Burundi_July08 036This week I was upcountry in Rurengera for an advanced HROC workshop.  The three day advanced workshop is for those who have already attended the basic workshop, and goes into greater depth on the topics of trauma healing and reconciliation.

The workshop was somewhat dark – taking place in the crumbling remains of an old Friends Church, with only the door and one window for light.  And dark because many stories were shared of people’s struggle to cope with loss, anger, and mourning.  But there was also the light of hope and the transforming power of rememberance and reconnection with one’s community.

The sessions opened and closed with song, of which one session on the second day stood out in particular.  One of the facilitators started the singing and then began to draw people into dancing in the center of the circle.  One participant began beating a table, alternately with his fist and palms, improvising a makeshift drum.  And everyone folded into the center, kicking up dust that rose in a swirling cloud cut through the window’s rays of light, all vibrating in four part harmony.  The slow regular trickle of time swung out into an arc, then a swirl, and then caught itself in an eddy, swallowing individuals into a small community.  Then suddendly one finds oneself downstream, slowly drifting away, finding it hard to comprehend what took place a few moments ago but knowing too that one will not soon forget it.

So too was the workshop as a whole, as a space opened in which people shared their raw inner lives and emotions that are so often submerged in day-to-day living.  They spoke of their struggle to find meaning in the lonely night after the loss of a loved one to violence, to live together with those who have caused one suffering, to make sense of the mechanisms that shape one’s community and of the aim of remaking them into forces of good.

At the end of the second day, participants envisioned how to remake their communities.  People expressed not just a general desire to go back to their communities, listen to others, help them heal, and to love them, but also the newfound realization that this could truly be done jointly among Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa; that they could reclaim for themselves an undivided human community.

As an outsider I’m often curious how people will respond to the audacity of putting together victims and perpetrators together for three days to talk about some of their most personal challenges, as if they were old friends.  Yet the participants seemed to reach to a point at which they recognized “yes, of course we should come together to mend the rent fabric of our community, and it is only natural that we would do so step-by-step, working together across the very barriers that we have created.”

Perhaps one of the moving moments came on the last day.  In the workshop, participants discuss how to escape the cycle of violence in which victims seeking revenge become perpetrators.  The alternative discussed was for victims to allow themselves a period of mourning, to accept the wrong that has been done, to learn how to deal with their emotions and to remember and share what they have lost with others in their family and community. 


Participants were asked to write on pieces of paper the obstacles to their own ability to escape the cycle of violence – their anger, their doubts, their loss.  Then each person was to consider these challenges, and as they felt empowered to do so, to throw them on the ground and liberate themselves from them.  So that the 20 participants were sitting in a circle around perhaps 80 or 100 crumpled scraps of paper, the collected pain, cynicism, uncertainty, and powerlessness of a community.  And finally these scraps were gathered and burned in a small pile, releasing them in a rising chimney of smoke.

This simple symbolism of this was powerful.  I watched in particular one participant who turned a scrap of paper over and over in his hand, past the point that facilitators suggested that we might be done, the pull of its weight on his soul turning over and over in his mind, until he was finally able to cast it off.

That we all may be so unburdened!  Which reminds me of the the Fall 2008 edition of AGLI’s PeaceWays newsletter, which I had a hand in putting together and focuses on Burundi, and is now available online here.