09/23/2013 01:20 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Peace-building From the Bottom up

Saturday, Sept. 21 was the International Day of Peace, particularly apt given recent discussions of intervening in Syria. My home country, Burundi, is one of many post-conflict countries we can learn from as the U.S. considers implementing "pro-peace" interventions across the globe. Indeed, many have compared the Syrian civil war to that of Burundi's better-known neighbor, Rwanda.

As an ethnic minority, I was persecuted during the Burundian Civil War, which overlapped with the genocide in Rwanda and stemmed from similar tensions. I witnessed horrible violence and narrowly escaped falling victim to it. Those experiences prompted me to make reconciliation part of my life's work. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for peace; I can only describe what has worked in my home village of Kigutu, Burundi.

Burundi was ripped apart by fighting between the Hutus and Tutsis. Division between these ethnic groups, which are virtually indistinguishable, was fomented by the Belgian colonial government in order to create a local administrative class. Decades after Burundi achieved independence, it descended into a genocidal civil war that lasted from 1993 to 2006. We lost family members and friends, and we carried our tragedies like luggage. We felt long abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world.

After the civil war, I visited two major public hospitals and found thirty-eight patients imprisoned there. These patients were detained because they were unable to pay for the inadequate treatment they had received. The policy was a result of external pressures for public hospitals to be more financially 'sustainable.' One elderly woman, Generose, had lost her entire family in the war. She was detained for thirteen months in a public hospital because she could not pay a $3.40 medical bill.

However, in the hospital detention rooms, humanity bloomed. Hutus and Tutsis who were detained together became close friends. In one hospital room I visited, there were two mothers, a Hutu and a Tutsi, each with a sick daughter. One mother had no money at all, while the other had enough to pay for her daughter's substandard care. Rather than spend all her money on her own daughter, this mother decided to pay for the other daughter's care too. The two mothers slept on the floor as their daughters shared one bed, medications, and meager food. In many hospital cells, you encountered similar acts of empathy and compassion.

Seeing such Hutu-Tutsi reconciliation occur under dire conditions in hospital detention rooms inspired me to mobilize my home village, Kigutu. If patients -- women and men, Hutus and Tutsis -- could move past their differences in the depressing confines of a patient detention room, why couldn't they similarly build peace in their home communities? How could we draw forth the better angels of our nature, to use Lincoln's famous phrase, in order to build a society that can move beyond its past brutality?

By providing compassionate health care, complemented with education and agricultural and occupational training services, we at Village Health Works are working to ensure that the horrors my family and I lived through never happen again. As I say time and time again, we are not just building a health center, we are building peace.

Most of the official reconciliation conferences have taken place in Europe or Tanzania, not in Burundi and not within the communities where the violence occurred. In Kigutu, among Village Health Works' 265 paid employees and hundreds of volunteers, program participants, and patients, Hutus and Tutsis collaborate with a common vision in mind: a healthier and more peaceful nation. This grassroots, communal effort is healing the wounds of the genocide.

Laboring together to improve health and the local economy has been immensely therapeutic. Our women's income-generating cooperatives, for example, not only increase economic stability and self esteem among participants, but also create safe spaces where people can share their experiences of trauma and gender-based violence during the civil war and even today.

At Village Health Works it is our hope that our health center -- really, our reconciliation center -- will inspire imitation far beyond our borders.