The Last Time the World Looked the Other Way

05/14/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016
JENNIFER HUXTA via Getty Images

Yesterday, a coup d'état took place in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. The coup followed weeks of violent protests in which at least 20 people have been killed. Tonight, there is heavy gunfire all over the city as rival forces battle for control over the small East African nation.

Events are unfolding as I write; it is still too early to know what the coup attempt will mean for the people of Burundi - or for the students of the Akilah Institute, a women's college with campuses in Burundi and Rwanda.

Bernadette Niyoyitungira is a student of mine at Akilah Burundi. She's extremely proud to be getting an education. Unfortunately this is not the first time that Bernadette has witnessed violence in her country. She wears a badly fitted prosthetic leg as a result of a gunshot wound from the Burundian civil war in 1994.

Today, Burundi is again on the verge of chaos. Fighting has spread throughout the capital of Bujumbura because the incumbent President, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he will run for a third term, a move opponents consider a violation of the Constitution.

I recently made the difficult decision to temporarily close Akilah in Burundi because it is not safe for our 150 students to travel to campus amid the violence. Girls from Bernadette's generation, who still suffer the physical and emotional scars of war, now face the possibility that their country will again descend into conflict, and cut short their education and dreams for a better future.

I moved to the region shortly after graduating college in 2006 because I was haunted by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The world looked away, which emboldened the killers, and over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during 100 days of bloodshed.

I wanted to be part of the reconciliation effort. My husband Dave Hughes and I opened Akilah's first campus in Rwanda in 2010 to educate and empower young women, most of whom lost family members during the 1994 genocide.

Ninety-five young women have graduated from Akilah and now work in professional jobs that open new possibilities for their families and children. We opened our second campus in Burundi in 2014. Today, 550 students across both campuses prepare to launch their careers.

The conflict in Burundi has a complex history. Its roots trace back to colonial rule under Belgium, when the people of Rwanda and Burundi - then one nation - were given arbitrary ethnic identities based purely on socioeconomic status. The wealthy minority who owned cattle (a sign of wealth) received Tutsi identification cards, and were used by the Belgians as a proxy for colonial rule over the rest of the country. When Belgium finally granted independence to Rwanda and Burundi on July 1, 1962, the majority Hutu, mistreated by the Tutsi at Belgium's behest, orchestrated a campaign of hatred and vengeance against the Tutsi. Periodic pogroms organized by Hutu Power militias ensued, which led to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and the protracted 12-year civil war in Burundi.

Rwanda today is one of the safest and fastest-growing countries in Africa. It has benefitted from international aid and investment under the competent leadership of President Paul Kagame. But its neighbor, Burundi, remains the world's fourth poorest country. Last week we saw the worst violence in Burundi since the end of the war in 2005. There is gunfire in multiple neighborhoods, limited transportation, and many institutions and businesses are closed. The government has shut down radio stations and blocked social media. The airport is closed and all international flights are canceled.

The police respond to the protests with water cannons, tear gas, and bullets, and have injured and killed some protestors. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested while journalists and activists were attacked in the streets. Last weekend, grenade attacks killed police officers and civilians. CNN reports that some, including children, have been tortured, while armed youth militias await orders to strike.

Many of our students, like Bernadette, lived through a civil war between the Tutsi-controlled army and Hutu rebels that only ended in 2005 and resulted in the deaths of over 300,000 Burundians. It is heartbreaking for those of us who live, work, and invest in the region to contemplate that history may repeat itself.

More than 50,000 refugees, 60% of whom are children, have fled to neighboring countries, fearing a genocide. This number is expected to rise in the coming weeks, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

It is always children who are most affected by conflict. They are not only its immediate victims, but also the ones who inherit the responsibility to rebuild what their predecessors destroyed. For Bernadette, rebuilding began with her desire to gain an education and take control of her future. Now, Bernadette, and others like her, face the possibility that what happened to them not long ago could take place all over again.

Even as Americans watch events in Syria, Iran, and Nepal unfold, I hold onto the hope that this time, it will be different in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

We are optimistic that the East African Community will play a leadership role in preventing a full-scale civil war, as a conflict in Burundi would embroil the entire region. But it has been 67 years since the United Nations member countries agreed to "never again" allow a genocide to take place anywhere in the world, and I admit to feeling less sanguine that they will commit to action.

Nonetheless, I reassure Bernadette and all Akilah students that the world has learned from the events of 1994. "That was the last time the international community looked the other way. Do not give up on your dreams and your education," I tell them. I hope that I will not be proven wrong.