Wounds don’t heal; you just find coping mechanisms

The 1994 genocide against the Tutsis had devastating impacts including loss of approximately 1 million lives, destruction of economic and social infrastructure, Physical and psychological wounds and generally a social breakdown of social systems. These consequences entail intergenerational, psychosocial and psychological trauma that may exist for generations and also can contribute to future extreme violence. Scholars in healing and reconciliation argue that psychological healing is essential for genuine reconciliation.

It is from this context that in 2015, Never Again Rwanda and Interpeace jointly started the implementation of the Societal Healing and Participatory Governance (SPHG) program funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The program adopted an approach of using psychosocial support groups, facilitated by professional psychotherapists. Safe spaces were established to support dialogue for members to openly discuss their sensitive traumatic past and thus begin the healing process. Spaces were created for youth and community members from diverse backgrounds in 13 districts.

Over the course of 4 years, the group convened on a monthly basis and registered impressive achievements in the lives of the participants at individual, familial, community and policy levels. Findings from NAR’s research revealed a significant decrease in trauma among group members by the time the groups phased out at the end of 2018.

For Humura Space in Nduba Sector, space members continue to meet and support each other through their healing journey, even after the phase out. On 19th March 2019, NAR’s Director of Programs Immaculée Mukankubito accompanied by the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Interpeace, Simon Gimson and his associate Ariane Inkesha visited the space. This space is comprised of elderly genocide survivors with majority of them being female and a few participants.

The main topic of discussion during the visit was how group members faired on after the phase out process, and how they are prepared for the upcoming commemoration period. In each of their interventions, participants recalled how they were before joining the group, the challenges they faced along the way and the impact the space had in their individual lives. For instance one of the female participants stated:

“I was happy when the space was established since it made me realize that I was wounded, however we had to reach a point where we would be left on our own. Just like a newborn baby that is fully dependent on its mother, there comes a time when she/he grows up and is no longer fully dependent on its mother. I would related this scenario to us, we were supported to cope with our wounds and now we are on our own.”

“Before joining this space, I used to lock myself in my house throughout, sometimes I could stay there for a week in fear of facing ex-perpetrators. When I joined this group I realized that I should not allow my past wounds to shape my future and that’s how I slowly begun to gain the courage to leave my house and engage with other people. In the process, I gained the courage to share my wounds with other group members who have been there for me since the space begun” -Female participant

“During the commemoration period I used to relocate from my home since I didn’t have the confidence to face those who wronged me, however today I no longer feel the urge to flee, instead I reach out to other group members who support me when my trauma recurs” -Female participant

Majority of the group members appreciated how participation in the space enabled them to overcome their wounds; however a good number of them also noted “wounds don’t heal; you just learn coping mechanisms”. After the phase out process, participants formed 5 small group based on their proximities. In each of these groups participants developed different social economic initiatives such as rearing goats and chicken as well as selling grains such as beans. In addition, they also developed a saving scheme through which they lend money to needy group members who pay back the loan with an interest of 100rwf.

Two representatives from two of the groups disclosed that they had saved 50,000Rwf and 75,000Rwf respectively. According to participants, these groups have become a support system for those who are weak and a family most – especially for participants who have no surviving relative. In terms of preparations for the upcoming commemoration period, participants felt that they have become resilient over time although they break down from time to time. One participant mentioned that she is agonizing over the commemoration period because she is not strong enough to handle the traumatic episodes; whereas another female participant told the group that she will refrain from going to public places to avoid being wounded.

Humura space members also shared some of the challenges that they face. The challenge that stood out from most participants is related to the release of ex-perpetrators after they have served their sentence. After serving their sentences most of these ex-perpetrators are released back into the community without a proper reintegration mechanism, and the community members are also not well prepared to receive them. To address this challenge, they recommended conducting dialogue spaces exclusively for ex-perpetrators who are being released from prison to equip them with the relevant knowledge and skills for successful reintegration into the community; since some of them come back and wound survivors, which diminishes their progress. Other recommendations participants gave included providing each of the small groups with funds to scale up their projects. For instance, one of the small groups would like to buy a grinding machine to grind millet.

Many of the elderly space members are widows and widowers. They pointed out that as a result, especially as we approach the Kwibuka period, they often experience deep moments of loneliness. They further noted that although they are less fearful during this period in comparison to before they joined the space, they would appreciate it if more people visited them and kept them company during the difficult time.

In her closing remarks, the Director of Programs expressed her delight in knowing that the space has continued even after its phase out. She commended the members stating “it is a sign of sustainability to the efforts of healing the post-genocide society.”

The Vice President and Chief Operation Officer of Interpeace, Simon Gimson in his closing remarks also lauded the space members for their courage in sharing their stories as well as their individual and collective strengths in building the community.  “When you feel like you’re getting stronger, new challenges arrive and I think that your strength and your wisdom is a great lesson for us to share with those outside Rwanda.”


This blog was written by Jessica Mbanda and first published on Never Again Rwanda’s website.

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