She has been described as the “mother of tens of thousands children” and “Mother Teresa of Africa”, in recognition of her social commitment and her resilient faith. Children know her simply as “Maggy.” Media simplifications fail to convey this Burundian woman’s commitment and courage for peace-building efforts, for children’s dignity and rights in Burundi and Rwanda. It can be said that she has raised a whole generation of children, educating them to respect others and not to hate, giving them educational tools and opportunities to build a serene life. Her name is Marguerite Barankitse. After the tragic ethnic massacres between the Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi that broke out in 1993 – 300 thousand dead until 2005, several thousand killed last year, according to estimates – she found the strength to provide care for 50 thousand children, many of whom by now have grown into adults, through Maison Shalom, the shelter home for peace she set up in Ruyigi, her village of origin, and in other areas. She received many international awards – one of which was personally given to her by Kofi Annan – in recognition of her battles, but she also made many enemies because she is not afraid of denouncing human rights violations and the government’s misdeeds. Her major enemy is Burundi’s ruler, who issued an international arrest warrant against her. For that reason
Two years ago she had to flee from her home Country and seek refuge in Kigali, Rwanda.
However, she did not lose heart and founded Maison Shalom Rwanda that provides assistance to over 50thousand Burundian refugees. As a form of retaliation the government suspended Maison Shalom Burundi’s activities and froze its bank accounts. Today, on International Women’s Day, Marguerite shared her experience with participants in the event “Voices of faith“, on the stories of women, ongoing at the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican.
The horrible autumn of 1993. On that horrible autumn of 1993 Maggy, a Tutsi, witnessed the massacre of many family members. But she managed to escape. It was October 24 1993, when many Hutus, fleeing from the Tutsis’ retaliation, took shelter in the episcopate, where she was working as a secretary. She was brave enough to oppose the persecutors belonging to her own ethnic group. Her “betrayal” was punished with beatings, she was undressed, tied to a chair and
Forced to witness the massacre of her 72 Hutu friends slaughtered with machetes.
“It was a scene of utter violence, I was overcome by horror – she said – . A few hours after the massacre the children of the victims came out of their hiding places. They were believed to be dead along with all the other victims, instead they had managed to escape the carnage. They were terrorized, asking me for help. I saw it as an answer from God. I decided I had to continue living for them.” Those 25 orphans were Maggy’s first “sons and daughters.”
After rescuing tens of thousands of children she had to flee to Rwanda. Since then, thanks to the help of many international organizations, such as Caritas, “Maison Shalom” has provided care for
over 52 thousand children, without distinction of ethnicity. She ensured a family to over 11 thousand orphans.
Today many of them are doctors, teachers, engineers…. Her main centre in Ruyigi could count on hospitals, schools, vocational training courses, cultural and social centres, economic and hotel-related activities. When a new crisis broke out in Burundi in 2016, many children and adults were tortured or killed, while over 380 thousand Burundians fled to neighbouring Countries. Marguerite Barankitse denounced the murders and the crimes against humanity committed by the government, which led to the shutting down of Maison Shalom and her flight to Rwanda along with the other coordinators. Today Maison Shalom is an international NGO, which provides education, microcredit, along with psychological and social assistance to Burundian people left traumatized by the tragic events in the Country.
“Also the impossible is possible.” “Women must make their voices be heard, because men are too busy fighting, trafficking in weapons and drugs – Marguerite said today -. They no longer want to listen to their mother’s voices, to their inner female being. That’s why we become their major enemies. For example, I am considered a criminal because I denounced the crimes of the forces in power that kill our children and rape our women. These are men who intend to maintain economic power and continue their arms trafficking business. But women must not be afraid. We have changed the life of tens of thousands of children.
I want people to know that it’s possible to achieve even what seems impossible.”