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Faith Moves Mountains

Faith Moves Mountains

April 24, 2015 saw a clandestine operation in Burundi’s capital city of Bujumbura. An inconspicuous car drove to the city’s airport, carrying a woman on her way to Brussels. She had no luggage but the clothes on her back: she wore not the traditional boubou dress, but pants, oversized sunglasses and a wig. She was sure to pass by security officials at the airport unrecognized.
Marguerite Barankitse (or Maggie, as her friends call her) was fleeing political harassment and persecution in her native country. For a whole month prior, the Belgian Ambassador sheltered her at his residence. She didn’t want to leave Burundi, but the diplomat grew increasingly wary of assaults on the embassy. He persuaded her to go, promising to make sure her family would be safe. 
 
Brussels Airlines’ staff was notified of the “operation,” and Maggie’s name wasn’t on the passenger list. By a mere stroke of luck she was able to outrun her pursuers and board the plane just 20 minutes prior to departure. The entire setup was reminiscent of the last scenes of the Oscar-winning thriller “Argo.” 
 
Come April 24, 2016. Thousands of miles from her homeland, at the foot of the majestic Mount Ararat in Armenia, Maggie stands dressed in bright colors and smiling, all cameras turned upon her. A few hours later, Marguerite Barankitse from Burundi will receive the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity from the hands of George Clooney.

                      Marguerite Barankitse in Yerevan with Mount Ararat in the background

Maggie walks with confidence. She is always impeccably dressed and groomed, with no trace of weariness or fatigue on her face. Her elegance refutes stereotypes of humanitarian heroes worn down by life. But Maggie has no time for rest as long as history repeats itself.
 
Faith, hope and love
 
Maggie Barankitse is a devout Catholic. She studied at the seminary in the French town of Lourdes, then at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. But she grew up in a country that hasn’t seen anything but cruelty since gaining independence in 1962. “I was born a rebel. My childhood was spent in a deeply Christian family, and my parents taught me to share everything I have with others,” she says. When she was young and taught French in school in Burundi, she witnessed many discriminatory measures implemented against her Hutu students. Marguerite spoke up against this injustice: she sued Burundi’s government and won the case in 1986. 
 
During the civil war of 1993, which claimed 300,000 lives, Marguerite sheltered Hutu orphans. Her countrymen saw her as a traitor, and she was finally forced to flee to the diocese of Ruyigi, a city in eastern Burundi where she had hoped to find a safe haven away from the welter of violence and hatred.
 
But everything changed on October 23, 1993. Rebels broke through the fence of the diocese where Marguerite worked as a secretary. The young woman barely had time to hide the children in the vestry room closets. She sternly ordered them to keep quiet, no matter what they might see or hear, but they were discovered.
The rebels killed 72 people in front of Marguerite, who was stripped naked and tied to a pole. Some of the criminals, Tutsis like Maggie, called on their companions to kill her for saving enemy offspring. 
Several hours later, Marguerite began searching for a sanctuary for herself and 25 surviving children. Together with other refugees, they found shelter at the house of a humanitarian mission worker from Germany, where they spent the next seven months. Some time after the massacre, Maggie helped to bury the people who died at the diocese.

                                                   Marguerite Barankitse in Yerevan

“If it wasn’t for my faith in Christ, I think I would have killed myself. But fate decided that one day, the people of my nationality would come to kill 72 Hutus, whom I was hiding. Among them was my friend, who was a Tutsi married to a Hutu. Before dying, she told me: ‘I entrust my children to you! Love them and take care of them,’” Maggie remembers.
 
The tragedy showed her the path to her calling: she saved 25 children and created Maison Shalom, a new family of sorts where thousands of orphans could study, get medical help and feel loved. After ascertaining that only love conquers evil, Maggie opened several “peace oases” — special centers in rural villages where 10,000 children were given help in family groups. She also initiated the construction of the “City of Angels” recreation center for kids of all nationalities. She created an education system in which student government takes center stage. The children are taught to control their own lives, instead of getting used to constant assistance.
“You can deny your faith, but you can’t hide your ethnicity. I am convinced that only God’s love is capable of cleansing us and shining a light on our differences. This is why I created Maison Shalom, to open the way for Christian moral values. Loving thy neighbor is a daily ordeal that elevates us and feeds the hearts of my children,” she says.
Maggie credits her inexhaustible energy to prayer and says that she nurtures her faith as she would a garden. “Nobody can take the glory of my faith away from me,” she says.

                                               Marguerite Barankitse in Yerevan

In 2015 Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza managed to get himself elected for a third term, thus violating the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and the 95th article of the Burundi Constitution. The country plunged into violence before Marguerite’s eyes. Maison Shalom and all of its property were confiscated, and seven criminal charges were brought against Maggie. They sounded both ridiculous and hideous: insulting supreme judges, destroying public property, organized rape, armed rebellion and crimes against humanity. Once again, Marguerite was in grave danger. She escaped to Brussels. 
Once in Europe, Marguerite discovered that the Burundi government issued an international search warrant for her. During her short stay in Canada, Burundi authorities ordered their agent to kill her. The situation escalated quickly, with Maggie being turned into her homeland’s main enemy. 
Today, Marguerite Barankitse is watching the same scenario that led to the Genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda unfold in Burundi. “The local Rema radio is airing calls for murder, just like radio Mille Collines did in 1994. The fighters of Interahahmwe, who organized the Genocide in Rwanda, now have a twin organization in Burundi, the Imbonerakure rebels. They are working together, and Interahahmwe is brining more and more forces to the neighboring Congo. Their goal is to draw Rwanda into the conflict, giving them the pretext to start the massacres,” Maggie explains.

                                                 Marguerite Barankitse in Yerevan

Having settled in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, Maggie once again opened Maison Shalom, which shelters thousands of Burundi orphans and refugees. Her struggle, however, is far from over. “Every time the UN Security Council votes on the resolution to send peacekeepers to Burundi, France puts a veto on it. We’ve been killing each other for a year, but the international community twiddles its thumbs! I will never again allow my children to be killed while I stand by, powerless,” she exclaims. She carries photos of mutilated corpses of young Burundi men tortured to death on her smartphone.
 
To speak with Marguerite Barankitse is to see all colors of life. As she strolled through Yerevan, its streets lit up with the energy she radiates. Maggie will soon turn 60, and this extraoridnary woman who embodies love and compassion can be very proud of her accomplishments.