Vineyard woman begins bold adventure in Rwanda

— Photo courtesy of Grace Burton-Sundman

Grace Burton-Sundman, a 2006 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, has taken the bold step of traveling on her own to Rwanda with the hope that she will be able to be of use in healing the still-festering wounds of the 1994 genocide, in which the majority Hutu (comprising about 85 percent of Rwandans) waged a war of extermination against the minority Tutsi (about 14 percent).

In the Rwandan genocide, Tutsi and even some Hutus suspected of being Tutsi-sympathizers were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped, for in the cultures of the region, rape is a weapon of warfare. It is estimated that some 800,000 men, women, and children died. The nations of the world, including the U.S., stood by and declined to intervene. The war is over in Rwanda, but it continues in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Considering the damage to both victims and perpetrators caused by the genocide, Rwanda is recovering well. According to its government website, Rwanda has a flourishing tourist industry and welcomes international business. According to NPR, Rwanda has an annual GDP growth of better than seven percent. However there is much work to be done in reconciling the two tribes and moving forward.

Ms. Burton-Sundman, who flew to Kigali, capitol of Rwanda, last week, has an interest in eventually volunteering with the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding (KCP) in Rwanda.

The KCP has worked all over the world in places such as Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, and most notably in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as Rwanda. On its web page, the KCP describes itself this way: “The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding is committed to the development and implementation of innovative, sustainable strategies for conflict transformation and community reconciliation in societies where ethnic, religious, sectarian, or political conflict threatens the possibility of a healthy, inclusive democracy.”

In a telephone interview, Ms. Burton-Sundman acknowledged that she is a long way from joining the work of the KCP, even as a volunteer. She has had no training in the culture and politics of the area or in the skills used by the KCP. She doesn’t speak French, the “official language,” or any local Rwandan language. Nevertheless, she is committed for the long haul and bold enough to try.

Olivia Dreier, KCP executive director, told The Times in a telephone interview that she has put Ms. Burton-Sundman in touch with several non-government organizations which she considers “partners” of the KCP. She said that organizations such as the Rwandan Genocide Museum, orphanages, rescue agencies, and various women’s support groups can probably use volunteers in secretarial work with computers or in communications or transportation.

In a press release, Ms. Burton-Sundman wrote, “At age 24, I don’t expect to have the experience or skills to solve big problems…. I’ve been told that if I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and go to work, I can help make peace.” She told The Times that she thinks it will take months for her to gain the trust of people at the KCP. She needs to show them that she is not just a tourist, which is why she is planning on three to six months, at her own expense and with support from interested donors. In Rwanda, she will have the support of her friend, Vineyard summer resident Rebecca Ratner, who has been in Rwanda for two years.

Ms. Burton-Sundman comes honestly by her humanitarian impulses. Her mother, Betty Burton-Sundman of Tisbury, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, where she met Grace’s father, John Sundman, now working in Senegal. An uncle, Joe Jacungelo, has worked in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). At St. Lawrence University, where she earned her BA, Ms. Burton-Sundman worked as a rape counselor with a group called Advocate and with Male Athletes Against Sexual Violence.

Persons interested in following Grace Burton-Sundman can read her blog at One can support her financially at For more information about the Karuna Center, go to