African war orphans turn tragedy into triumph

Focus, Normal

The National, Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I know that I can die in peace now, because my children will continue to pass on the message of peace and love wherever they are– Marguerite ‘Maggy’ Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom


IN 1993, during one of the worst days of the Burundi civil war, one woman came to the rescue of 25 children and gave them hope for the future.
On the morning of Oct 24, Marguerite Barankitse, known as “Maggy”, witnessed the murder of more than 70 people in Ruyigi, during the civil war between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Burundi.
Barankitse gathered together a group of children orphaned by the fighting and provided food and shelter for them.
The armed conflict ran from 1993 to 2005, following the country’s first democratic elections since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962.
When the chosen head of state was assassinated, years of Hutu-Tutsi violence followed, killing an estimated 300,000 people.
Barankitse opened Maison Shalom, which she said from the outset was not just an ordinary orphanage but also a place for children to grow in self-respect and build a future.
“Also, to show my Burundian brothers that it was still possible to live in peace with all ethnic groups and to give the orphans back their dignity and joie de vivre,” Barankitse explained.
From its humble beginnings, with just 25 children, Maison Shalom has now grown into a development of houses with everything from children’s day care to a hospital.
“Maison Shalom grew because the war lasted more than 10 years and, over the years, it ended up as the home of more than 10,000 children who were in need of shelter,” Barankitse said.
Last year, Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro was asked by a friend to help promote Maison Shalom.
Monteiro and his girlfriend Pauline Lecointe travelled to Burundi to meet some of those who grew up
at Maison Shalom.
Through photographs and interviews, the pair gathered together a snap-shot of what some of the children of Maison Shalom have gone on to do as adults.
“We did not want to focus on the massacres and horrors that happened in 1993, but hear about people’s present lives and their hopes for the future,” Monteiro explained.
Monteiro asked his subjects to choose where they wanted to be photographed and used props to tell their stories.
He said he found the group an inspiration to others.
“I am fascinated by the strength of the human being,”  he said.
“In spite of the fact that they have seen and lived through the worst, in spite of the fact that, for some of them, they are living their everyday life next to their families’ executioners, they remain alive and kicking, with plenty of projects and hopes.”
Among some the orphans that the pair spoke to were Lysette and her little sister Lidia.
Lysette’s mother trusted Barankitse to look after her children when she chose to stay and die with her Hutu husband, even though she was of Tutsi origin.
In interviews with Lecointe, 22-year-old Lysette said she was currently working as a secretary at Maison Shalom but planned to study international law at a Canadian university.
Lysette said she hoped to one day spread the message of Maison Shalom.
“Whatever you do, do not let yourself down, there are always good things that await you somewhere else,” she told Monteiro.
There is also Richard, who now works as an assistant to Barankitse.
He said he was ambushed with his family in their home.
Soldiers set fire to their roof and waited outside with their guns, shooting every person who tried to escape the flames.
Monteiro photographed Richard’s scars from the burns he suffered on his back.
He said that despite Richard’s constant reminder of his parents’ death, he has grown up to be a man of
great wisdom and serenity. – CNN