Refugees in East Africa: An Interview With John Guiney

What type of work have you been doing with refugees in Tanzania?

Our presence in the camps as a team of Jesuit Refugee Service is first of all a service of presenceto be present to our sisters and brothers who are suffering in exile. It must be remembered that the majority of the refugees in all three of the camps are women and children. The women have been separated from their husbands, some of whom have been massacred or died on the journey to the camp. A high percentage of the children are orphans, or have been accompanied to the camps by just one parent. This demographic profile typifies the effects of modern warfare on families in Africa.


Seventy percent of the refugee population from Burundi is Catholic, so pastoral outreach is a major aspect of our work. We also conduct literacy programs for the children and youth who, because of the conflict, have not had an opportunity to attend school in Burundi. Yet another dimension of our work is trauma counseling. Many of the childrenalong with young people and surviving parentshave been deeply disturbed by what they experienced. Some children have seen their parents killed before their very eyes, some have had to flee over the dead bodies of their families, and parentsespecially fatherslive with the guilt of not having been able to protect their families. We try to enable individuals to tell their stories, to weep, to get in touch with their pain and sorrow. In a deep spirit of listening, respect, tenderness and prayer, a healing of minds and hearts does begin.

Finally, we do a lot of peace education. We recognize that not only is the state of Burundi in crisis, but that the church is also part of that crisis and the resultant division. Catholics have killed Catholics on both sides of the ethnic divide of Tutsi-Hutu. Some church leaders on both sides have allowed ethnic ideology to mask and muzzle the Gospel. Hutu refugees in the camps feel deep hurt and sadness by the lack of support at times of their church leaders. In our peace-education work, we therefore emphasize the role of the church as a reconciler, and not a divider; and we explore strategies for beginning to build a spirit of forgiveness and unity so that a new church and a new Burundi can be built. This is a long process, because when people have been so traumatized by cyclical outbreaks of ethnic violence as has happened in Burundi, people lose trust, and sometimes a desire for vengeance rather than reconciliation is present.

How did the conflict begin?

The most recent cycle of violence began when the democratically elected Hutu president was assassinated by Tutsi military leaders in 1994. Some Tutsi military and political leaders could not tolerate the thought of a Hutu being in charge of the country. The result was the breakdown of law and order, and massive killings on both sides. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu fled into Tanzania and other neighboring countries. The present political situation in Burundi is that representatives of a minority groupthe Tutsi hold the reins of power, supported by a strong military. Up to now, they have been unwilling to share real power with representatives of the majority group, the Hutu.

After six years in exile, this Hutu population of refugees longs to go home when and if the current peacemaking process is solidified in the fall of 2000. Some refugees are quite cynical about the peace process, however, because they do not think that the present military government led by President Buyoya is serious about peace. Others believe that they can go home in security only when the Burundian military is re-structured. It is a mono-ethnic army dominated by the Tutsi ethnic group, and the Hutu population does not trust them because of painful experiences of killings and disappearances.

Who is backing the Tutsi, that they should have such military power?

This is a very interesting question, not only regarding Burundi, but also with regard to the whole so-called Great Lakes region, which includes Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo, and especially Southeast Congo. All three touch or lie close to Lakes Tanganyika, Kivu and Victoria. And all three countries are embroiled in conflict together in Southeast Congo where combined Tutsi forceswith the aid of Ugandaseek dominance along their borders with Eastern Congo. In this region of the world over three million people have died in the past decade, and conflict still continues.

While the genocide in Rwanda has received worldwide attention, the silent massacres in Eastern Congo and in Burundi receive little. It is obvious that the economic resources of these countries are being poured into the buying of military hardware rather than into health and education. President Museveni of Uganda is one of the African leaders in great favor with the United States government, because Uganda is seen geopolitically as a buttress against Islamic Sudan. There is a perception that much international aid given both to Rwanda and Uganda may be diverted into the buying of arms, and that minerals of South-East Congo are being used to finance the war machine of the combined Tutsi forces and their allies. A strong suspicion of many Congolese refugees in Tanzania, moreover, is that the United States is involved directly or indirectly because of the mineral wealth in Southern Congominerals of the kind needed for telecommunications and the computer technology industry.

Is it easy to buy and sell arms in Africa?

The proliferation of conflicts in Africa provides easy access to arms in the open market. In many of the markets in the major cities of Africa, from Nairobi to Johannesburg, any sophisticated machine gun can be bought for as little as $25 to $50. Moreover, many of the diamonds of Angola and Sierra Leone provide rebel groups with huge sums of money that are being spent on arms. One recent statistic from Sierra Leone is that while only one million dollars was received legally by the government for the sale of diamonds, over 100 million was received by rebel groups from unofficial sales; that is, rebel groups in Sierra Leone use the sale of diamonds to buy weapons. The recent steps made by the international community to track legal sales of diamonds and to prevent illegal sales may help to stop their sale to spill blood through these arms purchases.

We also recognize that outside parties have particular interests in providing arms to certain groups within, precisely in order to perpetuate the conflict, so that they can have access to the mineral resources of a specific country. This has resulted in what is known as the business of insecuritywith businessmen of insecurity, as it were, providing arms in order to begin or carry on a conflict for the sake of protecting their vested interests. It should be added that one great source, among others, of both arms and mercenaries in Africa has been Eastern Europe; we have evidence of their presence. Their expertise and their access to arms fuel the conflicts within the continent.

How are the combatants recruited?

