Rwanda's genocide — 15 years later

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."


Mukamusome says an apparent increase in trauma cases may also be because survivors who have found ways to meet their basic survival needs are only now confronting long-suppressed psychological wounds.

“In 1996, when people came to AVEGA, it was more to look for shelter, school fees, food or clothes for their children or themselves,” she says. “Today, it’s more complicated. The trauma is more psychologically oriented.”

Ironically, one mechanism of reconciliation in Rwanda may also be contributing to the trauma survivors feel. Gacaca, which loosely translates as “justice on the grass,” are the places where those accused of genocide stand trial. In the last three years, over 12,000 Gacaca courts have tried nearly 1 million genocide suspects. The courts, which came to an end in March, brought the accused before the community where their alleged crimes were committed; survivors offered testimony, and others in the community — who are encouraged to the point of near-compulsion to attend the weekly proceedings — chime in with information about the crimes or the suspect.

It’s a process that’s been praised by some outside observers as a model for “participatory justice” in post-conflict communities, and the painstaking efforts to record the details of every alleged crime have revealed incredible amounts of information about how the genocide was perpetrated.

It’s information survivors like Christine Uwimana are glad to have, but it’s also what kept her from attending the Gacaca in her community.

“I didn’t want to go there before they called me [to give testimony], because … it brings back bad things,” she says. “Some of my friends or neighbors would go to Gacaca and come back and talk about what they heard. I would be affected by what they were saying.”

It’s a reaction that the government, in fact, anticipated. The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission conducted a survey in 2003, after an extensive awareness campaign about Gacaca, and asked Rwandans what they expected to come from the process. More than half of the survivors they surveyed said they expected Gacaca to re-traumatize them.

Denis Bikesha, who was in charge of those awareness campaigns and other outreach efforts for the National Service of Gacaca Courts, says it would be impossible to expect the proceedings not to be difficult for survivors, many of whom learned only in Gacaca just how their families died.

“Dying as a word is very simple,” he says. “But if I come during Gacaca and say, ‘This is how I killed your mother’ — if I narrate the story, then trauma takes place.”

At the same time, Bikesha says, this is part of moving on.

“Psychologists say even this is healing,” he says. “If you don’t get the information out … it causes problems.”

Ervin Staub, a professior of psychology at the Universtiy of Massachusetts in Boston and a driving force behind the reconciliation radio programs run in Rwanda called "La Benvolencija", says increased awareness has helped change misperceptions about trauma.

"It used to be a bit of a tendency to think that trauma means crazy," Staub says. "Trauma is the normal consequence of those extreme events that happened in Rwanda" and programs like the hugely popular radio drama "Musekeweya" help spread that message, he says.

Even as the genocide recedes in time, and programs like Gacaca come to an end, psychologists in and outside Rwanda say the numbers may yet climb.

"As people thaw out of a state of shock, they also appear more symptomatic," Pearlman says. "And of course ... more people are coming back to their communities, and the guy who killed a family is living next door again. That would certainly raise symptoms ... for folks who might have been getting along reasonably well before this happened."

Part 2 of the series:

One community works for forgiveness

More GlobalPost dispatches from Rwanda:

Rwanda not troubled by Congo rumblings

Congo and Rwanda join forces to attack Hutu militia



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