Film to highlight ex-Mich. Rep. Wolpe’s work in Burundi

Aaron Mueller
Kalamazoo Gazette

Kalamazoo – — 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, a Democrat 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,” said his widow, Julianne Fletcher.

Wolpe died in 2011 at age 71. “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. The country suffered an ethnic genocide similar to that of its neighbor Rwanda, in which about 250,000 people died between 1962 and 1993.

But Burundi then 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 then President Bill Clinton, was able to help negotiate a peace treaty, 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.”

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