Founder biography

My name is Eric Niragira.  I am a Burundian from Kiganda Commune in Muramvya Province. I have lived my whole life in Burundi, completing secondary school in 2002 and graduating from university in 2011.

 

The following will provide a description of who I am, and how the war in Burundi affected my life, in particular as someone who has witnessed gross atrocities and survived.  As a result of these life experiences I wanted to make a positive effort to change the world.  This is my story as it relates to the creation of (CEDAC).What I am about to describe are only a minimum number of events and life experiences that have obliged me to make the decisions I have in consideration of our common humanity.  May each one of you who read this message find an auspicious opportunity to change your own behaviour and turn your focus towards bettering our world.

As said above,we are living still in Burundi, where I studied at ISGM University, focusing on management at the Technical Sciences of Development Faculty.


Ex-child soldier Eric Niragira, a Burundian-born Hutu, founded the
Training Centre for Development of Ex-Combatants (CEDAC).


What I hope to impart through this piece is the central point of my ideas formed around my existence, more particularly my survival during the time of war in Burundi which impacted not only my own personality but, in retrospect, the world.  My central idea was to develop one specific way to positively change the world: the creation of the Training Centre for Development of Ex-Combatants (CEDAC).

As I present lectures around the world, many people wonder how this initiative came to be and how its mission could favour humanity?  To answer the numerous questions of my interlocutors, I attempt here to make a historic receding of events that have marked my life – and changed my way to act.

My childhood was not unlike the one of others, especially as to this period when I had my parents.  They had forced me to go to school, and I went without understanding the importance of education at all.  In 1993, in the 14th year of my existence, the crisis occurred that had just carried away our nation’s first elected president.

In Burundi there are two main ethnics groups, Hutu and Tutsi, composing nearly all of our population.  The third group, the Twa, represent the minority.  In my surrounding social environment, some Hutus who were in majority in some regions killed Tutsis.  In other places, where Tutsis were the most numerous, it was the Hutus who were killed.  The army at that time was mostly comprised of Tutsis and the soldiers who restored order were used to slaughter many innocent Hutus.


This situation of criminality created in my subconscious a shock that led to far more questions than answers.  One of those questions was, Why had all these people murdered themselves?

This situation of war set back my entire school career so that the primary teaching that I should have finished in 1993 was not completed until 1995.  Everybody – woman, child and man – had been enrolled in the war without mercifulness and life was placed on hold.

Like all young Hutu of that time, I had been obliged to approach the new-born rebellion that told us to be ready to save and defend our democracy.  I participated heavily in both military and political activities during that rebellion.  I was fifteen years old when I join rebellion movement in 1994.

This situation pushed me to notice more events, bloody events that took many innocent lives.  I realized then that the population constituted a non-negligible strength that would be as great for the destruction as for peaceful rebuilding.  My family has been completely affected by the situation.  My dad, my mother, and my small brothers and sisters went into exile in Tanzania at the same moment that I entered to the secondary school in 1996.

I stayed in Burundi with my elder sister Esperance and my small brother Onesphore.  The rest of my family, all fled into exile, had to help us with our academic scholarships.  My aunt Edith and her family went into exile to Nairobi in Kenya, my paternal uncle Deo went into exile in Geneva, and my maternal uncle Nestor travelled to London.  I and my two siblings attended secondary studies under these conditions.

My sister and I went to start a secondary school in the Lycée located in our native commune.  As we arrived, we were savagely tortured by the students there.  The only reason was that we were Hutus.  In my class, we were twenty Hutus but only seven of us stayed, including my sister and I.  Every day, the government army went with our fellow Tutsi students to kill people who were in different villages surrounding our high school.  When they were back, they forced us to wash their clothes and their blood-drenched knives.  We did that for fear of being killed if we refuse to do so.


At night, these students tortured us for our ability to continue the studies.  One day, in May 1996, the Army accompanied by students from our high school went to my village and killed more than five hundred people.  When they returned to the Lycée, one student asked me. “Who has a father called Fiacre?  I want to tell him that I killed him myself.”  He had lied about killing my father but he wanted to make me fear and leave the school.


Burundi is a landlocked country in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa bordered by Rwanda (north), Tanzania (east and south), and the D.R. Congo (west).  Although the country is landlocked, much of the border is adjacent to Lake Tanganyika.
With a population of 8,700,000, it is the size of Massachusetts in land and people.

On Christmas Day 1996, I left the Lycée and went in the village because I wanted to share food with other members of my family during the Christmas celebration.  My village was located at 4 km from the Lycée.  Suddenly, when I was at 2km from the Lycée, I meet people who were running and when I asked them what happened, they told me that the military from Government were killing people in the village.  

My mind could not accept what they were telling me and i made the choice to continue my way to the village.  Before I arrive at home, I perceive everything close to me, someone I knew well, with a machete.  He was with the soldiers who were burning houses and killing people.  I was seized by a profound fear and I returned back in full silence.  On my return, I decide to go in another way by abandoning the road for fear that I might fall into an ambush of military.

Finally, I found in my way, people killed and houses burned.  Arriving back to the Lycée, I asked myself, What is important to live in world in this situation?   I thought that causing my own death could decrease my suffering, but I didn’t.

