A recent study by Rwanda Biomedical Centre estimated the prevalence of trauma to be at 3.6 per cent among the general population (14 to 65 years old).
But among Genocide survivors, trauma was estimated at 27.9 per cent of which 18.5 per cent, are within the 24-35 age group. These were either not yet born by the time of the Genocide or were very young.
“It is true that among the people with trauma related to the Genocide against the Tutsi, we, unfortunately, find young people who were not born at the time,” said Dr Jean Damascène Iyamuremye, Director of Psychiatric Care Unit, Mental Health Division of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre.
He referred to it as “transgenerational or intergenerational trauma” which he defines as the transference of emotional, physical, or social pain from one person to their descendants.
The doctor said the concept of that kind of trauma originated after World War II where various studies proved that children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors demonstrated certain symptoms of trauma,
“Nightmares, emotional and behavioural problems showed that the original trauma of the grandparent or parent had far-reaching effects,” he added.
He explained that the mind develops like the body through internal growth, the influence of the environment, and education. He pointed to the importance of child-rearing styles and education as key determinants in the development of the mind.
Conscious or subconscious memory and narrative that surrounds the family dynamic also plays a role.
“Here, the past continues to make itself present in different ways. Nevertheless, it can have much further reaching effects. It can even have repercussions on a genetic level,” he says.
Dr Iyamuremye gave an example of the impact that fear and suffering, as it elevates the levels of cortisol (a hormone that is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration).
“Over the course of several years, these elevated levels can cause disorder on the body,” he said.
However, he says, transgenerational or intergenerational trauma doesn’t mean that the pain experienced by parents or grandparents will 100 per cent determine who their children are. Though, it means that they have a higher possibility of suffering from trauma-related disorders.
On his part, Prof. Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the president of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of Genocide survivors groups, said trauma is transmitted through various ways to the younger generation but however noted that resilience is also transmitted.
“One of the significant moments in the transmission of trauma is the commemoration of the Genocide,” he says.
In a text he wrote, he described the week-long commemoration events like one that provides time for prayer, political speeches, testimonies, films, songs, exhumation and burial in dignity of the bodies of people killed during the genocide thrown here and there.
With that setting, he said, it was impossible to keep hidden memories of experiences endured during the Genocide.
In addition, the commemoration ceremonies often take place in very sensitive and significant places.
“Locations that are reminiscent of places where the genocidaires were extremely murderous, where the mass graves were used, where the international community cowardly abandoned thousands of candidates for the atrocious and imminent death, where bulldozers demolished a church engulfing nearly 3000 Tutsi who had taken refuge in it seeking protection from the same priest who ordered its macabre demolition.
Symbolically, these places constantly transmit traumatic messages,” he says.
Leaving the commemoration time aside, he hinted on operations to exhume and rebury bodies of victims. Unlike in the past where they waited for commemoration time, now it is done at different times of the year.
He said the work of mourning is blocked since when the bodies are found, they no longer belong to the family.
“They become like public property, they are put in common coffins, kept in an administrative office somewhere before being officially buried at a date chosen by the administration,” he said.
“Another way of mourning is forged but on a traumatic background. But whether we like it or not, Rwandans need genocide-specific mourning rituals. These rites constitute a container. These are interesting spaces for expressing emotions”.
He also talks about films viewed during the commemoration time.
“Sometimes, the violence of the images is too heavy. It’s obvious that movies are a powerful medium,” he noted.
He, however, noted that in recent years, it was decided to retain only educational films, those that are not very violent.
Dusingizemungu also looked into the possibilities of transmitting the trauma through the justice process.
He gives an example of the Gacaca process where survivors were deeply shocked by the fact that some Rwandans were silent, did not want to explain what they did or saw or refused to testify.