LONDON - A Burundian activist credited with saving thousands of children's lives during a 12-year ethnically charged civil war is the first recipient of a new humanitarian prize presented by Hollywood actor and campaigner George Clooney.
Marguerite Barankitse, a former teacher, founded the Maison Shalom (the house of peace) orphanage in eastern Burundi in 1993 to house a growing number of children orphaned during the conflict that devastated the country until 2005.
The award was presented as the small central African country faces its worst crisis since the civil war ended with hundreds killed and thousands forced to flee abroad.
"Our values are human values," Barankitse said in a statement after receiving the award from Clooney, co-chair of the prize selection committee, in the Armenian capital Yerevan, late Sunday.
"When you have compassion, dignity and love then nothing can scare you, nothing can stop you – no one can stop love. Not armies, not hate, not persecution, not famine, nothing."
Burundi's civil war pitted what was then a Tutsi-led army against Hutu rebel groups. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the conflict in which 300,000 people were killed.
Barankitse, a Tutsi, started to care for orphans and refugees following an unsuccessful attempt to hide dozens of her Hutu neighbors at the start of the war.
They were discovered and Barankitse, stripped and tied to a chair, was forced to watch them hacked to death with machetes.
But she continued her work and is credited with helping more than 20,000 orphans and other children in need and in 2008 opened a hospital which has treated more than 80,000 patients.
"Marguerite Barankitse serves as a reminder of the impact that one person can have even when encountering seemingly insurmountable persecution and injustice," Clooney said in a statement.
"By recognizing Marguerite Barankitse's courage, commitment and sacrifice, I am hopeful that she can also inspire each one of us to think about what we can do to stand up on behalf of those whose rights are abused and are in most need of our solidarity or support."
Barankitse will receive a $100,000 grant and plans to donate an extra $1 million award to three organizations that help children.
The annual Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity was founded by Armenia-based 100 LIVES, a global initiative that commemorates a 1915 massacre in which up to 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Muslims.