The Centre's goal is to embrace everyone so they can discover that differences between nations, ethnic groups, religions and social or political differences can become a richness for all in everyday lives.

Acceptance speech – Centre Jeunes Kamenge (CJK)

Translation in English:

Mr Speaker, your Excellencies, members of Parliament, dear Friends,

We are here for the “Right Livelihood Award 2002”. We represent the Kamenge Youth Centre. We are here on behalf of those who are not present this evening, the 20,000 registered members of the Centre and the 200,000 people of the Northern Districts of Bujumbura, where we live, we work, we dream.

In the name of all these, we thank you so much for the great honour that you have done us. You have put us on the international map and we thank you for that. We come from a country, Burundi, where for 40 years people have been living through crisis, wars and massacres for ethnic and other reasons – and where for these last nine years we have lived in a civil war which does not seem to end. The official statistics speak of 250,000 dead and 2,000,000 refugees out of a population of 6,000,000 inhabitants.

Since 1990, we have begun creating a structure of meetings and a series of projects for the young people of northern Bujumbura, with the aim of enabling them to meet each other and to have an experience of peace, of dialogue, of reconciliation – in a word, of living together.

The idea is simple. In the middle of the Northern Districts, on a plot of land of 1.5 hectares, we built the Kamenge Youth Centre, a Centre that today brings together all the people of the area. It is a social project of the Catholic Church of Bujumbura.

Its goal is to embrace everyone, so they can discover that differences between nations, ethnic groups, religions and social or political differences, can be overcome without making war or killing one another.

These differences can become a richness for all in their everyday lives. This is a message for the young people from 16 to 30 years in our Centre; this is a message for everyone, young and old. It is a message of life together in the activities of groups, which is translated afterwards in the meetings of acceptance, of dialogue, of reconciliation, until arriving at forgiveness. It has not been simple.

This project was wanted by Simon Ntamwana, former Bishop of Bujumbura, and was entrusted to the Italian Xaverian missionaries.

After two years of project planning, we started to live in the Northern Districts. It was a period of democracy, elections, peace, good events. We carried through a building programme and the Centre was officially opened one month before the coup d’état of 1993. The first group of registered members consisted of 2,500 young people.

After the war began, there were terrible months when the Centre was alone and closed, because nobody could come.

In the Districts, there was fighting around the clock for four long months. Around us, thousands died – and that only in the Northern Districts. Then the Centre became a field hospital of Belgium’s Doctors Without Borders for the war wounded. While there were massacres outside, dozens of wounded were living together inside the Centre.

That situation made us understand that the so-called “ethnic war” was only a rhetorical invention. The reality was quite different. The inhabitants of the Northern Districts wanted to live together, but the extremists, the armed groups of all kinds wanted the war, so they paid and incited the young people and others to fight.

A terrible and monstrous experience. The small group from foreign countries which was in the Centre testified, spoke, telephoned, in order to seek assistance, in order to call out the international associations, the ambassadors, the special envoy of the UN…

At the end of these four months, the first period of our life in the Districts concluded with the obligation to hand over the Centre to the soldiers, because they told us that our lives were in danger.

Having saved hundreds of lives, having freed the Tutsi from the Hutu and the Hutu from the Tutsi, having been subjected to death threats and taken as targets, and after the Centre was machine-gunned and pillaged… after all this came a long night of negotiations because the soldiers continued to insist that we leave the Centre.

And then a terrible journey under attack from machine-guns and grenades, with an escort of tanks. Everyone, foreigners, nationals, wounded, patients with perfusions on their hands, we left the Northern Districts on two overloaded vans.

We thought that it was the end of an experience which, in fact, was just starting.

One week later, accompanied by two army officers and the Apostolic Nuncio, we were back again at the Centre to testify that life could continue notwithstanding the differences.

But there were some terrible years in store, with interrogations, threats, being seized as hostages, witnessing hundreds of deaths – and all immersed in daily hatred. Our work was always the same: to show everyone that it was beautiful to live together. And little by little, young people came from one district and then from another, young people inviting others to come so that day by day the Centre continued.

It was hardest at night when people of all kinds attacked, burned, destroyed and killed – one day the rebels, one day the gangsters, one day the soldiers and another day those who came from the city. And that is still happening.

Everyday, wrongs were committed and the Centre received threats, telephonic or written. The Centre was alleged by some people to be pro-Tutsi, by others pro-Hutu. In this climate – not very convivial, but sometimes also encouraging – hundreds or even thousands of young people met to talk, to discuss, to recount the misdeeds of the war, and they continued to be motivated to find a way out.

While some young people were going to steal, others were going to block them, partly because ransacking a district meant destroying the possibility of living there, but also because it increased hatred towards people of another district, and the consequence was a more violent response: the war of the ethnic groups in Burundi.

