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Woman’s mission for Burundi children was sparked by genocide

© UNICEF New York/2004/Turkovich
Marguerite Barankitse: “I believe that evil will never have the last word.”

Marguerite Barankitse remembers the day her mission in Burundi began: It was the day a Tutsi mob tied her up and made her watch the slaughter of 72 Hutus, many of them children. The carnage lasted for ten hours, but her dream of peace and a united country never faltered.

When the civil war began in October 1993, Ms. Barankitse, or “Maggy” as she prefers, was working as a secretary at the Bishop’s house in Ruyigi. She had already adopted seven children—four Hutus and three Tutsis—and although the situation was becoming increasingly dangerous, she refused to separate them.

“I wanted to show to my people that when there is justice and love it is possible to live in harmony,” she says.

When the killing began she managed to ransom 25 children whose parents had been murdered. She also saved her own seven adopted orphans and hid them all on the grounds of the Bishop’s house. It was the beginning of her work to care for the children who had been orphaned by the genocide.

“I was surrounded by bodies, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “But then I heard a voice of hope, that a new government of Hutus and Tutsis could be created. And I called my orphans a new name – ‘Hutsitwa’ – a combination of the two.”

Thousands saved

Since then Maggy, who is Tutsi, has opened three centres for children traumatized or mutilated during the fighting—Oasis de la Paix, Casa de la Pace and Maison Shalom, which is also the name of her organisation.

Ten thousand children have passed through the centres’ doors, many of whom have lost their parents or become separated from them as they tried to cross the border to Tanzania. Most have witnessed atrocities, others are permanently maimed. Maggy was able to send one little boy for surgery in Germany after he was found clinging to the body of his mother, half his face blown away by a grenade.

“I know in my heart that evil will never have the last word. People come to my house and say they will kill me. But I tell them they won’t succeed and that God will protect my children.

“Everyone thinks I am mad and that I have lost my reason—even my family! I say yes, I am mad, but you are mad too because you have started to kill. Who has lost their reason more—someone who is killing or someone who is trying to save lives?”

Maison Shalom is now at the heart of humanitarian efforts in Burundi. In partnership with UNICEF, the organization has reached areas inaccessible to other aid agencies, providing emergency health care and counselling for victims of rape and other violence. UNICEF has also helped fund the rehabilitation of schools in the region and special services for refugees returning to Burundi.

Maggy has watched her first seven orphans flourish, attend college, get married and have children of their own. She believes her dream of Tutsis and Hutus living together will be fulfilled—but a new menace is now devastating Burundi. Of the 216 babies currently in her care, more than half are HIV-positive.

“It is so unjust,” she said. “I am angry because of AIDS. There is enough money in this world for treatment but children are still suffering. I can see the way for reconciliation, but with AIDS I cannot see the way at all.”

But still, she says, she dreams. “With each of our dreams we advance humanity.”

Marguerite Barankitse was honoured this week at the 2004 “Voices of Courage” Awards sponsored by the Women’s Commission for Refugees, Women and Children. She has also received the “Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Want Award” in the Netherlands.



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