What I have learned about healing, 25 years after living through genocide in Rwanda

Now a Canadian resident, Régine Uwibereyeho King explains what reconciliation and post-conflict programs might learn from her own experience.

By: /
April 5, 2019
A girl stands in the background after escorting the Rwandan genocide memorial flame, April 5, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Part 1: Rwanda

In April 1994, 25 years ago, my life, and the lives of many Rwandans, changed forever. The people we had known as friends and neighbours turned against us. They looted and destroyed our homes; they pushed us into hiding and hunted us with their dogs and chants of death; they murdered our loved ones.

Did they gain anything in the process? Unlikely! They killed our cows with the very machetes they used to cut our flesh; they danced and celebrated the rape of our women in front of their own daughters and sisters. They called the rape and killings “work,” as if it was a project to be completed. They became mindless, turned against each other and even killed their own that refused to participate. They did not inhabit the empty homes they saved for themselves, they did not plant the gardens of families they had killed. They eventually fled to foreign countries to save their own skin.

As the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPF, the army that stopped the genocide), took over the country, about two million Rwandans, mainly Hutus and some Tutsi they had helped to protect, fled to neighbouring countries along with militias that committed the genocide for fear of RPF reprisals. Many of them died on the way to exile. Over the following two years, thousands of others died of hunger, cholera and violence in refugee camps. Militias used the refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as bases from which they carried out killing missions of the Banyamulenge people (Congolese ethnic Tutsi) and other people living in the North-West border area of Rwanda who refused to cooperate with them.

When the RPF launched an attack on camps in the DRC to stop these activities, many refugees in all neighbouring countries picked up whatever was left of their courage and decided to return to Rwanda. The mastermind militias and their followers, who feared justice back home, moved deeper into the Congolese forests where they continue to carry out violent activities to this day.

Back in Rwanda, the returnees faced the daunting task of rebuilding a country that they had helped destroy. Hundreds were thrown in jail accused of genocide and other related crimes.

During the 100 days of genocide, I had made many promises to God that if he spared my life, I would dedicate myself to helping those who were suffering in even worse conditions than those I was experiencing. I was particularly concerned about orphaned children who lost their parents at a very young age. Additionally, I had made a vow to tell the story of my people to the whole world. At the time, I had no idea how I would be able to fulfill these commitments. My escape of a few targeted attacks created a strong belief in me that I would not be killed during the genocide.

"I came to understand that the degree that separated the two ethnic groups was much smaller than the abundance of humanity that united us."

When the genocide ended, I found myself breathing; I had survived the ordeal. Though wounded emotionally and psychologically, I had all my limbs intact. At 27 years of age, having nearly completed my undergraduate studies, I was ranked among the very few highly educated survivors. In addition, I was among the very few who survived with a mother and siblings (four of them had survived and two had been killed). All the things I would have taken for granted before the genocide became countless blessings. My family gave me a reason to push forward and focus on re-establishing our lives and I strongly believed that my survival must have a unique purpose.

We gathered orphans and hosted them in our ruined home, located in the Southern Province (formerly known as Butare). Many of them were relatives who had lost their parents or had survived with one parent unable to look after them on her or his own. Six children, all under 15 years, were put under the care of my mother in addition to my four siblings. Six others lived with my aunt next door. I worked for a year to earn money for basic household necessities, as everything we had before had been looted during the genocide. I then returned to university to complete the last year of my undergraduate degree.

The academic year allowed me to observe the overwhelming suffering that surrounded my community and the university. Many people were in deep grief. We described them as the walking dead. I saw evidence of social divisions and outbursts of raw emotions. Many Rwandans lived in fear and anxiety; life seemed so disoriented, uncertain and joyless. Yet, I also saw goodness in people and a sense of courage and determination to move forward despite adversity. By the time I graduated, I had made up my mind to look for employment in a field that would allow me to help those who were in the most need.

I joined World Vision Rwanda in 1996, where I worked as a staff member of its psychosocial program. As with most other employees, psychosocial issues related to the genocide were new for me. I was eager to learn as much as I could to help those struggling with grief, trauma and mental health issues. My coordinator at the time understood the limitations of her newly formed team. She exposed us to many different training workshops featuring approaches that ranged from psychological models to faith-based interventions.

One of the workshops I attended that year stood out for me and led me to the notions of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Simon Gasibirege, a professor at the National University of Rwanda, had created what he called “personal development workshops” featuring a type of intergroup dialogue. He was invited as a consultant to introduce his model to World Vision staff and run his workshops with employees interested in his model. During the information session, he demanded that both Hutus and Tutsis be included in the first group to attend his workshops. This feature met with opposition among many of my colleagues. Although I was skeptical of his ambitious ideas, I was also very intrigued by his radical and intriguing approach. Gasibirege had just returned from Europe where he had lived as a Rwandan refugee since the 1960s. Although he spoke the local language, he seemed naïve about the complexity of our reality. However, he was very firm and determined to complete the vision that had compelled him to return to Rwanda after more than 30 years. His goal was to train human-helping professionals who would in turn train others in different parts of the country.

