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War orphans turn tragedy into triumph

By Emily Wither for CNN
  • Marguerite Barankitse founded Maison Shalom in the early 90s
  • The orphanage has grown to become a large development with a hospital
  • Photographer Fabrice Monteiro interviewed some of the orphans as adults
  • Barankitse says more than 10,000 children have been helped by Maison Shalom

(CNN) -- In 1993, during one of the worst days of the Burundi Civil War, one woman came to the rescue of 25 children and gave them hope for the future.

On the morning of October 24, Marguerite Barankitse, known as "Maggy," witnessed the murder of over 70 people in Ruyigi, during the civil war between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Burundi.

Barankitse gathered together a group of children orphaned by the fighting and provided food and shelter for them.

The armed conflict ran from 1993 to 2005, following the country's first democratic elections since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962. When the chosen head of state was assassinated years of Hutu-Tutsi violence followed, killing an estimated 300,000 people.

Barankitse opened Maison Shalom, which she says from the outset was not just an ordinary orphanage but also a place for children to grow in self respect and build a future.

"Also, to show my Burundian brothers that it was still possible to live in peace with all ethnic groups and to give the orphans back their dignity and 'joie de vivre,'" Barankitse explained.

From its humble beginnings with just 25 children, Maison Shalom has now grown into a development of houses with everything from children's day care to a hospital.

"Maison Shalom grew because the war lasted more than 10 years, and over the years, it ended up as the home of more than 10,000 children who were in need of shelter," Barankitse said.

We didn't want to focus on the massacres and horrors that happened in 1993 but hear about people's present lives ..."
--Fabrice Monteiro, photographer

In 2010, Belgian/Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro was asked by a friend to help promote Maison Shalom. Monteiro and his girlfriend Pauline Lecointe traveled to Burundi to meet some of those who grew up at Maison Shalom.

Through photographs and interviews the pair gathered together a snap shot of what some of the children of Maison Shalom have gone on to do as adults.

"We didn't want to focus on the massacres and horrors that happened in 1993 but hear about people's present lives and their hopes for the future," Monteiro explained.

Monteiro asked his subjects to choose where they wanted to be photographed and used props to tell their stories. He says he found the group an inspiration to others.

"I am fascinated by the strength of the human being," he said. "In spite of the fact that they've seen and lived through the worst, in spite of the fact that for some of them they are living their everyday life next to their family executioners, they remain alive and kicking, with plenty of projects and hopes."

Among some the orphans that the pair spoke to were Lysette and her little sister Lidia. Lysette's mother trusted Barankitse to look after her children when she chose to stay and die with her Hutu husband, even though she was of Tutsi origin.

In interviews with Lecointe, 22-year-old Lysette says she is currently working as a secretary at Maison Shalom but plans to study international law at a Canadian university.

Lysette says that she hopes to one day spread the message of Maison Shalom. "Whatever you do, do not let yourself down, there are always good things that await you somewhere else," she told Monteiro.

There is also Richard, who now works as an assistant to Barankitse. He says he was ambushed with his family in their home. Soldiers set fire to their roof and waited outside with their guns, shooting every person who tried to escape the flames.

Monteiro photographed Richard's scars from the burns he suffered on his back. He says that despite Richard's constant reminder of his parents' death he has grown up to be a man of great wisdom and serenity.

I know that I can die in peace now, because my children will continue to pass on the message of peace and love wherever they are.
--Marguerite 'Maggy' Barankitse, founder of 'Maison Shalom'
  • Burundi
  • Civil War
  • Africa

Then there's Pascasie, who says she saw her parents murdered and had her right index finger mutilated. Now aged 30, she told Lecointe that when she first met Barankitse she was told to "be at ease, sing, dance."

Pascasie is now a social worker at Rema hospital, a facility that opened with the backing of Maison Shalom in 2008. "I love my job, it makes me happy to talk with people and help them," she said.

Barankitse has gone on to open other shelters and win awards around the world for her hard work and dedication to protecting children.

"I have a feeling of gratitude because I have seen my message understood by my children," she said.

"I know that I can die in peace now, because my children will continue to pass on the message of peace and love wherever they are, and that they will therefore be helping to build a better world," she continued.

Monteiro says all the stories are a tribute to Barankitse's hard work.

"Thanks to the support and affection of Maggy, she taught the children to forgive and move forward," he said.

"I found in Maggy someone that follows her beliefs. She proves through her actions what love can do for all of us" he continued.

"You spend a few days with her and you realize that love can really move mountains."