Kalamazoo Documentary to feature man's peace efforts in Burundi

By Aaron Mueller

Kalamazoo Gazette

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - When Howard Wolpe reached retirement, he had one last goal.

He already had quite the resume - seven-term congressman, international expert on Africa and author of anti-apartheid legislation against the government of South Africa.

But Wolpe, who represented Kalamazoo in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1978 to 1992, wanted to publish a book on what he considered his finest accomplishment - helping to bring peace to the small African country of Burundi.

"He believed it was the most important work of his life, his most significant contribution to the greater good," his widow Julianne Fletcher told the Kalamazoo Gazette (http://bit.ly/1sJCCbY ).

Wolpe was on chapter four of the book when he died in 2011. "When he died, I found him in his office, and he was working on the fourth chapter of his book. His notebooks were all there. It broke my heart he couldn't finish it," Fletcher said.

But Fletcher said she is hopeful that a planned documentary film will help preserve in history the work that was done in Burundi.

"He talked about how important it is for this to get in the public record," Fletcher said.

"Fragile Island of Peace" is a documentary planned to be released in 2015 that will detail how a 10-year peace-building process united leaders from rebel militias and the national army and brought an end to civil war in Burundi. Burundi suffered an ethnic genocide similar to that of its neighbor Rwanda, in which about 250,000 people died between 1962 and 1993.

But Burundi went in a "remarkably different direction" than Rwanda, according to Boston filmmaker Jamil Simon, who is producing the film. Wolpe, who was named Special Envoy to Africa's Great Lakes Region by former President Bill Clinton, was able to help negotiate a peace treaty to end the Civil War, but that didn't end the fighting.

"But Howard was able to convince them (opposing armies) to show up in a neutral place and do a workshop on conflict resolution skills," Simon said. "One of the warriors from the militia told his wife that he thought he would get killed at the workshop, but instead they learned to focus on what they had in common, not just what separated them."

About 8,000 Burundians received the conflict resolution training.

"In a country with about 8 million people, that's a remarkable thing," Simon said. "This didn't get any attention in the newspapers or television, because there are no explosions and it all happened in the classroom. But the internal transformation was quite amazing."

The film will tell the story through the eyes of peacemakers and the Burundians, Simon said.

"Howard was an important catalyst, but it was really the Burundians who said we want more of this, we want peace. The story we want to tell is about the Burundians," Simon said.

Simon said he hopes that the film will serve as a model for other war-torn nations and regions to find peace.

A fundraising campaign has been launched on the fundraising website, Kickstarter, seeking $40,000 to fund a filming trip to Burundi.

"It's really hard to express how much this film would mean to Howard," Fletcher said. "Burundi was like a second home to him. He just loved Burundi."

Published: Tue, Dec 30, 2014