As a participant and facilitator, I was able to process my own grief. I learned about bereavement, the associated emotions after mass violence, and the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. I also developed skills of listening to the wounded and facilitation of small and large groups. During this process, I became both a beneficiary and a witness of personal healing and social transformation.

I also came to understand that the degree that separated the two ethnic groups was much smaller than the abundance of humanity that united us. During the healing workshops, we cried and laughed together; we ate, danced and joked together; we challenged ourselves and our fellow participants to become critically aware of the violence in and around us, and take responsibility for our own actions. It was the supportive words, a tap on the shoulder, a tissue handed over to wipe off our tears, a hug, a simple empathic look, and the silent moments we shared, all of which brought back compassion and renewed life commitments.

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Rwandan refugees cross the Rusumo border to Tanzania on May 30, 1994. REUTERS/Jeremiah Kamau

Part 2: Reconciliation

Through my work, I met my husband, a Canadian who worked for World Vision Canada, and I moved to Canada in 2000. I worked for six years in the area of mental health with various community organizations in Toronto, serving women fleeing domestic violence, street youth and the mentally ill. Although I applied various mental health theories and approaches developed during my Master’s in Counseling Psychology and Community Development at the University of Toronto, I found myself borrowing many elements of my practice from Gasibirege’s approach. This realization intrigued me and motivated me to pursue my PhD in social work, so that I could go back to Rwanda and investigate his approach more systematically.

By then, Gasibirege had decided to implement his approach at the grassroots level of two Rwandan communities through the Life Wound Healing Association, of which he is the founder and the director. Since coming to know the method, I have also used the program name Healing of Life Wounds (HLW) during my dissertation research and within the ongoing research I continue to do as part of my academic roles at the University of Calgary, where I am now an associate professor.

While I acknowledge the investment the government of Rwanda has made in various homegrown initiatives (e.g., gacaca, a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, implemented in Rwanda) to bring together Rwandans for rebuilding the social fabric of their society, I can only share the lessons I have learned, as a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi, a frontline worker in Rwanda and, more recently, a Canadian-based researcher committed to the healing and reconciliation processes of Rwanda and beyond.

I hope individuals, community groups and government policymakers might take notice of these lessons, especially those considering the resettlement of refugees from conflict or mending the wounds of Indigenous peoples.

I have learned, for instance, that individual and collective emotional wounds hold people hostage for years. Forgiveness and reconciliation are impossible when healing has not taken place. The healing of these wounds is the platform for community and national reconciliation when it is facilitated by an approach that helps demonstrate the connection between personal and social suffering. The wounded must take primary responsibility for their own healing with the support of others.

Back in Rwanda, I observed that only HLW participants who were able to be vulnerable, shared the personal stories of their experiences and attempted to make sense of them with the support of other group members managed to overcome personal and social isolation and reconnect with others in the community.

The healing process was not easy as participants dug deep to uncover and confront their painful memories. However, with persistence, they were able to put the past to rest so that they could move forward. In my team at World Vision Rwanda, we used to joke that the sharing of personal stories in the context of a supportive group environment was like a dose of strong antibiotics, while forgiveness and reconciliation seemed like vitamins to strengthen the body, the spirit and the social relations of participants.

The dialogues during our workshops engaged people who would never have considered intimate sharing even within their own ethnic group. These workshops provided a protected and structured space in which hard conversations took place. For instance, people who participated in my dissertation research confirmed that through dialogue, they understood they were not the only ones who had suffered. Mutual support and caring developed. They started inviting each other to social events (e.g., children’s baptisms, weddings or simple visits). The celebration of life events for these participants went beyond the ethnic divisions and other forms of conflicted relationships in the community that had created social barriers prior to the healing workshops.

"I have learned that individual and collective emotional wounds hold people hostage for years. Forgiveness and reconciliation are impossible when healing has not taken place."

Participants started feeling the urge to act as agents of change in their families and communities. One female survivor, who initially clearly stated her hatred for all Hutus (who she viewed as murderers), reported having a transformed mindset during the workshops. She decided to re-educate her children and to behave differently towards neighbours. She explained that she intentionally decided to be a model who showed the way by relating to people around her in positive ways. During a follow-up interview, she informed me that people who used to stay out of her sight because of her verbal and physical abuse started responding agreeably to her and treated her with respect and kindness. One of her perceived former enemies, she told me, accepted her request to be the godfather of her son.

In another interview, an ex-prisoner who served jail time for genocide crimes explained that after his release he felt that he would never have a place in the community. He did not belong anymore. He lived in isolation from former friends and family and was consumed by fear. After participating in the workshops, he made an informed decision to be a light in the very place where he brought darkness. His desire was to cleanse his name and that of his family. In the last interview I had with him, he stated that his social relations have improved both with relatives and the people of the community. He spoke of rebuilding relationships with genocide widows whose husbands he had killed and was eager to report only goodness in return on their part.

