Marguerite Barankitse, better known as Maggy, has always lived an unusual life. She was born in Ruyigi and lost her father at a very young age. With her mother and brother, she grew up in the close company of her grandparents and uncles. She learned to live this way, in a spirit of sharing, as a very young child, and has continued to do so ever since. In addition, her mother adopted eight children, underscoring the importance of loving one’s neighbours and of brotherhood. Already as a young girl, Maggy dreamed of building villages for children left to fend for themselves.
Maggy studied to be a teacher in Rusengo, then did three years of seminary studies in Lourdes (France). She started working on her return to Burundi, teaching French at the secondary school in Ruyigi and supervising the youngsters after school. During this time, Maggy “adopted” one of her students, Chloé, who had lost her father earlier and just lost her mother.
Maggy was only 23. She asked Chloé to choose between becoming her “daughter” or her “little sister”. Beyond the question of status, however, the whole approach is worthy of note. Maggy was Catholic and Tutsi, Chloé Hutu and Protestant: the two are not usually found in combination. In the years that followed, Maggy took four more children into her home. She cared for them as if they were members of her family, regardless of their ethnic origins.
After studying administration in Switzerland in the late 1980s, Maggy returned to Ruyigi and was hired by the diocese as a secretary, a post she held until the events of 24 October 1993.
24 October 1993: tragedy strikes in Ruyigi
In the autumn of 1993, an atmosphere of uneasiness had settled over the country. In Ruyigi, disaster struck on 24 October. To exact vengeance for the killing of members of their ethnic group, the Tutsi hunted the town’s Hutus, who were hiding in the diocese buildings.
Maggy was also there. She tried to reason with the group of Tutsi driven mad by hatred. She tried to convince them not to use violence. Her efforts were in vain. To punish her for what they considered a betrayal on the part of a Tutsi “sister”, they decided to strip her and tie her to a chair. They forced her to remain in that position and watch as they first set fire to the diocese building to force those hiding there to come out, then as they mercilessly hacked her friends to death with machetes.
The violence was absolute. A few hours after the massacre, the children of the victims started to come out of their hiding places. That day, Maggy realized that her mission would be to fight the violence ravaging her country by giving those children, and the 20,000 who would follow, an alternative to hate. It would be a mission of peace and love, in which the life and dignity of every human being would be respected.
Maggy found refuge in the home of Mr. Martin, a German humanitarian worker in Ruyigi. She spent the next seven months there, pondering the next step for the children, who were still with her. The civil war became even more violent, and more and more children were knocking on Mr. Martin’s door every day. Amid the prevailing disaster, the news had spread rapidly about the “crazy woman of Ruyigi” who dared to take in all the orphans who came to her, never refusing anyone. Twa, Hutu, Tutsi: Maggy made no distinction. Times were hard. Maggy and the children survived thanks to donations and support provided by the community of Ruyigi and Burundi. The international NGOs present in Burundi and a growing number of friends from around the world also helped make the miracle happen.
The birth of Maison Shalom
The number of orphans was steadily growing. Maggy had no choice but to expand her activities and infrastructure. It was during this time that she gave her organization a name: Maison Shalom, the house of peace.
The first priority was to find a place allowing her to take in the steady flow of needy children seeking her out. The diocese of Ruyigi allowed her to use some of its buildings, a partnership that lasted until 2001. Moreover, Ruyigi was not the only region that had been traumatized. As needs grew, Maggy opened other centres for orphans, for example the Oasis de la Paix, in Gisuru, and Casa della Pace, in Butezi. The languages may have differed, but the message – house of peace – remained the same. Those centres were opened in 1994 and remained active until 2001 and 2003, respectively.
The various centres continued to fill, prompting Maggy to consider the sustainability of her “houses of peace”. She knew that nothing could ever replace the warmth and stability of a family in a child’s development. Although the war continued unabated, Maison Shalom maintained its efforts to trace the origins of the children it had taken in. The aim was to find their families.
Those initial efforts paid off some time later, in the late 1990s, when Maison Shalom launched its first efforts at reintegration.
Everything was done, no stone was left unturned, to promote the children’s return to their communities of origin. Sometimes Maison Shalom even sought out the neighbours of families, and asked them to take care of the land the children would inherit until they returned. To that end, Maison Shalom sometimes provided the neighbours with financial support, enabling them to buy the seeds and tools needed to plant and work the land. This was a visionary approach that promised land “back home” to those devastated by war.
In 1998 and 1999, many displaced people returned to their homes in several regions of Burundi. Maison Shalom took advantage of this development to use all the information it had collected on the children. In some cases it was able to reunite families. In 1999, for example, Maison Shalom returned 121 children who had sought refuge at one of its centres to their families (or communities), thanks to the support of Caritas Germany and UNICEF. It was unable to do this everywhere in Burundi, as certain regions remained prey to ongoing violence.
The programme of reintegration would expand as of 2000, after the signing of the peace accords.