New research by International Alert, an organisation dedicated to addressing conflict root causes, reveals that integrating mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) with enhanced economic security and access to justice can effectively disrupt destructive cycles of violence, leading to successful peacebuilding. Titled “Peace of Mind: Integrating Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Reconciliation and Violence Prevention Programmes in Rwanda and Tajikistan,” the study provides new evidence of the impact of mental health interventions in preventing conflict within communities and supporting efforts to promote peace and reconciliation. Conducted in collaboration with Pears Foundation, USAID, and ARCT Ruhuka, the research is accompanied by first-hand accounts of the effect that conflict has had on people’s mental health and how MHPSS is being used to address this. In Rwanda, the study engaged 404 participants, including representatives from local and international organisations, district officials with expertise in MHPSS within the peacebuilding context, and various focus groups such as women, adult genocide survivors, youth, ex-genocide perpetrators, and community facilitators from 10 districts. Pacifique Barihuta, the Programme Manager at International Alert Rwanda, highlighted the enduring psychological wounds left by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, especially among younger generations. He said the organisation has been conducting group therapy and dialogue sessions to address trauma and enhance community cohesion. The new research assessed the sessions’ impact and revealed that the mental health support provided significantly improved trust and solidarity among different groups affected by the Genocide. It also facilitated reconciliation and healing within the community. “For example, almost 90 per cent of people who participated in these activities reported positive interactions with people from different backgrounds and over 95 per cent of participants developed positive attitudes towards peaceful conflict,” he said. Barihuta said that a robust shared identity among the people aligns with the government’s “Ndi Umunyarwanda” programme, forming a solid foundation for healing, reconciliation, and peacebuilding. He recognised that while a strong shared identity prevails, concerns exist about coded ethnic divisions, especially among younger people. Findings reveal a cautiously optimistic outlook on mutual trust and tolerance in diverse communities. Over half of the participants, 56.7%, express openness to integrating individuals of varied backgrounds into their family circles, 55.6% show willingness to entrust their children with people from different backgrounds, and 59.4% are open to the idea of intercultural marriage. These figures, while promising, underscore the long journey towards deep-rooted social cohesion. In a notable highlight, a significant 81.6% of respondents are ready to engage in savings groups with diverse members, underscoring the pivotal role of economic initiatives in the realm of peacebuilding. The study points to the challenge of raising awareness on such issues when basic needs, like food, are unmet. This is encapsulated in a Rwandan proverb, 'Inda ishonje ntigira amatwi,' which translates to 'An empty stomach has no ears,' illustrating the interconnection between economic stability and social cohesion. The study sheds light on the profound impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues on the peacebuilding process, highlighting a pressing need for enhanced societal healing capacities, particularly as bodies of genocide victims continue to be uncovered. It reveals that 12% of respondents actively avoid situations that recall wars and genocide, 5% steer clear of circumstances triggering memories of these traumatic events, and 4% exhibit physical or aggressive responses when confronted with reminders of wars or the Genocide. Barihuta highlighted findings on the readiness to seek healing services and share personal stories. He said that 62.1 per cent of research respondents are inclined to seek healing services, while only 54.9 per cent express individual readiness to share personal sensitive stories within groups of diverse backgrounds. Addressing the most urgent issues, Barihuta noted that some individuals tasked with aiding others in their healing journey may themselves need healing. “The older generation bears the enduring trauma primarily from the Genocide against the Tutsi. Their healing process was interrupted as they dedicated themselves to nurturing both the younger generation and the nation, burying their own emotions in the process. As they age and find moments for introspection, the deep-seated trauma resurfaces. It is crucial to embark on a comprehensive journey of healing for both the older generation and the younger ones. This process, though lengthy, is essential in fostering peace of mind. Meanwhile, much emphasis should be placed on raising awareness among the youth, empowering them to establish peaceful families and break the cycle of potential new trans-generational trauma,” he said. Ariane Inkesha, the Country Director of International Alert Rwanda, highlighted that the motivation behind conducting the research was rooted in the recognition that the Genocide had profound effects on all Rwandans. Initially, she explained, psychosocial support strategies were designed to be broadly applicable across various groups. However, with time, these strategies evolved into more tailored approaches to more effectively address individuals' specific traumas. “So, consistent research and updating of past studies is vital to keep pace with societal evolution and the emergence of new issues. Ongoing awareness efforts are also crucial to prevent a regression to past conflicts among Rwandans,” she said. Regarding International Alert Rwanda's expectations from the report, Inkesha stressed the need for the integration of mental health and psychosocial support into peacebuilding initiatives, explaining that in the past, many initiatives had been formulated based on foreign contexts rather than local ones. “With our research data at hand, peacebuilding initiatives can be implemented more accurately, resulting in a more impactful outcome,” she said. “What we expect is that in every forthcoming peacebuilding initiative, particularly in conflict-ridden areas, these local and tailored approaches can be incorporated to ensure comprehensive care.” Beneficiaries speak out After the genocide, Mediatrice Musengimana, a resident in Kigali City, struggled to find restful sleep, haunted by the faces of her slaughtered relatives whenever she closed her eyes. When International Alert began working to reconcile communities affected by the genocide, including survivors and perpetrators, Musengimana and others were understandably skeptical. It was through USAID Urumuri Project. “At the start, we felt that their teachings on unity and reconciliation were unachievable, but as the days went on, we finally embraced their messages. On our way to the hall and back home and during the meeting, we had interactions with one another day after day,” she said. Musengimana noted that the solidarity extended to pivotal moments like her daughter's wedding, adding that establishing a solidarity fund and engaging in communal farming activities further strengthened their bonds and facilitated healing, leading them to live together harmoniously. Bernard Gakiga, another beneficiary, experienced trauma when he was serving his jail term after being convicted of participating in the genocide, where he had nightmares in which he saw the faces of the people that he killed. When he was released from prison as part of the Gacaca trials, Gakiga was always afraid of meeting survivors of his past crimes. If he needed to fetch water, he would avoid people he might know by going to a water source further away. He felt deeply alone for a year until he heard about the USAID Dufatanye Urumuri project. “The Urumuri project enabled me to open up and overcome my fear,” he explains. “We had decided that there was a need for a healing session. What helped me the most was meeting with genocide survivors. If people don’t engage in open dialogue, they can’t reach mutual trust,” he said. His confession and apology during the Gacaca trials were intended to secure his release. His confession during the dialogue sessions are what helped start to heal his mind. “I used to be held back by fear. But now I live in harmony with genocide survivors hurt by my actions. We live together peacefully. We met at our local meeting hall and had an open conversation on the wrongs that we did to them,” he said. About International Alert Rwanda We have been working on peacebuilding in Rwanda since 1996 supporting groups most affected by the genocide against the Tutsi through dialogue to build trust and understanding between them. With our support, people affected by genocide have been able to identify common ground for cooperation and coexistence, and learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully. We equally engage governments at local and regional levels to address gender and conflict dynamics which could hamper cross-border trade, a vital source of income for women and their families. Since 2023, we have been partnering with the Ministry of National Unity & Civic Engagement on Societal healing, social cohesion and social reintegration.