From Survival to Life; Rwanda’s Healing Process at a Glance

Twenty-one years after the Genocide against the Tutsis, Rwanda has made remarkable progress in rebuilding society, fostering peaceful relationships among citizens and shifting focus away from its dark past to a bright, promising future.

Still, 21 years is a short time when it comes to healing all those affected by the horrific events in 1994 that stole one million lives, destroyed families and communities, and left millions of people reeling with both physical and psychological wounds. While many Rwandans have healed to varying degrees there is a need to address the wounds that still run deep in Rwandan society.

Today, the healing process is still ongoing, measures to support healing are in place and there is commitment across the country among regular citizens as well as government and non-governmental organizations to reach out to those who are still wounded. The question is: what work still needs to be done and how do we go about helping those who still suffer deep psychological wounds to this day?

Defining wounds

It is important to understand what the healing of psychological wounds entails. Psychological wounds are often compared to severe physical wounds in order to gain an understanding of healing. In order to heal a person who has suffered a puncture wound to their body, that wound must first be opened up and must undergo a surgical procedure to mend the affected parts before the wound can be closed again. Even after receiving that treatment, it will take time for the injury to be fully healed. The same logic applies to psychological wounds, but the treatment is different, and the timeline for healing can vary greatly.

Paul Claude Racamier described this healing process as follows: ‘’any loss is a wound, and every wound can be closed and heal. But on one condition that the injury becomes first opened. Nothing in the psychic area can be closed before getting opened.’’

Healing in Rwanda has been a complex journey, because those who experienced Genocide had a variety of experiences, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for treating the varied wounds that still linger. The wounds of a woman who was raped will be different from a child who witnessed the murder of his parents. And there are also the wounds among ex-perpetrators who are struggling to come to terms with the atrocities they committed.

The survival stage

Professor Naasson Munyandamutsa a psycho therapist and psychologist, A Country Director for Never Again Rwanda
Professor Naasson Munyandamutsa a psycho therapist and psychologist, Also a Country Director for Never Again Rwanda
Professor Naasson Munyandamutsa a psycho therapist and psychologist, who also acts as Country Director for Never Again Rwanda (NAR) explains that trauma resulting from Genocide as a state of survival, in which people are alive physically, but mentally, they are not fully living.

“To survive, if you look at the term in French, survivre, you have ‘vivre’ – live – and ‘sur’ which means ‘on,’” Prof. Munyandamutsa explains, adding that this means that rather than living life, a person in the survival stage after a traumatic or wounding event, is separated from his or her previous life. “You are in another world and you try to remember the life you had before and you try to live, but you are stuck in this state of survival.”

“If you survive a horrific event in which others were trying to destroy you, it is like an exception that you are alive,” Prof. Munyandamutsa says. “It demands a lot of energy, psychological energy, human energy. It is difficult and you can’t continue to simply survive because it is not a normal life. What is needed if you are lucky, it is to make a kind of journey, to be able to live again.”

Challenges to healing in Rwanda

Dr. Darius Gishoma, a Clinical Psychologist and Head of the Mental Health Department at the University of Rwanda, says that although Rwanda has made progress in terms of healing, there is still need for more efforts to deal with trauma and other psychological effects, especially among those who were affected by the Genocide.

“A study on ‘Prevalence de L’etat de stress Post-traumatique dans la population Rwandaise 2012’ has shown that 26 percent of the population, have symptoms of trauma, which is about one in four people. Of them, 15 percent have diagnosable symptoms,” says Dr. Gishoma. “This tells us that there are still wounds and some are more complicated than others.’’

The time it takes for someone to heal, Dr.Gishoma says, can be very difficult to predict, as each person has their own unique set of factors influencing their psychology and their healing. Widows who experienced traumatic events such as gang rape, or who bore the children of their rapists, may have very complex wounds, he says. “The healing of these categories of people does not happen over a short period of time.’’

Prof. Munyandamutsa says that timing is a key element in healing, it varies from one person to the next and that it is important to understand that even after long periods of time, particularly after events like the 1994 Genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis, people are still in need of healing.

“One of our challenges is the common belief that 21 years after 1994 it is over, enough time has passed and people had time to overcome it,” Prof. Munyandatmutsa says. “But if you are wounded, you will not have the courage to say ‘I’m suffering, I’m lost.’ You don’t do that because you know the belief among people: that time is over. And if you don’t open up, you will stay in a survival position.”

Finally, Prof. Naasson says that there is need for greater understanding of the importance of healing wounds and the role of healing processes play in creating sustainable peace in society.

“It is only when healing remains a priority for our community, especially among decision-makers, that we shall be able to deal with that issue in society. If we don’t understand the link between wounds and the barriers they pose to becoming an active citizens, to becoming a reconciled society, peace will still be a problem.” Prof. Naasson.

The 1994 period dragged the country into so deep a crisis which seemed the end of the world, ‘’we reached time zero, everything was bleak. Everything was completely shattered and there was despair and a great need for recovery’’ Prof. Naasson.

From survival back to life

Talking about the past experiences is one of the tools which helps as people to share emotions, because it helps people to release their pain, and can act as a mechanism for healing, according to Dr. Gishoma

”It is good to have someone to share past experiences with, a person who will understand your pain and counsel,’’ he says.

The community should address the societal challenges that have arisen from genocide, but there specific challenges which require particular attention

‘’During the commemoration, there are people, who are overwhelmed by trauma, those who decide to go the bush or hide in the forest for silence and meditation, particularly to places where their loved ones were killed. These cases require very specific approaches,” Dr. Gishoma says.

Never Again Rwanda-NAR has embarked on a four-year program – Societal Healing and Participatory Governance for Peace which is part of its Peacebuilding, Governance and Rights as well as research Programs in Rwanda to tackle some of the needs for healing in Rwanda’s society. This program alongside other initiatives from different directions will contribute to healing the ‘unseen wounds’

The NAR program uses a participatory action research approach, which provides spaces where Rwandans can safely discuss their wounds through dialogue, and develop their own solutions for healing challenges in their communities.

The societal healing component of the program is targeting hundreds of Rwandans in various districts across the country. The aim of the program is to enable Rwandans to openly discuss a sensitive past, as well as current and emerging issues, to build social cohesion and to encourage critical thinking. Beyond that, Never Again Rwanda is also set to share the findings and recommendations with wider society and advocate for recommended changes among decision-makers, who will consider the advice when developing policy.

Prof. Munyandamutsa says that the most important part of the program is its symbolic dimension – the act of convincing Rwandans that the country still needs to continue engaging into a healing journey, demonstrating that it can be achieved, and calling on the entire society needs to get on board.

“Never Again Rwanda will not be able to cover the whole society with its program, but we want to testify that it is possible, talking from experience. We want to show that healing is a need, a very important need, and we want to show that it links to different phenomenon in the society – notably peace and stability.” Prof. Naasson