I grew in this situation.  I remember, when I was at the Lycée, every night before bedtime, I took a moment to think about the events I saw during war.  The people killed in my village, the explosions of grenades, seeing women raped, my family in exile, my own situation in the Lycée.  I thought about what I could do to help my people survive and make a change to my country.  One of the decisions I took was to continue supporting the rebellion movement politically by mobilising student and people to support this movement.

Besides my school activities, on weekends I climbed up into the mountains for the political mobilization of the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) movement which was fighting with the government army.  Working with the Major of Police for Burundi, my mission was to sensitize people about CNDD-FDD vision and why we need to fight for democracy.  

Another mission was to orient combatants when they were fighting against the army.  Sometimes, we went together with combatants to attack positions of army, but my priority was to finish my studies and support the movement CNDD-FDD in the same time with my studies.  During the period I realized that most victims of war are civilians.  Many of my friend combatants lost their lives too during this war.

Belonging to the movement gave me the opportunity to be in contact with important people.  One high personality who I respected, Mr. Jerome Ndiho, was in charge of communications for the CNDD FDD.  He was one of the people who helped me decide which positions to take with my life.

By 2002, I wanted to overcome the overwhelming trauma I had experienced.  I began to analyze how I should participate again in changing the world, more actively, while using all of my experience.  I had come to realize that one minute is sufficient to save life just as one minute is sufficient to lose life.  I dreamed of creating an organization to unite and reconcile all people – especially the young – around the theme of reconstruction.

This is how I was informed about an organization named Independent Centre of Research and initiatives for the Dialogue ‘CIRID’ based in Geneva.  That organization had been founded by Mr. Déo Hakizimana whom I respect a lot thanks to his opinion in favour of the humanity.  I quickly evolved in this organization as Chief of Staff of Youth Group in the international level.  That position gave me the opportunity to deepen my ideas.

Meeting other youth, I started to think how young people from across the Great Lakes region of Africa would play a good role in peace building in our different countries.  I proposed the creation of a regional network of the young people hired in the struggle for a best future of the Great Lakes region (website).

Through this initiative, I wanted the young people of the region have the opportunity to exchange ideas concerning problems common to the Great Lakes region and to suggest possible solutions as future leaders.  This echo has been warmly welcomed by all young people of the Diaspora as well as inside the region.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of support for the realization of this initiative; we didn’t reach the results we had hoped to.

The next idea was to create the Centre of Training and Development of Ex-Combatants (CEDAC).  In every step I had travelled, I realized that the creation of an organization would give me the ability to achieve the objective of building a better world.

Working with the project to fight landmines left from the war that the CIRID had conceived in collaboration with the Switzerland Foundation for Mine action, I noticed hundreds of ex combatants coming en mass to the Office of the CIRID looking for de-mining work.

In spite of the large number of people looking for work, only 24 were needed.  As former combatants and survivors, I felt that this non-negligible strength that had been used during a long war could be used to develop and rebuild Burundi.  It would serve as an example to discourage those politicians who wanted power by the way of weapons.  It would act as an example for all the rest of the population working in all initiatives that sought peace and struggled against poverty.


It could be an opportunity for helping ex-combatants in social and economic reintegration and offer assistance to all who were victims of war in Burundi.  Finally, I wanted ex-combatants to be an example of peacebuilding and development in Burundi as a model around the world.

I shared the information with our friend ex-combatants who finally accepted to join me in this initiative.  I also discovered that there were other people that thought the same way as me.  Among these people was Colonel Aloys Sindayihebura.  He gave me the advice I needed.  I chose a team of nine people including the colonel and we agreed in 2005.on the creation of the Training Centre for Development of Ex-Combatants.  “CEDAC” is its French acronym

Created in September 2005, the main objective was to show to the national and international community that civil disarmament was possible, in spite of a reticence on behalf of many people who thought that this was not the right time.  We agreed on the principle that: No one can construct a country where bombs, grenades, and weapons are still rumbling forever.  We chose disarmament as our first activity.

Because of my past, remembering the civilians killed, ex-combatants who lost their lives and others who were disabled, women raped, and kids who were orphans because of these weapons, I believed strongly that disarmament was a prerequisite.

I believed we would reach our goal when peace and security reigned in Burundi. My goal was to have ex-combatants show a good example by fighting against weapons and armed violence.  Then I thought, civilians will join us in the initiative and our nation will be in peace, allowing other projects of development to be realised.


Meanwhile, our first operation has been achieved here at Bujumbura where many munitions have been officially retired by our beneficiary members of the town.  Feeling the necessity to spread this initiative to the national level, we tried to know if all ex-combatants of the countryside could share with us in this experience.  We soon collected positive echoes in all provinces of Burundi.

What created in my mind a surprise was to understand how people from various army movements who had different political opinions during the war could work together with energy to achieve the goals of CEDAC.


Eric (second from left) during the campaign against armed violence in Burundi.

