The scene in Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was a devastating one for all humanity. The loss of nearly one million lives in three short months left the country in collapse and a weighty toll on the survivors and the society as a whole.
Although Rwanda has made important strides in rebuilding itself over the past 22 years, a country is best rebuilt by citizens who are stable and properly equipped to face the challenges in the way of the country’s progress, both at national and community levels. In post-conflict societies like Rwanda, efforts to rebuild social cohesion are often hindered by tensions resulting from the erosion of trust in the wake of conflict.
As the Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote, “There is no shortcut or simple prescription for healing the wounds and divisions of a society in the aftermath of sustained violence.” The process of healing the wounds makes it imperative to examine the past, and however much pain it evokes, to acknowledge it, understand it, and above all, transcend it together.
Healing cannot be simply relegated to a roadmap that worked successfully in a different post-conflict setting. Every wounded society needs to search for solutions from within itself, taking into account its particularities and the nature of the violence that transpired.
The effective rebirth of a nation depends on the successive healing of individuals and communities within the broader society. Such healing is dependent on the collective will – both political and societal – to put mechanisms in place that facilitate the healing of both individuals and communities.
Since the genocide, Rwanda has embarked on a lengthy healing and reconciliation journey, establishing a number of mechanisms to facilitate healing at the individual, community and national levels. One of the most famous ones is the community-based Gacaca courts, a grassroots judicial process based on traditional Rwandan mechanisms of conflict resolution.
The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) has also been instrumental in to fostering unity, healing and reconciliation among Rwandans and the establishment of a conflict-sensitive political system based on power sharing.
Yet despite all these efforts, recent studies have shown that post-traumatic stress disorder remains a significant public health issue in post-genocide Rwanda. A 2012 study by researchers at the Psychosocial Consultation Centre indicated that approximately 26.1% of the Rwandan society still suffers from symptoms of trauma.
This figure represents slightly over a quarter of the country’s population, 15% of them exhibiting diagnosable symptoms. A majority of the people engaged in this study attested to being influenced by the past wounds in their societies, interpersonal relationships and even their levels of trust towards the state.
This confirms that trauma healing is a complex process and as such reconciliation is a long journey that is far from complete in Rwanda. One way to interpret this is to consider the fact that it is more difficult to heal wounds at the individual and societal levels than at the national level. This is because actors at the national level focus on the nation building process, which they are best-suited to handle in their leadership roles.
Looking back at the magnitude of the genocide, the scale of violence and depth of the wounds inflicted can lead victims into thinking that they are alone in their pain. This can blind victims from envisioning a better future in which they make peace with the past. These victims are not alone in their struggle, and neither is Rwanda.
There are many countries with similar experiences around the world that Rwanda can learn from as it navigates its own healing process. For this reason, Never Again Rwanda (NAR) and Interpeace have invited experts and organisations from various countries, some of which have undergone conflict, to share their experiences and knowledge.
The two organisations will host an International Conference on Healing and Social Cohesion from 10 - 11 November 2016 in Kigali, bringing together scholars, researchers, practitioners and policy makers in the fields of healing and reconciliation from Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Sweden, France and United States.
The purpose of this international conference, themed Healing and Social Cohesion: Understanding Reconciliation Experiences, is to provide a platform for an exchange on healing and reconciliation practices based on the varying experiences from these diverse countries.
The conference is part of a four-year programme on Societal Healing and Participatory Governance for Sustainable Peace, jointly implemented by Never Again Rwanda and Interpeace with the support of the Embassy of Sweden.
Designed to complement government initiatives for the consolidation of peace and reconciliation in the country, the goal of the ‘Societal Healing’ pillar of the programme is to transform community members, especially the youth, into peace actors with the capacity to deal with conflict through dialogue and other non-violent means.
Never Again Rwanda and Interpeace share the belief that it is only through healing that a society can build a shared future from a divided past. There is no other way to find lasting peace. It is our hope is that this conference will be an important step along the path to healing and reconciliation in Rwanda.
Dr. Joseph Ryarasa Nkurunziza is the Country Director of Never Again Rwanda (NAR), a peacebuilding and social justice organisation formed in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. More information about the organisation and its work can be found at www.neveragainrwanda.org