Coping with trauma in post Genocide era

Marita Mukashema was 11 years old during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. She recalls that it was a time of panic and horror and the sound of gunshots everywhere made the situation appear like the world was coming to an end. It was a time many died as they tried to flee from the marauding Interahamwe.

It wasn’t long before the militia came for her family amidst chanting that they had come to smash cockroaches, she recalls.

“They had guns and machetes and were ready to take our lives. We started shivering from where we were in our hiding places. They commanded us to come out and show our identity cards. As we were queuing up outside, I stealthily slipped away and escaped,” she recalls.

Little did Mukashema know that in a few seconds she would be the only survivor in her family. She was barely a few metres away from the scene when she heard gunshots; the assailants had killed everyone – her parents and siblings, including her two-year-old sister.

“For a moment I thought it was just a bad dream but sadly it was all real and I could see death coming for me next. Alone and frightened, I ran not knowing where I was heading,” says Mukashema.

She sought help from the neighbours and miraculously survived death. To this day she is thankful for the second chance she had at life, but the loss of her family is a pain that still bites her hard down in her heart.

The image of pulling the remains of her family members from a trench (where their bodies were thrown) for burial will forever stay in her mind and this is one challenge she grapples with in her day-to-day life.

Scores of Genocide survivors struggle with scary memories from the 1994 massacre, and though it’s been years after all this happened, the victims still struggle with the trauma they were inflicted upon.

How can they cope?

Dr Wilbur Bushara explains that emotional and psychological trauma can be a result of extreme events that involve a threat to life, shattering one’s sense of security and making the world a very dangerous place for them.

When one suffers a painful physical or emotional experience, they often get feelings of anger, grief and fear. For some people, a traumatic event can even lead to mental health issues such depression, anxiety or worse to post-traumatic stress disorder and drug abuse, he explains.

“Psychological trauma can leave a person struggling with distressing emotions and memories that can’t fade away easily. The person ends up feeling disconnected and unable to trust other people and this can take a while to get over the pain and feel safe again,” he says.

Some people will recover quite quickly whereas others might take longer to heal.

Emilienne Mukansoro, a psychotherapist, says victims of the Genocide went through a lot and that the pain they experienced remains fresh in some people’s minds.

She says most of the survivors lost children and spouses, while others experienced sexual violence, all of which caused overwhelming trauma in their lives.

“Today most of the survivors are aging and they neither have anyone to care for them nor one to call mother or father. Being a survivor is painful beyond measure, and some of these victims are still incomplete because they didn’t manage to bury their loved ones,” she says.

Mukansoro says being close to the survivors and being there for them in time of need can be of great help in terms of their healing.

“Helping them get what they need since some are living under extreme poverty can also be of great help. Providing a platform for them to share their experiences is another way of letting their pain out which also aids in healing.

“Helping them to have a vigil for those who didn’t manage to bury their loved ones can put the hearts of survivors at peace,” the psychotherapist adds.

Damien Mouzoun, a counselor, says it is difficult to heal the heart and the mind of someone who went through the Genocide. He, however, says survivors need to take heart and find strength to look at a bright future.

“I would like to quote a conversation between a camel driver and Santiago, the boy in Paulo Coelho’s bestselling book “The Alchemist”: “I’m alive,” he said to the boy as they ate a bunch of dates one night, with no fires and no moon. “When I’m eating, that’s all I think about. If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other. Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present.

“If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You’ll see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now,” the quote reads.

Mouzoun says that our general psychological well-being some time after a tragedy is influenced by two things; the event and everything else.

“While sympathising with Rwanda and Africa in general with hope that genocide and war tragedy may never again come our way, I invite our affected brothers and sisters to lift their eyes beyond the pain of our past to the hope of tomorrow, and one day we shall all be free and have a truly peaceful coexistence,” says Mouzoun.

He calls upon survivors to seek the speed and power of their psychological immune system, which includes their strategies for rationalising, discounting, forgiving and limiting trauma.

“Being unaware of this emotional recovery system, we accommodate disabilities, romantic break-ups, exam failures, tenure denials and personal and team defeats more readily than we would expect.”

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EXPERT TIPS

Emmanuel Semwanga, gynecologist/obstetrician at La Croix Du Sud, Kisementi, Kigali
Depression and trauma may occur due to different reasons. For instance, people with psychosomatic disorders tend to develop stress. This can even be more dangerous for pregnant women. The best way to handle this is to consult obstetricians for guidance and counseling. Patients should be informed about the repercussions of being in that state.

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Jean d’Amour Mutambazi, general practitioner at Centre Medical Orkide, Kigali
In cases of acute depression, physiotherapy medication is recommended. In cases where someone is traumatised they really need emotional and social support, counselling or professional treatment.

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Charles Gatsinzi, a physiotherapist
For those with such problems, the first thing is that they should be made to understand why they are going through a particular situation by an expert. After that it becomes easier to handle what they are experiencing with the right support from specialists.

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Claudine Uwajeneza, a final year medical student at University of Rwanda
The family and community should be in a position to find time and give support to their loved ones who might be depressed or traumatised. With support from the family, it becomes easier to adhere to the treatment or counselling being offered by experts.