Nearly 25 years ago, Marguerite Barankitse was tied up and forced to watch the murders of 72 people.
The Burundian humanitarian, who came face to face with the brutality of the Burundian genocides, delivered the keynote address to close out Emory’s 21 Days of Peace Sept. 22. About 50 people attended the event, held in The Center for Ethics Commons.
In the early 1990s, tensions rose between the Hutus and the Tutsis, two ethnic groups in Burundi, an East African territory. The Tutsis dominated government positions and viewed the Hutus as inferior, Barankitse said. In 1993, a group of armed Tutsis entered the Catholic bishop’s residence, where Barankitse worked, to kill Hutu families hiding inside.
Barankitse explained that she hid all of the children, both Hutu and Tutsi, some of whom were her own adopted children, during the invasion. The Tutsis spared Barankitse’s life because she was a Tutsi, but when she wouldn’t disclose the location of the children, they beat her, tied her and forced her to watch as they murdered 72 Hutu adults, she said.
Barankitse’s remarks came during an event marking the end of Emory’s 21 Days of Peace, a three-week campaign to inspire students to work for peace sponsored by the Emory Institute for Developing Nations (IDN), Emory Campus Life, The Carter Center Human Rights Program and the United States Institute of Peace.
Barankitse said that pivotal event tested her faith.
“My own brothers of Tutsi blood came and humiliated me, tied me,” Barankitse said. “They killed my friends, my neighbors — 72 [people] in front of me. If I was not a Christian, if I didn’t believe that there was a reason to continue to believe, I would have committed suicide because I lost everything.”
Barankitse cared for the children whose parents were murdered and buried the dead. The horrifying experience motivated her to create Maison Shalom, meaning “House of Peace,” an organization that aims to help children of all ethnic origins in Burundi through the establishment of schools, hospitals and orphanages. Since its establishment, Maison Shalom has helped over 20,000 children.
“Even though I have suffered, the [Hutus] killed my family … I am not discouraged,” Barankitse said. “They can destroy infrastructures, they can take money, but they will never reach our treasure that is love. Nobody can stop the love.”
As Barankitse gained more prominence in Burundi for her work with Maison Shalom, she spoke out against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and denounced his administration’s promotion of ethnic divisions. There have been numerous human rights violations under Nkurunziza’s rule including “killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests,” according to Telegraph. Human rights organizations say Nkurunziza responds to questions against his authority with “murder and intimidation,” according to The Guardian.
After her criticism of the president, Barankitse found herself on a government list for killing, according to Interim Director of the Emory Institute for Developing Nations Dabney Evans. Barankitse left Burundi in 2015 and took refuge in Rwanda. She has not returned to Burundi since, and Nkurunziza has shut down all of the schools and hospitals that were operating through Maison Shalom. Barankitse has opened a branch of Maison Shalom in Rwanda.
Still, Barankitse said that she prays for Nkurunziza and hopes that he will change his ways.
“I have a holy rage. How can a leader oppress his own people? I pray for him,” Barankitse said.
In her closing remarks, Barankitse emphasized the importance of education and the power of young people to change the world for the better.
“They can beat me, they can try to kill me, but I will never give up,” Barankitse said. “Even if they kill me, they will never kill the message.”
Isabella Paipa (21C) said that she was inspired by Barankitse’s story.
“She didn’t give up, even when everything she had spent so much time building was taken from her,” Paipa said. “It’s that resilience and dedication to her beliefs that helped to improve the situation.”
Shreya Pabbaraju (21C), another attendee, said Barankitse’s speech reminded her that one person can make a difference.
“Before coming to this event, I was unsettled by the state of hateful rhetoric in the world, but Ms. Barankitse’s discussion helped me remember that peace is within us and that we can make efforts in our own communities to bring about change,” Pabbaraju said.
Barankitse is the recipient of the Opus Prize, a faith-based humanitarian award, and holds an honorary degree from Emory.