time we would see each other at the bar, he would run away immediately. This happened more than three times, so in the HROC training I had a chance to ask him, “Please, why do you run each time you see me when you are at the bar?” He said, “You know Jerome, every time I have been with you I was shameful, I didn’t have anything to say because I could not deny all the bad things I did to you, so I just tried to hide it. You know, I am the one who took your rabbits, I am the one who took your chickens, I am the one who took your hoes, and everything you had in your house, I took them. So I will ask you to write down all the things that you lost, and I will pay them one after another.”

I responded, “I have been living with soldiers, I could have asked them to come and kill you, or I could have told them to come and kick you out of the community. You know that there are many who are living in Tanzania in the refugee camp because of what they did. But I never wished you to be there because I know that they also are suffering.”

“I’m not going to kill you or ask you to pay. So please, don’t run anymore when you see me. You know, while you’re running you might fall into a hole and hurt yourself and maybe even die. Please believe that I really have forgiven you, and that I don’t have any bad wishes for you.”

So he was very, very happy. He could not understand it, because he knew what he did to me, and he was surprised to hear that I would not take him to jail or whatever but I have forgiven him.

But you know, I survived two times. I have not yet met with the ones who tried to kill me for the second time, but I am planning to ask the HROC facilitator to invite them and meet with them in a workshop so we can deal with our problem.

Where does that forgiveness come from? – Frankly, it didn’t take effort to forgive them so much as it took time. I have never been in prison, I am now 42 years old, but I would say that prison is not a good place to be. There are those who have been taken to prison, and now they are back home. I wonder if the relationship has been improved, I mean between the victim and the perpetrator. But I would say it would have worsened. And it would not prevent the perpetrator from planning other harmful things. But as I just let things go, I think it made a big impact on the person. Not as person myself, but believe that through my behavior there is another power that works through me to come and transform the person.

In a way I do not not understand why and how I did it, but I do know that I didn’t pay anything, and yet I believe that that will be a lasting relationship with my killer.

Very recently, I was just coming back from church, and by chance I recognized one of the people who had fled to Tanzania. He was surprised to see me, and he said, “are you still alive?” because he had been involved in the killings. “Are you surprised to see me alive?” I asked. “I really could never expect you to be alive” he responded.

At the time, he had a lot of luggage, and he was trying to find a bicycle taxi so he could go home and find someone to help him carry the load. The bicycle taximen were trying to charge him 3,000 Burundian Francs (about $2.50), when it should be only 500. And he was just arriving so he had no money. I told him, “Don’t worry, I have a bicycle. Take it, and you can bring it back to me when you’re done with it.. He looked me in the eyes and asked “Are you really giving me your bicycle?” “Yes,” I said, “And if anything bad happens to you, I would rather prefer it happening to my bicycle and you staying safe.”

Later, a friend from the internally displaced persons camp came to me and asked why I had given my bicycle to a Hutu who had just arrived from Tanzania. And I said, you know, there is this meat – indindura (Made from cow intestine, it is “the meat that changes things.” Normally it is given to women who are birth to girls so that she will give birth to boys.) If we agree that indindura is a delicious meat and we want change, then we need to eat it, give it to others to eat. You see these people that come from Tanzania, we are the ones to show them that we have changed. They have been away from the community for 15 years, so they don’t know where to go, everything has changed here. So unless we give them a warm welcome show them the way, they will never believe that Burundi has changed. So we need to show them we have eaten indindura, and everyone will understand.

When the man from Tanzania returned to his community he told them who gave him the bicycle, and he told them how he had been welcomed in the internally displaced persons camp. And that will improve the way the village people treat us, so that when go there, they will treat us as human beings, as friends.

That’s how we can make the change, that’s how we can make forgiveness take place, so that’s why I say forgiveness is important.

Once time when I was coming from the workshop, going home, some people asked me, “Where are you coming from?”

“I’m coming from the workshop.”

“Oh yeah? You must have received a big stipend for three days?”

“Big stipend?” I asked.

“Yes, of course if you are there for 3 days.”

“Yes, I received a lot.” I responded, and I gave him this example – “You know ugali (a doughy bread made from cornmeal)?”

“Yes, of course, I am Burundian, I know ugali.”

“Imagine that you have a big ugali in front of you, but your heart is bleeding, will the ugali take away the heart and bitterness from the wound in your heart?

“No,” he responded.

“That’s why I say it’s a lot of money, because I come home with peace. You know, even if they had given us those big big stipends, there would be no meaning in it for me because my heart was still bleeding. But now my heart is whole. So peace is more meaningful than money.”

My wish is for HROC to keep offering such healing opportunities to people. You know I have been at one worshop, I consider myself a member of HROC, I would be happy to hear HROC coming back to us saying, we need our members to come together again so that we can learn new things together. So please, do not abandon us. Come back and offer us new skills, help us to meet new people so that we can keep coming together again.”

Hearing this story, I was overwhelmed by Jerome’s simple yet piercing wisdom and his hopeful faith in a better future, grounded in depths of forgiveness that are hard to even fathom.

On a final note, it is my birthday to day, and so if you feel led to support this work, you can do so by clicking the “donate now” button on the right-hand column. I can’t think of a more meaningful present than to share in my passion to help bring people together who sincerely want to be able to move forward with their lives.