The tragic 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi not only consumed the lives of over a million people, it left behind the absolute desecration of women.
Rwanda was a land of tears, a fathomless abyss of sorrow, and in that setting AVEGA Agahozo, the association of Genocide widows, started creating projects to generate funds and create sustainable livelihoods.
Today AVEGA has become a mountain of courage and a miracle of survival and endurance. It has decentralized with administration centres across Rwanda and has many successes.
“Every day women come knocking on our doors seeking medical treatment through the available programmes,” says Caritas Umurerwa, the head of Counseling Unit at Avega.
Now 17 years after the Rwandan Genocide, many women and orphans are struggling to come to terms with the brutality they endured. In response AVEGA’s Mental Health department embarked on ensuring that all district hospitals have the required capacity to deal with traumatised patients.
“That’s why in each hospital we have a mental health department that monitors a patients’ recovery process, adding that treatment usually consists mainly of counseling and if necessary medication,” Umurerwa explains.
Given the primary importance of counseling in the treatment of mental illness, the Mental Health department is also ensuring that its counselors have the required special expertise on trauma.
Umurerwa pointed out that “counseling is key to Genocide survivors, because the aim is to make them able to face their demons without fear.”
“Counseling focuses on the stories of people’s lives and involves finding ways in which people can change their lives and overcome whatever problem they are facing,” she said adding that, “Collective counseling is an approach that is used in relation to any difficulties that a person may be struggling with.”
Umurerwa warns that mentally, if you have experienced trauma you will likely also experience flashbacks of the event, nightmares, amnesia, and intense feelings of guilt.
She said: “Trauma can also affect anyone at any age. The effects can be mild or severe, creating extreme psychological issues. Any symptoms of trauma should be taken seriously.
In some cases however, the effects of trauma can manifest months and even years after the event, so in actuality, it can be difficult to recognize the symptoms.
“Often people feel they are too weak for help, especially when they compare themselves to others who have endured the same traumatic experience. But it is important to remember that everyone reacts differently to trauma and there is no guideline as to how and what someone should feel.
“That this is why two people can be in the same situation, and one person can go on with life as usual after the event but the other almost immediately falls to pieces. Both people experience the same event but their reactions to that event have very different psychological implications.”
Psychologists believe that the sooner one deals with the symptoms of trauma, the better the chance of having a full recovery. If left unresolved, emotional trauma can affect individual’s daily choices and functioning and ultimately, it can manifest into serious psychological disorders with lasting effects.
“We provide and refer counselors specially trained in trauma counseling who work to resolve the negative emotions that remain from the experiences patient’s endured,” Umurerwa explains.
Rwanda is currently dealing with an extremely high level of traumatic old and young survivors.
“Because of their struggle to survive, many children who are heads of households have had no time to come to terms with and understand what has happened to their lives. Many were too young to understand why the Genocide occurred; some still don’t know the facts.
“They need to be listened to and to be told what really happened in order to be given support to address their trauma. They need to understand the causes and to be reassured that this was not their fault and that it will not happen to them again.
“Some think they are responsible for what happened, they need to be listened to and to be told what really happened and to be given support to address their traumatic past,” she said.
AVEGA’s centres identify those who need immediate attention from specialists before they are appropriately treated.