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'These guys were ready to kill me, and I was ready to die'

Tomorrow (Sunday 19 August) is World Humanitarian Day, which this year highlights the millions of civilians who have been caught up in conflict and the health and aid workers who help them. Now a director of a peace-building organisation, Theodore Mbazumutima talks to Linda McTurk about his perilous journey as he tried to escape civil war in Burundi 

We were safe, but we had no future

THEODORE MBAZUMUTIMA was a teenager in Burundi when he was forced to abandon his studies and run for his life. In 1993, at the news of Hutu President Ndadaye’s assassination, the country erupted in violence. Tensions between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi people resulted in bloodshed.

Neighbours began slaughtering each other. Soldiers massacred secondary school students. Theodore knew that if he didn’t leave his secondary school quickly, he would be next to die. So he and his friends left their boarding school to search for a safe place. But the streets were full of people out for blood. Before long, a group of Hutu men armed with machetes stopped them.

‘The Hutu men interrogated us and asked us whether any of us were Tutsis,’ he recalls. ‘But the problem is that Hutus and Tutsis all look alike. So this group of Hutu men did not believe us when we told them that we were Hutus. They asked us to go and kill Tutsis with them so that we could confirm our identity and act in solidarity with them.

‘My friends and I were terrified. These guys had been killing people. They had machetes smeared with blood and they had been drinking. I told the men that because we were Christians, we could not join them. The men concluded that we weren’t in solidarity with them, and told us to lie down so that they could kill us. I remember lying down and desperately praying: “God, save us and we will serve you for the rest of our lives.”

‘All of a sudden, a helicopter came towards us. Perhaps afraid that it was a Tutsi army helicopter coming to kill them, the Hutu men ran away, and my friends and I were left on our own. I heard a voice in my head say: “Theo, I have saved you. You better run!” So my friends and I ran away. God saved us from that situation.’

Relieved, Theodore and his friends continued on their way towards safety. After dodging army tanks, crossing a tarmac road and taking a brief rest in a canal within a valley, the group reached a village. But to their dismay, it was not a safe place.

‘A group of armed Tutsi men approached us in the village,’ Theodore explains. ‘They had all sorts of weapons. We were defenceless students. They surrounded us. I thought: “These are the guys that we were really running away from.” We were in their hands. I didn’t even think this time about being saved. These guys were ready to kill me, and I was ready to die.

‘But suddenly, a Tutsi woman came from nowhere and jumped at me. She was a wonderful Tutsi friend that I had studied with three years before. We were in her village. She held me in front of the group of Tutsi men and stood there. It was as though she was saying, “If you kill them, kill me as well.” So the guys looked at her, then back at us and then started retreating, one after another. She gave us something to drink and escorted us out of that dangerous village.’

Theodore separated from his friends to return to his home village. But when he arrived, he found the army had attacked and that his parents had already left for Tanzania. He wanted to find them.

‘Although I was not very far from the Tanzanian border, I did not know where I was going,’ Theodore says. ‘So I followed others who had already gone to Tanzania but came back to get food because people were dying of starvation over the border. I waited with strangers until it was dark and the army had gone back to their barracks, and then we crossed over to Tanzania.’

Theodore was able to locate his parents. But his troubles were far from over.

‘On the Tanzanian side it was terrible,’ he says. ‘No food. There was no running water. When it rained, we would just drink the stagnant water. Then a Roman Catholic priest arrived and distributed maize. We were eating maize in the morning, lunchtime, evening. We had lost everything.’

On top of those problems, Theodore contracted dysentery, a potentially fatal infection of the intestines.

‘I had the disease for nearly a week,’ he recalls, ‘and on the day I thought I was going to die, a stranger arrived in a truck to save me. He took me and a few other students to a hospital clinic. They put a drip in my veins and gave me some medication. Then he brought me back in the truck to where he originally found me in the forest. At the time, I thought he was an angel.’

Eventually Theodore and others were taken to a refugee camp.

‘Yes we were safe there, but we were not studying. We had no future. We were subjected to many inhumane conditions. We were being taken on as cases, not as individuals. Nobody thought we could think for ourselves. I wasn’t allowed to go out, not even to buy provisions. And we were being guarded by the police.

‘So I left the camp and travelled with a fellow refugee out of Tanzania. I was given an opportunity to study theology in Kenya. It was amazing there. I was able to have three meals a day and to sleep in a warm bed. I knew somehow that I was going to serve God.

‘After my training, God challenged me by making it very clear that he wanted me to return to the refugee camp. But I wanted to live a different life. I thought that going back to the camp meant that all my dreams would be finished.’

However, in 2001, Theodore did return to the refugee camps in Tanzania. Since then, he has dedicated his life to helping displaced people. He has worked on projects to provide more humane conditions for refugees, including providing them with healthcare, clean water and education.

He has also worked on reconciliation projects to aid peace efforts in Burundi. Today, he is the director of Rema Burundi, which is a peace-building organisation committed to the rights of refugees, internally displaced people and returnees.

Theodore admits that forgiving the people who caused him pain has not been easy.

‘The journey of forgiveness can be long,’ he says. ‘I had a list. I would tell God, “OK, I can forgive this one and this one.” But then there are other people who made me think, “I don’t think God would expect me to forgive them.” But in the Bible, we see Jesus on the cross with people beating him, mocking him. Why did he, in the middle of suffering, say, “Father, forgive them”? That is challenging to me.

‘Sometimes it takes another crisis to realise our need to forgive. When I got married to my wife, who is a Tutsi, I had to get used to the idea of Tutsi cousins and relatives staying with us in our house. I realised that I was only happy to forgive them so long as they stayed where they were. So forgiveness was a journey. Even today, issues still turn up. But now I have the power to forgive and the power to keep forgiving.’

Despite the ability to forgive others, Theodore still has to deal with the pain of losing loved ones as a result of the civil war.

‘My aunt managed to escape through a window when her house was on fire, but she was burnt very badly and lost all her children in the fire,’ he says. ‘I also have many friends who died. My friend Alexander went two minutes ahead of me with a group of people from my secondary school and all of them died. I still don’t understand why. But I believe that Jesus can identify with us and with our suffering. He is the Prince of Peace.’

  •  Theodore tells his story in My Country Wept by Jess Komanapalli, published by Authentic

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