February 10, 2019

Ability To Put Food On The Table, ‘Safe Spaces’ Could Help Rwanda Heal Faster

Examining whether CNLG’s announcement on Friday that work will continue during the genocide commemoration week in April is good for healing

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When the genocide against the Tutsi began on April 7, 1994, Celestin Rwabukumba, the 43-year-old CEO of the fledgling Rwanda Stock Exchange did not have to think about what to do to save himself.

This is because Mr. Rwabukumba happened to be near parliamentary buildings where he took shelter when orgy killings began.

The reason the parliamentary building became a life-saving haven for many, including Rwabukumba is because the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels had been in control of the building – with 600 troops which had been agreed upon under a shaky peace deal.

The facility became shelter for those who could make it through the interahamwe militias and government troops’ roadblocks.

“My brother and I just happened to be near the parliament when the genocide began,” he says. “We knew the RPF was staying there, so we took a chance and rushed there.”

Rwabukumba eventually went to study economics in the U.S, and worked on Wall Street, home to the biggest global firms.

Today, with content and pride, he looks down from his office in one of Kigali’s tallest buildings and reminisces: “I was born on that street,” he says referring to Kigali city.

“I don’t even recognize it anymore” as skyscrapers have eaten up its humble surroundings he was brought up in.

Rwabukumba’s story was told in a powerful National Geographic channel documentary in 2014. The sense of achievement he has is shared by many, but then when reality kicks in, there is second thought.

Yesterday, the national commission for the fight against genocide (CNLG) called a press conference. It made an announcement that the country is still trying to understand.

CNLG’s team led by executive secretary Dr. Jean-Damascene Bizimana announced a radical change to the annual genocide commemoration week that will start April 7-13.

In the years after the genocide, the country worked half day in the commemoration. After mid-day, all Rwandans were supposed to go back home to attend village meetings where testimonies and discussions are held.

Some of these gatherings went on till late evening.  

In many cases, whole days could be spent at commemoration events depending on the institution.

This year however, it’s is going to be different.

The communal or institutional gatherings will be held only on the afternoon of April 7 and April 13. For the rest of the days, there won’t be any entertainment as the country goes silent in honor of the victims.

But the routine agenda of private and public institutions will continue.

Shops will be open; workers will continue to go to work and all other services will be on offer. The week will be like any normal working work.

“Imagine spending all those hours through the whole week without working. How shall we put food on the table or pay taxes,” asked Dr. Bizimana. “We can honor our people and still do it in [a] manner that doesn’t make life stop.”

A Connection to the Story of 9/11

The announcement has been on radio talk shows since yesterday, and will be for some time.

Many will be waiting to see how the implementation will work.

The new changes reinforce the wide feeling among Rwandans that turning Rwanda for the better and helping families have a sustainable income is what will effectively counter the powerful genocide negationist lobby spread across the world.

If Rwanda fails, the misery continues – it is what the killers and their backers are praying for.

“I was at work on Wall Street on 9/11,” says the bourse CEO Rwabukumba. “I saw the destruction and felt the fear in New York.

I understood in many ways what Americans were feeling in those days.

It was a major crisis for the United States, and I remember people discussing what Americans needed in the early aftermath.

Because I had the experience of the genocide behind me, I knew exactly what they needed. It was the same things Rwandans needed—resilience. You have to move forward. It’s important to remember what happened and to honor the people who died, but the best way to honor them is to build a better country.”

Some studies also suggest that commemoration that keeps Rwanda in a state of anguish has more adverse impact.

Evidence of genocidal mental health consequences, despite being observed throughout the year, are more acute during the commemoration week each year, according one particular ground-breaking study.

The final report is titled ‘Remembering and Re-Experiencing Trauma during Genocide Commemorations. The Effect of Supportive-Expressive Group Therapy in a Selected District Hospital in Rwanda’ published in 2015.

The University of Rwanda-commissioned research was conducted by six academics including Dr. Yvonne Kayiteshonga, the Mental Health Division Manager of Rwanda Biomedical Center at the Ministry of Health.

These traumatic crises experienced by survivors, says the team, “are quite contagious and can affect up to a hundred people at one commemoration site”.

For example, throughout the week of national mourning that ran from 7 to 13 April 2010, a total of 3193 people were reported to have developed these traumatic crises at different commemoration sites.

The number of mental health crises during commemoration week has continued to be high in subsequent years: in 2011, 4363 people presented with a traumatic crisis; 4095 in 2012; 3702 in 2013 and 3471 in 2014.

The week annually associated with an increase in collective traumatic crises whereby many people participating in commemoration activities present with various symptoms, including re-experiencing traumatic events of 1994.

The survivors are taken back to their past traumatic experiences, which are acted out in the present.

They see militia armed with machetes, attacking them or cutting into pieces legs or arms of their families, or they see their house being burned as vividly as if they were occurring again. They re-see and re-vision exactly what they saw, heard and felt in 1994.

Government has acted and establishing special emergency interventions to manage these acute phase of crises.

The researchers proposed more practical interventions, including what they called ‘safe spaces’ to provide comfort in various ways – but all aimed at improving the wellbeing of survivors and communities around them.  

Another study done by U.S. Massachusetts-based Clark University also looked into the commemoration week, particularly the perception it generates.

Based on 60 interviews, it said many – including genocide survivors and former perpetrators – have a more holistic concept of justice than punishing perpetrators.

“And there is a huge desire for spaces for dialogue about how memories of genocide emerge impact everyday life,” says the study.

“These spaces would bring together survivors, perpetrators, returnees, and ordinary citizens. There is also a great desire for knowledge about how to use these memories to seek justice, validation, and promote coexistence, especially for future generations.”

Perhaps this partly explains why the 2019 commemoration theme is: “Kwibuka Twiyubaka” – or Commemorating while Re-building Ourselves.

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