Gerard Nsabimana had nowhere left to run.
He and a cousin had hurriedly booked passage on a ship to take them across giant Lake Tanganyika in central Africa. They hoped to get into Tanzania and escape the war that had spilled from their native Burundi into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where both were university students. An ethnic Hutu, Nsabimana feared he would be killed by soldiers of the Tutsi ethnic group either in Congo or Burundi.
When they reached the shore of Tanzania, though, immigration officials refused to let them pass. Tanzania’s government, desperate to keep the war at bay, turned away anyone from Burundi or Rwanda. The ship’s captain said he would allow the two young men to stay aboard for three days. Then he would return to Congo without them.
“By the fourth day, he had to put us off the ship or he would be in trouble with the government,” says Nsabimana, who this spring completed his first year as an M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. “We were just praying. We had been surviving on bread and sugar for three days, and we were ready for the captain to dump us into the lake.”
With God’s help, Nsabimana says, it never came to that.
Just before the ship left Tanzania, an immigration officer came to Nsabimana and his cousin with a plan. Throw away your passports, he told them, and say you have no identification. Soon the two were under the protection of the United Nations in a refugee camp, safe from the war — at least for a while.
A dozen years later, Nsabimana, 37, regularly recounts his struggles to survive the civil war that claimed the lives of two of his brothers and his father, who was both a United Methodist minister and a farmer. He does so willingly despite the painful memories, using the story to encourage understanding of the 15-year conflict in central Africa and the failure of the church to stop the bloodshed.
Ultimately, Nsabimana plans to combine his love of farming, which he learned from his father and later studied in Africa and the United States, with his call to serve the church in Africa. He envisions a ministry of reconciliation that would help his countrymen work the land together — no small task following the warfare and revenge attacks that claimed more than a million lives in central Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“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.”
And in many cases, he notes, the fighting pitted Christians against Christians.
A conversation with his mother during a brief visit home in 2007 helps keep Nsabimana centered on the need to forgive.
“I asked my mother how she felt. She lost her husband and two of her sons, but she was still going to church,” Nsabimana says. “She said it is really hard, but we are supposed to forgive them. If we believe in God and that he created the people who did this, then there is no way we can run away from forgiveness.”
He told his mother that it hurts to both remember and forgive.
“Who ever told you that Christ didn’t suffer?” she replied.
Even before Burundi’s civil war began, Nsabimana saw signs of ethnic conflict. While attending a residential high school, where Nsabimana lived in a dormitory, he and fellow students were terrorized one night by men prowling across campus with long knives. A riot broke out, and students fled into the woods. Nsabimana walked home, a four-day journey, and his school was closed for two weeks.
When Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993, violence rose to an epic scale. Rwanda’s genocide of 1994 garnered more headlines — nearly one million people were killed in 100 days — but hundreds of thousands also were killed in Burundi as Hutus and Tutsis committed atrocities against one another throughout the ’90s and early 2000s.
Nsabimana fled his homeland for the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995 after 250 Hutu students were murdered at the university he attended in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. But the threat of war reached him there as well, eventually forcing him from Congo, where he had become a student, and leading to the standoff with immigration officials in Tanzania and the refugee camp.
For three months, Nsabimana and his cousin endured hunger, exhaustion, and the constant presence of death in the camp. They were safe from soldiers, but malnutrition, cholera, malaria, and other diseases were ever present. Children and the elderly were hit hardest.
“We were burying children on a daily basis,” Nsabimana says. “I have never experienced anything like that.”
Eventually, with help from Burundi’s United Methodist bishop, Nsabimana managed to enroll in Africa University in Zimbabwe, a school supported by the United Methodist Church. From there, he was accepted to a master’s degree program in agriculture and economics at Oklahoma State University, where he lived at the Wesley Foundation and became a friend of campus minister Michael Bartley D’94.
Bartley encouraged him to return to the school after graduation to help start a ministry for international students. Nsabimana, eager to put his education in agriculture to work, hesitated. He wondered whether this was the right step for him, but Bartley proved persuasive.
“He thought I should be working for the church even when I did not see it,” Nsabimana says. “When my work visa was granted, I decided I should do it. I realized that even if I wanted to be a farmer, there still are ways of being Jesus’ disciple.”
Soon, Nsabimana realized a powerful call to ministry.
“I always seemed to be talking about my faith journey, what it means to be a Christian in Burundi,” he says. “I also realized that, as much as I wanted to go back home and work in agriculture, it was important for me to get an education in ministry. You can’t teach people to grow crops when they are angry at one another.”
With support from Bartley, Nsabimana applied to Duke Divinity School, where he matriculated last fall.
He hopes to return to Burundi after graduation to combine his two vocations: farming and ministry. The challenges will be great, he realizes. Distrust runs deep in a country where neighbors slaughtered one another for years. Yet the work must be done, he says.
“They need to be able to sit together before they can grow crops together,” he says. “Then they can talk about improving their village.”
He hopes to begin that work on a personal level — by forgiving the men, his childhood friends, who killed his father and brother.
“I feel like I need to meet face to face and share with them that I am willing to see how we have gone wrong,” he says. “They go to church, and I want to talk with them about what it means to confess and say we are followers of Christ.”
He hopes they will repent. But Nsabimana knows that is beyond his control.
“I don’t think it matters whether they say they are sorry for what they have done,” he says. “I wish they could come to believe what they did is wrong. That is my prayer. But I don’t have a choice. I must forgive.”
The Duke Center for Reconciliation convened a meeting of nearly 100 Christian leaders from Africa and the United States at its third annual African Great Lakes Initiative gathering, held in Bujumbura, Burundi, Jan. 13-16. Participants - including clergy leaders from several Christian denominations, university professors, leaders of non-governmental organizations, and other practitioners in reconciliation - focused on the issue of tribalism. Learn more about the Center for Reconciliation and watch a video about its work in the African Great Lakes region.