Burundi: Africa's forgotten war

As the world remembers Rwanda's genocide 10 years on, an equally disturbing but far less reported conflict continues south of its borders, says Marcus Prior

"When I opened the door I saw a crowd outside - even members of my own family - with bamboo sticks, stones and so on.

"I told everyone to hide, quickly. I stayed inside, but locked the door behind me.

"The people outside surrounded the building, and when I refused to open up, they threw petrol over the place. I had no choice. I had to open up."

It was Sunday morning in Ruyigi on October 24 1993.

The efforts of Marguerite "Maggy" Barankitse, a Tutsi, to protect 72 Hutus had been defeated.

"They tied me up and then massacred those 72 Hutus in front of me," she continued, her voice lowered but resolute.

"I managed to pay a small sum as a ransom to save 25 children belonging to friends they had killed.

"It started at nine o'clock in the morning and finished at seven in the evening."

Ruyigi is not in Rwanda but in neighbouring Burundi, where a civil war started in 1993 and continues to this day.

Like Rwanda's, the war pits Tutsi and Hutu against each other; unlike Rwanda's, the conflict has gone largely unnoticed in the west, despite the fact that up to 300,000 people are believed to have been killed.

Unicef estimates 558,000 children in the country have lost at least one parent, and that 77,000 have lost both.

Elections are due in November, but the fighting goes on, displacing thousands of people at a time.

The 25 children Maggy Barankitse saved in 1993 joined seven orphans, four Hutu and three Tutsi, whom she was already treating as her own.

They were the first of over 10,000 orphans Maggy says have passed through her Maison Shalom in the intervening years.

It is a remarkable project, supported by a number of donors. Maggy's orphans live in small houses, to which they have been given the title deeds.

When I visited, within a matter of minutes I met Pascal, a Rwandan boy who had been mute for several years after witnessing unspeakable horrors, and Aline, a girl who appeared completely normal until she turned to reveal a gaping wedge that had been hacked from the back of her skull and neck.

Many of the older Maison Shalom orphans are able to earn a living.

It is almost as if the organisation owns every other building in Ruyigi, including a cinema furnished with chairs from an old Paris movie house, a swimming pool, a centre with a hairdresser's and dressmaker's, a dairy farm, a hotel, a restaurant and a bar.

Maggy herself is a charming host, offering wine and beer to accompany a healthy lunch prepared by some of her children.

She seems to skip through the day, offering a constant stream of anecdotes both tragic and humdrum.

She is also a brilliant mimic, gently ridiculing the people who have stood in her way. And there have been many.

"I can't tell you how many times people have wanted to kill me, but each time I've told them I would not leave and that I was not ready to die while there are children that need me," she says.

Her status has clearly brought her a certain immunity. "Now look at me, mother to 10,000 orphans." It might sound like a boast, but it is not.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) provides food to the orphans of Maison Shalom, but perhaps the greatest irony of Burundi is that anyone in the country requires food aid at all.

Three harvests a year are often possible, and every inch of available land is cultivated.

But Burundi is densely populated, and in areas where fighting persists people are dependent on outside help.

The WFP requires armed escorts to deliver food supplies in Bujumbura Rural Province, outside the capital.

Only last week, up to 30,000 people were displaced by clashes in Kabezi district. The displaced leave with nothing, and when they return, their fields have often been destroyed.

"We have lost everything as a result of the war," says Sylvanne Ngendangenzwa as she collects her food ration at a distribution point in nearby Mubimbi district.

"We really are having to start again from scratch. We are considered to be people who live in the bush. We don't have roofs over our heads."

There is some cause for hope amid the sorrow: in the east, peace has gradually taken root, and a trickle of refugees returning from camps in Tanzania has grown into a steady stream.

At a transit point in Gisuru, their meagre belongings are piled on to trucks for the journey home.

"In Tanzania my life was miserable," says John Barungura, one of 500 people who returned home last week.

"As a refugee in a foreign country, you are always a stranger.

"Even if I had not yet received any help, I would honestly be very happy to be back, because I am here sharing the moment with my fellow Burundians. It's absolutely fantastic."

A few miles down a dirt road, Maggy Barankitse shares the same hope for a fresh start.

"I am a woman of conviction. I believe that evil will never, ever have the final word.

"I have been through terrible things." She pauses, tellingly, before continuing. "But I have also understood great joy."

· Marcus Prior is a public information officer with the UN World Food Programme

During 2004, the WFP is targeting 1.2 million people in need of food aid in Burundi at a cost of nearly $48m (£27m). Recipients include those people displaced by conflict, victims of HIV/Aids, schoolchildren and refugees who have fled fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Marcus Prior

The GuardianTramp

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