Ex-Marylanders live as they preach in Burundi

Missionaries' camp provides food, shelter for 5,000 needy refugees

October 22, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- When Carl and Eleanor Johnson came here, the primary goal of the former Marylanders, as missionaries for the Protestant Brethren Assemblies, was to preach the gospel.

Fifty years later, their assignment has moved beyond spreading the Word to serving as inadvertent hosts of a camp filled with 5,000 refugees who have fled the terror that threatens to tear this tiny central African nation apart.

The camp sprang up six years ago, as frightened civilians fled to what used to be a missionary station in this picturesque capital.

As patrons of the refuge, the Johnsons have found themselves embroiled in the simmering conflict. Although friends and relatives have beseeched them to forsake Burundi, the couple have felt compelled to stay, hopeful that one day the country will be saved from utter despair.

"We've been very happy, on the whole, very satisfied," said Carl Johnson, 83. "We feel like we're home."

In recent years, their adopted homeland has turned into a killing field. More than 200,000 Burundians have died in attacks by ethnic Hutu rebels and counterattacks by government forces since 1993, when Tutsi paratroopers killed the first democratically elected president, a Hutu.

Tutsis, a minority here, control most political, financial and military institutions. Intensified peace negotiations over the past year have failed.

As insecurity mounts, Johnson Camp has been flooded primarily with Hutu civilians fleeing violence that has uprooted families from their land.

Hutus and Tutsis "used to live happily together," said Eleanor Johnson, 84, a native of Towson. "There was a lot of intermarriage. The conflict has widened the gap between them."

The couple have been a force encouraging international donor groups to give food and medical aid to the camp dwellers, in the absence of local assistance.

Residents live in tin shacks or under plastic sheeting hung over wooden beams. When it rains, rivers of brown slush run through the camp. Diseases are easily spread in the close quarters, with dysentery and tuberculosis rife.

The Johnsons work at keeping spirits high by organizing extracurricular activities such as a choir and music classes, and ensuring that schools for the deaf and blind operate despite the lack of basic facilities.

The couple's presence has helped the camp survive, despite the wish of many Tutsis that it be leveled and the people sent home.

Burundian officials worry that the camp might be infiltrated by Hutu rebels.

"If they see Johnson Camp as a strategic point, they could use it," said Gerard Ndayisenga, a senior government adviser.

The Johnsons say that prayer, not politics, is their mission.

"We're bringing the word of God and seeing people converted," Eleanor Johnson said.

The couple joined the Christian Brethren in 1937 while attending Wheaton College in Illinois. He was a sophomore working toward his bachelor's degree; she was graduating and preparing to work on her master's degree.

Married for 60 years, with seven children -- one of whom has adopted three Burundian girls -- the couple have forsaken the conveniences of modern-day America for the cramped quarters of a small brick house. They depend on kerosene lamps, candles and an electrical generator for light.

When "Old Man Johnson," as he is affectionately known, makes a tour of the camp -- copper-colored cane in hand -- children flock to touch and greet him.

"They are very generous," said Emanuel Bariwegure, 42, who has lived at the camp since it opened but has known the Johnsons since he was a child. "If they had not been here, many more people would have died."

"They are incredibly good people," said Sharon Kellman, an official with the United Nations' World Food Program, which regularly provides rations to the camp. "I find myself wondering if they can be human, they're so loving and caring."

The Johnsons are considering retiring next year. But many feel their souls will remain in Burundi.

"They are an institution here," Kellman said.

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