Reporting on civil war often focuses on the institutional and military components of a conflict despite the fact that it is undoubtedly the nation's civilians that are most seriously affected. In Burundi, a country which receives very little journalistic emphasis in the Western media, the civilian perspective on its ruinous, decades-long civil war has been conspicuously silent. Peter Uvin, the Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University, has sought to address this absence through his work, Life After Violence: A People's Story of Burundi. On Thursday, November 5th, the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars invited Uvin to discuss his recently published book.
The analysis presented in Uvin's work is based on hundreds of interviews conducted with Burundians over the course of the author's nine month stay in the country. Seeking to obtain a truly first-hand, uniquely Burundian perspective of the war, the interviewees were asked open-ended questions in order to avoid prompting specific answers. Questions mostly addressed their personal memories of peace negotiations and post-conflict development, as well as their perceptions of modern-day Burundian society. This unorthodox research methodology was employed across a wide demographic range with numerous subjects from different ethnicities, classes, professions, and genders. Uvin traveled extensively throughout the country during the research process, interviewing Burundians in areas ranging from the slums of Bujumbura, Internally Displaced Persons Camps, Nyanza Lac, and refugee areas located along the border with Tanzania.
The findings of Uvin's research reveal a multitude of discoveries regarding perceptions of civil conflict and violence that are both particular to Burundi and consistent with many cultures. When asked about the improvements that needed to be made to administrative institutions, many Burundians' primarily addressed the provision of basic needs and the need for mutual respect and harmony. Beyond these two key issues, they also commented on the importance of the rule of law and initiatives to combat corruption. An interesting distinction in the Burundians' responses, in comparison with similar interviews done in Rwanda, was that the usual institutional framework for capacity building did not figure greatly in their thinking. The emphasis was placed on improving individual people rather than institutions as a whole.
While many responses were specifically directed at respondents' local contexts and reflected specific Burundian cultural values, Uvin was able to discern several more general themes from his research. He maintains that, though they never mentioned the concept explicitly, the Burundians' replies are all concerned with the issue of human rights. The consistency in responses throughout such a large and diverse sample size, in Uvin's view, reflects a widespread desire on the part of Burundians for the protections afforded by human rights-focused legislation. Though they discuss these concepts in their own culturally-influenced fashion, Uvin noticed many interesting parallels between the ways in which both Westerners and Burundians discuss this subject.
Marc Sommers, the Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace, gave a critique of Uvin's work, praising it for its disarming informality and high level of accessibility. The methodology employed by Uvin was, in Sommers' opinion, radical in the way it challenged the strictly hierarchical structure of Burundian society. In a country where elites are seen as "informers" of the public, there are very few outlets through which the poor and uneducated are permitted to express their viewpoints. Uvin's research provided a forum for the members of this neglected segment of Burundian society, particularly the nation's youth, to voice their perspective of history. Additionally, Sommers views Uvin's work as a valuable counterpoint to studies about neighboring Rwanda, a country whose internal conflict among Hutus and Tutsis has received far more international attention and academic scholarship.
Uvin's study, though providing a comprehensive account that helps fill a conspicuous gap in scholarship about the civilian experience in the Burundian civil war, is perhaps more significant for its potential applications to post-conflict capacity building. In Uvin's view, studies such as his yield results relatively quickly. While his research took roughly nine months to complete, international organizations and governing institutions frequently take years to collect the information that he was able to obtain with minimal staff. By further refining and employing the tactics utilized by Uvin, it could be possible to better respond to and provide the needs of a country's citizenry after the trauma of civil conflict.