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Part 1: Many Rwandan survivors only now starting to confront their trauma.
This is the first part of a three-part series. See Part 2: "One community works for forgiveness." And see the slideshow in this story.
KIGALI, Rwanda — This April, like last year and the year before that, Christine Uwimana will join thousands of others at the mass graves.
She thinks about her family buried there throughout the year, of course. But for her and other survivors of the Rwandan genocide, April starts the 100 days of pilgrimage in which the entire nation mourns its recent trauma.
On April 7 — the 15th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide — the country will stop. Shops will be closed and buses will not run. The radio will play only songs of mourning. Millions will gather at memorial sites across the country to remember the dead and listen to the testimony of the living.
And this year, like last year and the year before that, the trauma will return. Women will wail, and men will faint. They will be carried away from the thousands-strong throng of mourners and taken to a special room for those who “get trauma,” as they put it here. And probably this year, like last year and the year before, there will be more of them.
In 1994, in April, May and June, Rwanda experienced a bloodbath in which Hutu extremists murdered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Fifteen years after the genocide, specialists say, Rwanda still has not healed. At the Kigali Memorial Center, where Uwimana’s family is buried with thousands of others, staff say the number of trauma cases they see at their April 7 commemoration is increasing. A national trauma counseling program last year worked with more than 10,000 patients. And in rural and urban Rwanda alike, survivors say their painful memories are becoming more acute.
“In Rwanda the trauma problem is as big as the country is,” says Jeanne Mukamusome, director of medical services at AVEGA, a national association for widows with headquarters in Kigali. “Each one of us faces his own problems on his own time … Even those who are not yet facing their trauma might … in 15 years, 30 years, or more.”
AVEGA has 650 volunteer trauma counselors across the country, trained as first responders for the traumatized, who are usually survivors. Often, they seek treatment for headaches or other physical pain, never thinking their condition might be related to the genocide.
“They usually [say], ‘I am living with it, I accepted it. I am OK with it … so it cannot be that,” she says. “Then, after that, when we start working with them is when they realize, yes, there’s a connection between these.”
Laurie Pearlman, a clinical psychologist who has been working in Rwanda for the past 10 years, says it is always difficult to identify a real increase in numbers.
“There’s always this question … are more people coming forward for help, or are there really more people experiencing the problem?” Pearlman says. “When we went there in 1999 there was very little in way of services for people. There was something like 30 trained trauma counselors in the country … Even if there was awareness [about trauma services], there was so little access."