Another participant summarized what he experienced to be the most appropriate way to heal personally and socially and what forgiveness and reconciliation require, in these words: “Before talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, we should sit on the same bench of learning together!” He strongly believed that forgiveness and reconciliation are the rewards or outcomes of a process of raised consciousness that takes place when people make themselves vulnerable in their personal healing and pay attention to the suffering of others across the former divisions of ethnicity.

What do these grassroots healing and reconciliatory processes mean for post-genocide Rwanda? What do they mean for the rest of the world, still facing or dealing with mass atrocities? What do they mean for Canada, in its search for ways to respond to its TRC’s “Calls to Action”?

The process I described above is more than just sitting and talking in a group setting. This is an approach that encourages individuals to go deep into the broken areas of their lives. With the support of others, they manage to uncover inner resources that can be mobilized to improve their personal well-being and contribute to their communities in positive manners. The process requires personal commitment and honesty in facing the truth, along with the acceptance of vulnerability of the self and the acknowledgement of that of others in order to facilitate individual healing and social transformation.

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A night vigil for the commemoration of the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Kigali, April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Part 3: A process continues

I am confident that these mechanisms of overcoming adversity exist in all of us. However, I also recognize that such holistic healing may require a different pace and format for various individuals due to the nature of their life circumstances and socio-political contexts. People who have been silenced or whose lives have been stretched thin for a prolonged period may demand more time and more multidimensional healing approaches. People from individualistic societies may require processes of unlearning self-centered values so that interdependence, altruistic and reconciliatory values can take root. I have learned that in life, no one is an island.

Many people I worked with back in Rwanda have become agents of change in their different communities. They currently rank high among citizens there who are elected to lead programs aimed at meeting the goals of Vision 2020, the national strategy that seeks to meet local needs and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The policies and programs built around this strategy aim to find local solutions to local problems by capitalizing on the traditional community beliefs and values of interdependence and the potential of citizens to participate actively in the socio-economic transformation of their community and country. Some of our former workshop participants have played a key role in these initiatives. They are often called upon in the national media to share their perspectives on issues such as domestic violence, national reconciliation and trauma healing. These people are not the most educated in the country, but their testimonies, council and perspectives are nevertheless sought out.

"Policymakers may need to borrow this kind of intergroup dialogue approach to encourage programs that promote individual and social well-being of citizens."

This reconciliation process taking place among members of the opposed groups in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda is different from state-sponsored forms of reconciliation, such as TRCs, implemented in various post-conflict countries and in countries like Canada with historical legacies of colonialism. TRCs are state-driven and seek political reconciliation to facilitate ways forward in relatively peaceful cohabitation. The reconciliation I have witnessed is more of a ground-up movement that starts with willing individuals and spreads out to the broader community. And while Gasibirege’s approach may be instrumental to frontline practitioners, policymakers may need to borrow this kind of intergroup dialogue approach to encourage programs that promote individual and social well-being of citizens. When individuals are not only empowered to heal their emotional and psychological wounds but are also able to connect the personal healing to the development of a sense of social belonging, they can become agents of change and reconciliation both nationally and globally.

Over the next 100 days, Rwandans and their allies will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi, inside and outside Rwanda. The approach to healing I have described here is an example of hope in a world that seems prone to promoting violence rather than non-violence. As we remember, reunite and renew (the theme of this year’s commemoration), we need to be reminded that not every Rwandan has had a chance to process the emotional wounds of the genocide, or is ready to confront the related memories. Those who have gone through the healing process agree with me that nobody can ever heal completely and/or transform into an agent of social change. True healing, forgiveness and reconciliation are a continuous process that teaches us that suffering and vulnerability are part of life. Those who are able to develop such an understanding also develop new habits and flexibility to deal with hurt as it arises in both personal or social life, while for others, contemplating letting the hurt go can be an overwhelming task.

I have learned that healing, forgiveness and reconciliation each require time, flexibility, courage, commitment and resources. Not every Rwandan has been lucky to attend the workshops I went through myself and am, one day soon, hoping to offer in Canada. In Rwanda, the demands are high, the waitlists are very long, yet the resources to train more facilitators and expand Gasibirege’s approach nationwide are still very limited. Some may have never heard of the workshops, in fact.

I have treated the past 25 years as a bonus time, with no minute to be wasted. Many of the orphans I helped look after are now men and women with children of their own.

In 2015, I was invited to speak at the UN headquarters during the 21st anniversary of the genocide. From the podium where I sat with some UN country representatives and other dignitaries, I saw flags of various countries waving at me and reminding me that I was fulfilling the promise I made to God, then 21 years earlier, to tell the story of my people to the world.

I trust the purpose of my survival is still unfolding.