During some of her darkest moments, Vivane Umutoni* was suicidal and couldn’t sleep for fear of nightmares about the genocide she survived. For years, she struggled with thoughts of vengeance and anger against those who hurt her and took her family from her.
“I felt like I wanted to look for poison to kill all the Hutus,” said Viviane – a genocide survivor from Huye who was brutally raped, psychologically abused and lost all her brothers and sisters in the 1994 genocide against Tutsis – who now recognizes that her behaviour was the result of trauma. “This tells you that my mind was not stable.”
Even years after the crimes against her and her family were committed, Viviane told Never Again Rwanda (NAR) that she could not bring herself to exchange the sign of peace with people she knew to be Hutu at her Catholic church. Fortunately, she’s been able to heal to some degree thanks to support she received from Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI), a Rwandan peacebuilding organization. AMI was founded with the goal of engaging Rwandans in a healing, conflict resolution and reconciliation processes.
As a part of a five month long mapping exercise in preparation for the societal healing component of the Societal Healing and Participatory Governance for Peace in Rwanda Program, NAR visited Viviane – one of the beneficiaries of various healing initiatives in Rwanda that NAR interviewed – to learn about the AMI’s successes and challenges in helping Rwandans to heal from the past. In Viviane’s case, NAR learned that just the knowledge that someone cared about her and wanted to help her was enough to initiate the process of dealing with her emotional wounds.
The recurring trauma Viviane experienced long after the genocide was related to feelings that her pain wasn’t acknowledged by others. Immediately after she was raped, she was devastated by her neighbours’ failure to reach out to her, even when she was injured, naked and in desperate need of help. Years later, when Viviane struggled with financial issues, the lack of help from others in her community resulted in very profound pain that brought back memories of how she was treated in 1994.
“When I couldn’t find help from others, I would come home to my bed, cry, and be re-traumatized all over again,” Viviane said.
Her healing process began when she started to engage in dialogue with members of her community; through that, she finally felt that she had been heard and truly understood by others – and that her pain was acknowledged by those in her community.
“With the AMI cooperative, I found the help I needed and the support when times were tough,” Viviane explained.
Dieudonné Munyankuko, a founding member and deputy coordinator of AMI told NAR that dialogue is a central part of their approach to healing. He stressed that there is a difference between talking and dialogue – an exercise in which protected spaces are provided and trust is built up gradually so that the participants can share their true feelings.
“It’s difficult [work] because we have a closed culture,” Dieudonné said. “People don’t open up quickly. They need to feel secure. They need a guarantee that if they open up and speak, there will be no consequences.”
Although Rwandans have been able to talk about their trauma – for instance, through participation in the Gacaca courts – Dieudonné said they have not had sufficient opportunities to dialogue, something he says is a fundamental process in healing.
“In Rwanda, we have public spaces for people to talk, but not protected spaces for people to dialogue.”
Dieudonné added that although AMI touches the lives of thousands of Rwandans, there is still a huge need for healing initiatives across the country.
Still, Dieudonné said that the dialogue spaces that AMI has been able to establish have been beneficial in moving towards healing and that people are now easily speaking up about their problems in a number of communities where AMI has worked and that they no longer have a need for the protected spaces that were initially provided.
In Viviane’s case, the dialogue has been transformative., compared to where she was before.
“The people who saw me when I was traumatized wouldn’t be able to recognize me today,” she says. “I’m a human being now compared to the way I used to be.”
Of course, dialogue was not an instant solution, and Viviane still has a long way to go in her journey. While she has made progress in being able to speak about her experience, she has found joy in life again and her nightmares have stopped for the most part, Viviane still struggles with feelings of abandonment and coming to terms with the injustices committed against her by those she trusted.
Toward the end of her interview with NAR, Viviane was overtaken by an emotional outburst of anger and pain towards those in her community who did nothing during her time of greatest need.
“Everyone knows what I went through, yet they did what they did to me,” she said, grasping her right shoulder with her left hand, as tears ran down her cheeks. “I want to be someone who is seen as having value, who can survive and who has dignity. I want a value and a meaning for my struggles.”
*Name has been changed.