From a militia group to peacebuilding: the radical shift of one young Burundian

Igor Rugwiza

As a child Benjamin lost his family in the Burundian civil war. He grew up with anger and hatred, and at 12 years old joined a rebellion as a child soldier. At the beginning of this year, Benjamin attended a local campaign promoting tolerance and reconciliation. He sat in a room with those he called enemies, something he never thought possible. Now Benjamin wants to work to make Burundi a peaceful country, with opportunities for young people to thrive.

Benjamin Ncuti is a young peace activist. He lives in a neighbourhood that strongly supports the ruling political party in Burundi, a small African nation that was plunged into crisis when protests against the President began over one year ago.

Before he became a peacebuilder, Benjamin was an active member of the party and experienced political manipulation for many years. During the Burundian civil war of 1993-2005, some of his family members including his father were killed. The family suspected the army, predominately Tutsi at the time, to be responsible.

Growing up with hate

Benjamin grew up with hatred and aversion towards the Tutsi. For him, every Tutsi was a threat. He couldn’t imagine himself being forgiving for the loss of his family members. At just 12 years old, in the middle of the war, he joined the rebellion as a child soldier.

Once the war ended and Benjamin left the army, he continued to serve the party and joined the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling political party. In 2015, during the crisis characterised by protests against President Nkurunziza’s third term, he was wounded in a grenade explosion in a neighbourhood of Bujumbura while patrolling with his Imbonerakure friends in a car used by police officials to hunt down protesters.

From war to peace

In early 2016, Benjamin shifted his political views and instead began to work on his vision to ensure a peaceful country with job opportunities for youth. He joined a team of local peacebuilders who were organising a peace campaign.

Benjamin said: “When I was invited to take part to the training on non-violence and reconciliation for young people of different political parties, I was hesitant at first. I could not see myself sitting in a room with people I considered my enemies. Two meetings were arranged by the campaign organisers to convince me to join their initiative. After long hours of discussions, I finally accepted because I was curious to know who would be there, and to hear their views on the ongoing crisis and their plans.”

Benjamin said that after the training he changed his mind, and has become more tolerant towards those he previously called opponents.

“My fear and hatred of my opponents is now a bit blurred. Today I can freely walk in any neighbourhoods of Bujumbura, including those that have witnessed protests. This was something I didn’t think possible a couple of months ago. Now I have friends and contacts there and I know nothing bad can happen to me with them around. During talks with others, I realised that we have the same problems. We are all victims of those who take advantage of us for their own interests without worrying about our common future.”

Hope for the future

Benjamin’s story is not an isolated case. Despite the difficult political and security context for activism in Burundi, a number of young people in urban and rural areas are trying their best to reduce or halt the tensions through individual and joint actions with other community members. Some of them have previously seen what violence can lead to, and do not want to repeat the same mistakes of the past.

Visit our Peace Day campaign webpage to read more inspiring stories like this, and share your own.

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