Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda

It is unconscionable that we still have not seen the circle of human dignity expanded to include all the children of our world. It is up to all adults to take on this challenge. —Hillary Rodham Clinton, from Foreword to Witness to Genocide.

It is unconscionable that we still have not seen the circle of human dignity expanded to include all the children of our world. It is up to all adults to take on this challenge. —Hillary Rodham Clinton, from Foreword to Witness to Genocide.

Evode Kozamoko, a social worker, remembers rounding up child survivors when the Rwandan genocidal war was over. “There were children everywhere,” he recalled.

He and his colleagues faced problems caring for the them. Some were aggressive, others numbed and mute, others cried, wet their beds or became sick from eating too much or too little. At that time he knew nothing of trauma.

There was no such word in the Kinyarwandan language,” he said. “At first we thought the children’s wartime living conditions had caused the disorders. If we fed, clothed and played with them the problems would disappear.” UNICEF workers soon helped Kazasomako understand war trauma and its treatment.

The problem is particularly severe in Rwanda, according to psychiatrist Dr. Munyandamutsa Naason, because, “In Rwandan society the identity or persona of a child is deeply rooted in his or her relationships with parents, siblings and community.

These relationships have a spiritual quality and the child is taught never to forget where she comes from or to whom he belongs.

All of this was obliterated for survivors when trusted members of the community turned on Tutsi families. The children lost their frame of reference. What could they believe? Whom could they trust?”

Trauma is a response to a life-threatening event that overwhelms a person and renders him or her helpless. Effective treatment requires open and trusting communication about the precipitating events, even though recalling them can be painful and overwhelming.

To promote healing in this ravaged society, the Rwandan government’s social ministries established the National Trauma Center in 1995. Along with help from NGOs it has provided direct treatment.

Moreover, some 20,000 teachers, ministers, orphanage staff and other caregivers have been trained to recognize trauma and employ some basic methods for its alleviation.

Art is a powerful tool to help children to communicate what they saw, felt, or did that led to the trauma. As part of their treatment children have drawn their experiences and nightmares.

A haunting collection of these drawings constitutes the core of Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda, edited by Richard A. Salem, with a forward by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The writing in this little book briefly covers the history of the Rwandan Genocide, profiles of some of the children and hopes for the future. But the real story is in the pictures Dr. Raundalen, another psychiatrist, reflects that a traumatized child will have difficulty contributing to building a peaceful society with democratic institutions.

 “How can you start thinking about peace with the picture of dead bodies before your eyes, when the picture of throats being cut comes before you every day?”

But the potential is there, illustrated in a short analysis of a Children’s Parliament, convened in Rwanda in 1998. There, Rwandan children shared visions of a discrimination free society.

Witness is short but compelling reading. Watch out. It will make you want to do something about the situation. I read it and felt compelled to write this review - all in one sitting. So buy it at your own risk.

Proceeds from the sale of this book, and contributions beyond the purchase price, will be contributed to Rwandan trauma treatment centers, which are desperately in need of funds.

Read this little book because you won’t want to: because Hillary Clinton in her ideological liberalism says that we should care; because the book includes surprisingly, the statement of confession and deep regret that President Clinton covered on the tarmac in Kigali airport, acknowledging specifically the culpability of his U.S. administration in not only refusing to help Rwanda in its hour of need, but also of using its influence to keep the United Nations peace-keeping troops from preventing the genocide, though they easily could have stopped the whole thing.

Read this book because it traces very clearly, in a few pages the awful truth of what happened there. You could read much longer, deeper accounts, like “We Hate to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Die With Our Children,” but probably you will not.

Read this because it is a story told by children, and illustrated by their drawings of their parents having their heads cut off in front of them, of some of their own family members killing other family members.

Of children themselves being maimed and killed because, if allowed to live, they would be the next generation of Tutsis alive in the country.

Read it because the truth is told briefly, poignantly, profoundly in a way you are unlikely to get it elsewhere.
Read it because you need to read it, to understand the evil that really does “go about like a roaring lion seeing whom it may devour.”

Let the voices and hands of the children speak to you in this book. Have the courage to hang on through a few pages, to the end, and then see if you can, why you have read it, and what it has meant to you to be touched by this book and by the truth behind it.

Let the books’ concluding words challenge us:
“The children of Rwanda are living an experience unique in the history of mankind. They are living in a society in which the victims of genocide must live side by side with their aggressors of yesterday, a society in which they have seen their friends, neighbors, and godfathers turn into implacable killers.

Some of them have survived brutality from their own kith and kin, for the artificial barriers of Hutu, Twa, and Tutsi often broke down at the peak of the horror.

The world looked on in impotent horror as carnage was wreaked on their young minds and bodies. It should not look on as they struggle through the long process of healing and social reintegration that is just beginning. The thousands of child heads of households should not be left to carry the burden alone.

Rwanda’s children are struggling to tell their story, a story to which humanity needs to lend an ear for its own survival. We must help them in the telling, we must listen to what they have to say, we must contribute to the healing. That is the very least we can do.”


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