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Journey of hope
By Peter Burdin
BBC world assignments editor

Peter Burdin and Fergal Keane
Peter and Fergal's visit proved an emotional one
When the World Service suggested I return to Africa with Fergal Keane to produce a series to mark the tenth anniversary of both the genocide in Rwanda and the first democratic elections in South Africa, I jumped at the opportunity.

Fergal and I worked together in the Africa bureau in Johannesburg as correspondent and producer in the early nineties.

We covered the long road to the elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president, reporting on all the traumas fuelled by the death throes of apartheid and the township wars when thousands were killed. Then there was Rwanda, where 800,000 people were killed in the genocide.

Old haunts

The two places are indelibly marked in our hearts and our lives. Our return was painful at times, but ultimately it wasn't simply going back to places where we'd worked, it was a homecoming.

We returned to many of our old haunts in the townships. There was one place - Kumalo Street in Katlehong - that used to strike fear into the hearts of media teams sent to cover the violence.

As you drove down Kumalo Street, snipers would fire at your car or Zulu fighters armed with clubs and spears would spew out of the hostel, spreading mayhem and murder.

When we returned this year everything had changed - it was a peaceful sunny afternoon, children were playing outside the hostel and people hung out, chatting and listening to music.

Nelson Mandela is sworn in as President in 1994
Their time at the Africa bureau saw Nelson Mandela become President
We went to the spot where Fergal and Milton Nkosi (then our assistant producer and now bureau editor) had been pinned down by sniper fire. They lay flat under their car, 'eating the dirt' as we used to call it.

In their panic they forgot to turn off their recording gear and there's an amazing 15 minute tape of naked fear which should be required listening for any hostile environment training course.

On this visit we found a choir practice underway. We saw two white girls walking past with their black boyfriends. In 1994 that would have been unthinkable, suicidal. Ten years on, it felt so commonplace that we barely bothered to look.

Witnessing evil

South Africa has changed beyond recognition. There's still violent crime, massive rates of unemployment and poverty, but it's become such a normal society. It deserves that.

We just feel so privileged to have witnessed the birth pangs of that normality.

We journeyed on to Rwanda, where we had witnessed the evil of genocide, and Congo, where more than three million were killed in the war which followed it.

I returned to the Centre Christos, where I'd spent my first night in Kigali in 1994. It had been the very first place to be attacked when the killings began.

The priests there were butchered; - when we arrived, there were still machete blows in the doors and a stench of death.

Piles of skulls belonging to victims of the Rwandan genocide
Despite the genocide, people in Rwanda are optimistic about their future
Today it's a peaceful place, just like Kigali's genocide memorial, where a quarter of a million skulls and remains are displayed.

I don't think it's possible ever to get over, or come to terms with, witnessing genocide; the evil of it clings forever and screws you up. But Rwanda, too, was a journey of hope.

It was humbling to talk to the vast army of people there who are working to rebuild their society and make sure it never happens again.

People like Valentina, the young girl Fergal met in 1994 when she survived a massacre in which thousands of her neighbours were killed as they sought sanctuary in a church.

She now forgives the men who wiped out her family and who tried to kill her as well, and is back at school studying to be a doctor or a lawyer.

People dismiss Africa at their peril.

We found examples of forgiveness and reconciliation that the rest of the world would do well to learn from - and people struggling to overcome hardships that would crush the spirits of less resilient people.

Everyone who has ever worked in our Africa bureau has encountered the concept of Ubuntu, the traditional African belief that a human being is only a human being because of other human beings; in short, that we need each other to be truly human.

The sheer humanity of Africa is continuing to inform and inspire a new generation of BBC Africa correspondents and producers as they seek to report our most magnificent continent. They inspired me too.

As we drove under the blazing African sun to interview villagers, Fergal turned to me and said: "Here we are deep in the African bush, listening to people's stories and telling the world about them. This really must be the best job in the world."

I agree and if I could live my Africa years over again I would, every minute of them.


 

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