“We can’t even talk about rural development until we talk about reconciliation,” says Nsabimana. “How do you put these people back together when you know this person has killed that person’s son?”
Nsabimana acknowledges his own struggles with the notion of forgiveness. He and his family lost a great deal in Burundi’s civil war — with the deepest losses coming at the hands of neighbors who put tribe above their faith in Christ.
In February of 1998, Nsabimana’s father, Joshua Mbariza, was beaten and shot to death following accusations that he provided refuge for rebels who were attacking soldiers in Burundi from across the border in Tanzania.
Nsabimana says the accusations ring hollow, given his father’s commitment to the church. In fact, his father had never mentioned the family’s tribe until ethnic violence in the late 1980s prompted Nsabimana to question him.
“He told me, ‘I raised all my children as Christians,’ ” Nsabimana recalls. “ ‘Would it have made you a better person if I told you that I was a Hutu?’ ”
Two weeks after his father’s death, Nsabimana’s brother publicly spoke out against the government soldiers he believed were responsible. He was shot to death that night, his body dumped near the family’s home. A second brother was later killed in fighting between rebel soldiers and villagers.
“The people who killed one of my brothers and my dad are people I grew up with,” Nsabimana points out each time he tells the story. “I went to school with them and played with them when we were children.”
And that is what makes forgiveness in Burundi so complicated, Nsabimana told an audience at Duke Divinity School this spring at a panel discussion on tribal violence. People who had been friends and neighbors for generations — and many still are neighbors — became blood enemies.
“If you look in many countries, when you talk about enemies, you look beyond the borders,” he said at the panel, sponsored in part by the Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation. “[In Burundi] the so-called enemies are the same people you go to the river with to get water or go to the forest with to get firewood.”