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Great Lakes peacebuilding programme launches first cross-border dialogue space

April 27, 2015
Est. Reading: 4 minutes
Participants share their experiences during the first permanent cross-border dialogue facilitated by Interpeace's Dialogue for Peace in the African Great Lakes Region Programme. Photo credit: NAR

On a warm Wednesday afternoon, a group of neighbours came together in Rwanda's Bugesera district to share, talk and most importantly listen to one another in the name of peacebuilding.

They are not neighbours in a conventional sense; in fact, half of them are Rwandans and the other half Burundians. Despite living in different countries, these two communities often interact because they live along an artificial line drawn across the land more than a century ago during the colonial partition of Africa. Sometimes these cross-border interactions are positive, but other times, living in such close proximity can cause tensions and even lead to violence.

Interpeace's regional peacebuilding programme

That is why the Cross-border Dialogue for Peace in the African Great Lakes Region Programme, implemented by Interpeace and six partner organisations in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC, is so important for these two communities. This Wednesday afternoon marked the initiation of the first permanent cross-border dialogue space in the Great Lakes Region, where people living in the tri-border regions can come together in the spirit of respect and mutual understanding.

"We look alike, we talk the same language, we share the same air, sunshine and our children get married to each other. In addition, we were colonised by the same nation, got our independence on the same day and share the sad and happy times," said one participant during the dialogue.

Six partner organizations working together across three borders

It is this type of sentiment that Interpeace's regional peacebuilding programme in the African Great Lakes Region aims to bring out through its permanent dialogue spaces. Working with border communities in the Great Lakes Region that have struggled with outbursts of violence since independence in the 1960s, the programme promotes peace education and dialogue as a means of preventing conflict and increasing understanding among parties that may have competing interests. The programme, led by Interpeace, bring together six organizations in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC to help participants accommodate their differences and resolve conflict in non-violent ways.

First cross-border dialogue session

This dialogue session, facilitated by Never Again Rwanda (NAR), the Burundi-based Conflict Alert and Prevention Centre (CENAP) and Interpeace in the town of Nyamata in Bugesera district, was the first meeting between 15 residents of Bugesera, Rwanda and 15 participants from neighbouring Commune of Kirundo in Burundi, just 50 kilometers to the south. The other partners in the regional programme are the DRC's North Kivu based Pole Institute and the Centre of Applied Judicial Sciences (CEJA), as well as the Network of Organisational Innovation (RIO) and Action pour la Paix et la Concorde (APC) in the DRC's South Kivu province.

Rwandans give a warm welcome to their Burundian neighbours

The Rwandans gave a very enthusiastic welcome to the Burundian participants, setting a positive tone for the dialogue to begin. Throughout the course of the meeting, the participants discussed the theme of cross-border population movements, and identified some of the positive aspects of the topic, as well as some of the issues that arise from these movements.
"Cross-border movements are crucial for citizens of the two sides of the border; people cross the border for many purposes, including business, visiting friends and relatives, access to health facilities, employment," a participant said.

Cross-border movements can be a cause of concern

However, the group agreed that illegal cross-border movements are causing problems for the Bugesera-Kirundo community. Issues like fraud, child labour, a flow of stolen materials have led to tension, suspicion and mistrust between Rwandans and Burundians living in the area. For example, Burundians were particularly concerned about children dropping out of school to look for work in Rwandan homes across the border. The Burundian perception that Rwandan children are going to school and being educated, while Burundian children are working in the very homes where Rwandan students live has created tension between the two communities.

Through the dialogue, the Rwandans were given the opportunity to demonstrate that there were some nuances to the perception of the Burundian child labourers vs. the privileged Rwandan child students. They clarified that this was not the case with all the children who crossed the border, informing the Burundians that some of the children had been taken into Rwandan families and were being supported to get their education, with a number of them graduating from primary and secondary schools. This clarification that gave some relief to the Burundian participants. Still, the group collectively acknowledged and agreed that the issue of child labour was a serious problem that needed to be addressed.

Raising awareness as a first step

By listening to one another and mutually agreeing on the appropriate solution for the issue, the group proposed that there should be more awareness and sensitivity to the issue of child labour in Bugesera. Participants agreed that local leaders should make addressing child labour a priority for the community. In particular, the group found a way that they could address the issue immediately – through the networks they were forming through the cross-border dialogue.

Cross-border dialogue sparks grassroots initiatives

The plan, which is currently being implemented, is that when the Rwandan members of the dialogue group become aware of a Burundian child who has crossed the border looking for work, they will contact one of the Burundian participants and come up with a plan for returning the child to his or her home. This is just one of a number of grassroots initiatives that the group came up with to improve cross-border relations, thanks to the participatory nature of the Great Lakes Peacebuilding Programme.
The group is set to meet again at the end of April, when they will centre their discussions around a second theme that they will decide is relevant. The Burundians will play host this time, with the Rwandans visiting them in Kirundo.

This article was originally posted on the website of our partner, Never Again Rwanda (NAR), earlier this month. The version published on interpeace.org has been slightly modified.