The economic marginalization of Africawhich leads to the lack of real opportunity for productive activity within African villages, towns and citiesgives rise to massive unemployment among African youth. As a result, young people can be easily co-opted or rented for and by a particular armed group. When intra- and international conflicts continue to endure for long periods, and when little educational opportunity is provided, refugee camps easily become recruiting grounds for new combatants. Besides food and money, parents themselves can often be required to make a human contribution: Give us your son for the war effort. Boys as young as 12 may be recruited and thus become boy soldiers. I emphasize, however, that when there is little opportunity for youth in camps to continue their education to second and third level, they have little choice except to become involved in war.

What about young women in the camps?

With the majority of the refugee population being women and children, the problem of sexual gender violence among refugees becomes a huge one. Women are especially vulnerable to violence when they are not accompanied by a male figure. The journey from the particular village from which they are fleeing to the border, and then across the border to the camps, is both arduous and dangerous. They can be picked up and abused during their flight, and then later by the soldiers on both sides of the border. Finally, when they arrive at the camps, they can be abused there too, by the officials and the camp policeindeed, even by other refugees.

The response of many nongovernmental organizations has been information and educational campaigns on the nature and sources of sexual gender violence in the community, the setting up of safe houses and other structures whereby women have recourse to security and justice. This is not easy, because the perpetrator of the violence may threaten both the woman and her family if they bring the case forward. There can also be resistance on the part of the camp administration and the police themselves, who may not recognize the gravity of this particular crime. Adding to the difficulty is the common perception of refugees as persons who have no rights whatsoever.

Are perpetrators of sexual violence ever brought to justice?

The present prosecution of perpetrators of rape and other crimes against humanity in the International Courts of Justice in Arusha, located in northern Tanzania, and in the Hague, in the Netherlands, has helped to focus attention on rape as a war crime in modern conflicts such as those in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. To have rape brought into an international court is a great step forward with respect to bringing to justice perpetrators of crimes against women. However, the prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence in refugee camps and their environs is sometimes very complicated because of deficiencies in the local judicial systems. But it must be said that education and awareness programs for all members of the community are bringing about changes of attitude and behavior and are leading to greater security for women and children in some refugee camps.

What is the role of the church in the present situation?

The role of the church in the camps is to be present like a mother to her suffering childrento bring them the consolation of God’s word and sacrament, and to declare by her actions that they are not forgotten. The work of the church is also to build up a spirit of understanding and reconciliation in the local refugee community. Refugees may come from the same ethnic group, but they come with their own stories and particular histories and do feel very isolated in their world of grief and pain. Refugee life creates enormous tensions in family life and many times between neighbors. Besides domestic violence, social disruption occurs between conflicting neighbors and factions within the same camp. The role of the church is thus to reach out to all, helping the people to understand and live their suffering in exile with a new understanding that leads to unity and especially to hope.

We recognize from the pleas of our sisters and brothers in camps that refugees endure a double exileexile from their native country and also from their local church and parish. Refugees feel like spiritual orphans who constantly wish to have some communication with their parish back home and with their local bishop. An important role of the church in the camps is consequently to promote communication between them and their local bishops and parishes whenever this is possible. We try to do this in part by encouraging visits of church leaders to the refugee camps. The latter, however, is not always easy, because when bishops try to visit a country in which their people are living as refugees, they can be accused by their own government’s propaganda machine of supporting refugee terrorists in campsparticularly if the bishop is of the same ethnic group as the refugees.

A special problem of ethnic war is that it is generational. It permanently touches the lives of the children whose parents have been massacred before their eyes, by people whom they recognize as neighbors and even fellow Christians who have shared worship in the same church. Among the greatest challenges of the church in conflict-torn countries in Africa, therefore, is to give real leadership in re-building trustfirst among church members themselves. Former President Mandela in South Africa set up a truth and reconciliation committee after the apartheid regime had fallen. It helped the surviving victims of the apartheid system learn the truth about what happened to their loved ones who died or disappeared, and its long-term aim was to bring about reconciliation. Perhaps the Catholic Church in Burundi could set up such a similar structure to facilitate the telling of the truth, the seeking of forgiveness and the pursuit of genuine reconciliationbeginning with the bishops, priests and religious sisters and brothers.

What is happening with the peace process?

The peace process started with the intervention of Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania. The talks began in earnest in 1997 and 1998 at Arusha in Tanzania. Different commissions were set up to study the issues pertinent to the conflict. One of the commissions looked at the causes of the conflict, and this gave an opportunity to all groups to articulate their own version of it. While no consensus was reached, there did arise a new level of dialogue, and with it the beginnings of a new level of trust. In November 1999, just as the peace talks were coming to closure, Julius Nyerere died of leukemia, and his mantle was assumed by the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Under his stewardship, the peace process has taken on speed again, and eventually we may see a document signed by all parties. If all the parties sign a peace document, refugees may be able to go home and the reconstruction of Burundi can begin. However, while physical, material and economic construction is relatively easy with outside help, the rebuilding and healing of the minds and hearts of all the people of Burundi will remain the greatest of the challengesand this task can be done only by the people of Burundi themselves through courageous and wise leadership in church and state.

How has your prayer helped you in your work with refugees?

One cannot last without the support of one’s own prayer, and also other people’s prayer and love. Refugees have taught me two things: first, the endurance of the human spirit, and how suffering can be borne with a kind of nobility and dignity; and secondly, how cruel the world can be and how we can really destroy one another. I think what has touched me most and gives me the greatest consolation is the faith and prayers of the refugees themselves. They carry and support me; in a very real way I see in them the face and blessing of Christ.

When he returns to Africa in October, Father Guiney will work on refugee policy and advocacy issues in the J.R.S. Eastern Africa Regional Office in Nairobi. His e-mail address is:

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