The Districts were so polarised that in the Tutsi districts, the administration, the schools, the health centres, the associations, the parishes and other religious communities were all in the hands of the Tutsi; and on the Hutu side, all was in the hands of the Hutu only. And in this way, we found ourselves with two districts Tutsi and two others Hutu.

So what happened? It was in 1996, when one day the government and district officials told us that the Centre was creating a new problem for the Districts. In fact many young people were moving to the Centre from the ethnically separated districts in order to live together.

Those young people did not want to live in ethnized districts any more and then they went into the “enemy” neighbourhoods or downtown to meet with their friends, young people of different ethnic groups. For this reason, the officials asked us to intervene also in the districts, using the same methods to reopen dialogue and living together, and to undertake activities in order to bring people together and accept each other.

Thus we took our band of pilgrims and went out from the Centre to organise meetings, films, shows, and many other activities…

That was the third period of the Centre: a small group, thousands of young people, the neighbourhoods. The years passed, the experiments became ever more lively, and they absorbed us completely in a race towards peace. Today we have about thirty activities each day, with four external projects, more than fifty youth leaders (some of them volunteers, others paid because they work full-time) – French volunteers and a Community of nuns.

There are meetings with the 35 primary schools, 34 secondary schools, 27 health centres, six zones, four catholic parishes, twelve Protestant communities, eight Muslim communities, 20,000 registered members of the Centre and 200,000 inhabitants of the Northern Districts.

Coordination, meetings, games, contests, rebuilding, parades, the struggle against AIDS, coordination with 300 associations, literacy classes, action of any kind to create a new society, a new country, in which it is beautiful to live.

And in collaboration with everyone, at the national as well as international level, with the political parties, the press, government ministries, the churches, the ambassadors… Ultimately, the more you are and the better you are, the more ideas there are and the more things one can do.

We have just had a summer of very diverse activities: Six work and training camps in which 1,800 young people took part, 15 days each one, including ten meetings and seminars on peace, seven concerts and ten sporting tournaments in the neighbourhoods, 100 houses rebuilt, a great demonstration for peace and a 10-kilometer walk with the participation of deputies, ministers, associations and various officials.

Many people find it difficult to understand how during a time of war – with casualties, people going hungry, refugees and destruction – there are people who “waste their time” with balls, papers, ideas.

But we are convinced that this is the logical way for a nation which wants to arrive at peace.

It is necessary to be a humanitarian, but if one does only that, it is almost useless. It is also necessary to educate, to train a new generation able to grow in respect, able to share the ideals of peace, able to work together. A new generation, a new society which will lead the country out of the horrors of war. Our work is also to press the government and funding agencies to give more priority to this, because up to now they have not done much.

We must work more in the field of education for peace, dialogue, and mutual respect among people in spite of their differences.

The recipe of the Kamenge Youth Centre has proved us right. The young people who come frequently to the Centre, the people who work with us in the Districts are giving birth to new commitments and very interesting experiments:

  • young people who do not want to join the army or the liberation movements because they believe in a disarmed society,
  • associations which are being set up to work on human rights in society, in the prisons, in the army,
  • the young people who join together to help those with AIDS;
  • the people who enter the government with the aim of serving society;
  • the young people who help each other to seek jobs or to invent work for survival.

Ultimately, a true society growing up: that is also the fruit of the efforts of the Kamenge Youth Centre in Bujumbura.

There are still people – foreigners, officials – who come to the Kamenge Youth Centre to see the young people of various ethnic groups living together, and we have never had an incident of ethnic conflict at the Centre. They come to see and understand what goes on at the Centre, they come to find out if it is still possible to work for Burundi while hoping for peace. They come to meet the Burundi of tomorrow.

We would be pleased if one day the soldiers and the liberation movements can also come to the Centre to see the new generations, the way they live, what they dream – and then to make a show of confidence in them by finally signing the ceasefire agreements for peace.

The people of Burundi want only one thing: to arrive very quickly at peace. The power-holders and their friends, the extremists and their friends and their fighters live in the country like foreigners, like mercenaries.

This then, is our experience. We think that it is the experience of all women and men of goodwill in the whole world. They live like us, they work in the present, they dream of a different future even if they are not sure of reaching it. Their dream is that one day all the women and all the men of this world can live together, hand in hand. Like them, we also undertake little things or big ones, initiatives in daily life, in order to struggle continuously for dialogue, peace and reconciliation and arrive at a world in which all are sisters and brothers.

Mr Speaker, your Excellencies, members of Parliament, dear Friends,

thank you for honouring us with the Alternative Nobel Prize, thank you for having invited us to be among you this evening, to share this celebration together, thank you for being so open, to have given us your hand to continue to work together and change this world to make it more beautiful for all. Thank you on behalf of all the people that we represent, for all the Burundi that we love, for the Africa that is often abandoned and for the whole world.

Thank you.

Centre Jeunes Kamenge
P.O. Box 783