What my reader should know is that all these works were achieved in a voluntary manner.  This gave us an opportunity to be in contact with important dignitaries to start with, such as His Excellence President of Republic of Burundi Peter Nkurunziza who congratulated us on our initiative to sensitize against armed violence and light weapon in Burundi.  My mood started to change positively when I noticed that I can start something appreciated in such high level as the President of the Republic.

During our work, I had the opportunity to be in contact with many local association and Non Governmental Organisations operating in Burundi with some possibilities to look for funding.  What was very deep to me was when I noticed that others who had passed in similarly bad situations were glad to join me in support.  I was further impressed to receive messages of congratulations from some donors like UNDP and other decision makers in Burundi.


European activists working for Small Arms Survey Geneva during the campaign.

With the evolution of activities of CEDAC, I felt that the creation of an organization that could act as a framework of expression for African ex-combatants.  A researcher of the Small Arms Survey (institute of research on small arms and light weapons, based to Geneva), with whom I had shared the idea in 2006 during a mission of research that I especially led with this organization on the disarmament in Burundi, congratulated me on this highly ambitious idea.


An expert from U.N., who stayed at Bujumbura for the diplomatic missions and with whom I was able to met, encouraged the initiative.  In addition of his moral encouragement, he submitted to the U.N. Security Council a letter that I had addressed to the President of the Council on the tentative nature of the solution to lasting peace in the Great Lakes region of Africa.


Eric speaking at commemoration of International Day to People with Disabilities.

I was convinced and I remain convinced that the instability of the peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) affects all the Great Lakes region of Africa.  When anyone wants to look for a lasting solution, he must bring a contribution there.  My exchanges with all of the personalities from around the world finally pushed me to a conclusion: We needed to consolidate the situation in Burundi before spreading activities to other African nations.

Since 2008, we have consolidated our energies first inside Burundi with the principle to first count on our own strengths and the support will come after.  My entire team works with this conviction and we reach for positive results.  Through this vision, we asked former combatants to start income generating activities by their own contribution and CEDAC will bring donors in the field to visit and support the projects that have been successful.


Members of CEDAC during the campaign against armed violence in Burundi.

Remembering my situation when I was child soldier, I thought how I could help children who were in the same situation as me and founded an NGO that could train other child soldiers in computer science and mechanics.   Currently, CEDAC possesses a structure of the ex-fighting women from the hills until the national echelon because of the financial support of the UNIFEM, especially as we are convinced in CEDAC that “To Educate a woman is to educate the entire nation” and “No peace without the inclusion of women as well as no development without women.”  A structure of youth network within CEDAC is already functioning.  The young must be cultivated in development as they are the future leaders of this world.


In 2009, I got an opportunity to share my vision with different high personalities from around the world.  My organisation was honoured to be visited by Howard Buffet, a great American business man, Jerry White, Founder and Executive Director of Survivor Corps, Dr. Ken Rutherford, Executive Director of the Center for International Stabilisation and Recovery at James Madison University.  Having an opportunity to meet these personalities, I feel committed to continue my vision.


Eric received the Niarchos Price in 2010 for his work with ex-child soldiers.

In May 2010, I was honoured to receive Niarchos award 2010 through Survivor Corps.  The late Stavros Niarchos was a leader in global activism.  The Stavros Niarchos Foundation carries on this legacy.  Since 2005, the Foundation has sponsored the Niarchos Prize.  It is presented by Survivor Corps to honor individuals and organizations that promote survivorship and resilience through outstanding contributions to peace-building, reconciliation, and recovery in conflict and post-conflict societies.

I had the opportunity to visit Colombia for the first meeting of states to ban landmines, to New York for the 2010 U.N. General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), to Geneva for the 2010 conference on armed violence and development, and to Vientiane, Laos for the first meeting of state parties to Cluster Munitions Coalitions.  These conferences gave me opportunities to present my work in Burundi as an advocate for assistance to victim of war in my country.  


Eric interviewed during ceremonies of International Day to People with Disabilities.

Currently, CEDAC is working with 25,000 ex-combatants with a full commitment to achieve its goal of peace and in Burundi.  To tell about my evolution during more than a decade in this career, leading toward the best future for the world in general and my country in particular, could take so long time.

I remain convinced that our example shows how any person is able to achieve action if he develops his talents in spite of whatever has happened to you .  My advice is that it is necessary to be someone who always takes and achieves initiatives, especially those that lead toward a collective interest.  It could take a long time, years or centuries… but if one is convinced that what he or she is doing is good, the goal can be achieved.

I remain certain that CEDAC will be able to continue to contribute efficiently in changing the world, however long it should take.  I thank God the powerful who gave me the opportunity to survive, my family, and all my colleagues who shared with me their experiences.

Eric is an ex-child soldier from Burundi who founded a training center for development of ex-combatants known as CEDAC, funded heavily from European sources.  After combat, Eric contin-ued his studies and then created CEDAC to share experiences with other ex-combatants, and analyze together how to prevent conflict in future – “Never Again.”  His vision is to promote social change through peace consolidation and development.  One of the organization’s largest pro-grams is the collection of small arms from the communities across West Africa.  Today CEDAC has 25,000 members from various armed movements.  In addition to his work in Africa, Eric serves as a Global Adviser to The International University Center Haiti (Uni Center).

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