Venancia Nyiramana

“I hate a whistle because each time the Interahamwe militia wanted to start killing people; they blew a whistle at 05 am. So, when someone blows a whistle, I feel like my throat is coming up towards my mouth and I get an urge to pull it out, and that’s when I start trembling in my stomach”.

Sakindi Jean Baptist

“Whenever people discussed women, I vomited. When friends were enjoying talking about sex in a bar, I vomited. Some thought it was being drunk but no, it was trauma. I sometimes had hick ups each time I though about the rape”.

Venancia and Jean Baptiste both lived through the Rwandan genocide. Venancia is one of only two survivors from a family of sixty. Jean Baptist Sakindi was drugged then raped by four women during the slaughter.

According to psychologists, both Venancia and Jean Baptiste may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, and also from chronic traumatic grief.

“Trauma takes place when a tragedy or something unusual has happened to some one at the time when his/ her mind and heart are not ready to receive it” explains Dr. Nason Munyandamutsa, a Psychiatrist Psychotherapist.

Experts say that during a trauma, survivors often become overwhelmed with fear. Soon after the traumatic experience, they may re-experience the original trauma, both mentally and physically. According to the American National Centre for PTSD, symptoms include fear, sleepless nights, nightmares, bed wetting, and sometimes the inability to speak. These symptoms seldom disappear completely. Trauma sufferers can learn how to cope more effectively, through expert help. “When a counselor spots someone with trauma symptoms, the first thing he/she does is to take that person to a quiet place. At that moment the person is in a different world because he/she is seeing things related to what she/he went through. The counselor gives them time to tell what they are seeing. The counselor helps the person to understand that the images are for the past and not happening now. You help them connect the past and the present. This gets rid of the fear and the noise they were making and they go back to the reality of the present”, describes Jean Claude Nsanzabandi, a project manager in the association of Rwandan Trauma counselors, ARCT.

Dr. Nason Munyandamutsa says that trauma takes many forms and not all of them severe. “Trauma can be treated easily if the trauma victim is received and listened to by suitable people and at the required time. It’s not necessary to see doctors. Specialists only deal with complicated cases”, says Dr Nason. Recovery from trauma focuses on two complementary goals: The ability to manage trauma-related emotions rooted in the past, and the ability to develop greater self-confidence. Together, these help sufferers to cope with everyday life in the present. Jeanne Mukamusoni is the head of health and trauma counseling program in the association of genocide widows, Avega. She says trauma victims can recover and lead a normal life. “There are many people who were hurt beyond our imagination but now are much better and are living a normal life to the extent of helping others who have trauma problems”, says Jeanne

With Gacaca – or traditional village trials – now underway, trauma related problems are expected to rise, as more genocide crimes are revealed and discussed in painful detail. The association of genocide survivors, IBUKA believes the gacaca is important but may have negative consequences for survivors.

“The Survivors of genocide live in environments that stir up trauma all the time. Gacaca itself is trauma; it traumatizes them because it tells them a lot”, emphasizes Benoit Kaboyi the Executive Secretary of IBUKA.

But not everyone agrees with that perspective.

Yvon Kayiteshonga, director in charge of mental health says gacaca does not traumatize but instead could be the remedy. “Gacaca is one of the medicines of trauma because Gacaca will answer questions that have been lingering in people’s minds. Gacaca does not cause trauma but what will be said there might trigger it and victims will be able to take a step forward, he adds.

With an estimated 10,000 Gacaca courts expected to sit nationwide over the next few years it seems fair to say that Rwanda will need many trauma counselors.

But where will they come from? The Rwandan Association of Trauma Counselors currently has 95 counselors around the country.

“The number of counselors that we have is not enough compared to the situation of trauma in the country, that’s why we always need to increase the number by at least 40 more counselors this year”. Jean Claude Nsanzabandi says.

Yvon Kayiteshonga says that the government of Rwanda believes more counselors will be available soon:”There is a program in place set up by the ministry of health to avail a good number of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses. The program also concerns training some specialists abroad for example three doctors have left for training in this domain. Others needed and capable psychiatrists have graduated from the national university and there are more students in the faculty of medicine”.

Avega, an association of genocide widows, has trained six hundred people to assist its own members who suffer from trauma.

“The people we receive here for counseling are mainly the women survivors of genocide because most of their family members were tortured and killed while they were watching. The women themselves were beaten, injured by the machetes; others were buried alive. A person could spend three days in a mass grave. Some were raped and infected with HIV and others gave birth because of rape. So most of our members have trauma related to the genocide”, explains Jeanne Mukamusoni, Avega’s head of health and trauma counseling program.

Early March 2005, The Rwandan Association of Trauma Counselors in conjunction with the national Gacaca office, trained over seven hundred judges in Kibungo and Kigali in trauma awareness, for three important reasons.

“The first reason why we trained the judges was to help them not to become the reason or source of trauma during the sessions. Secondary was to help prevent them from being traumatized by what they hear or see. Thirdly was to help them identify or support whoever that has the signs of trauma during the sessions. When this happens, the president of the court calls assistants to come and assist that person, points out Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, the Executive Secretary of Gacaca .

The participants say they found the training very useful. One of them is Venancia Nyiramana, a gacaca judge:”I thank God for this training because they taught us the importance of being close to someone and confide in him/her about what happened to us”.

Sindayigaya Evariste is the coordinator of Gihira sector in Kamonyi district who also benefited from the training : “After this training, I think I will be able to cope with trauma that always gets me during the mourning season in April because of the training I have received”.

As for Mukamugema Francoise also a gacaca judge, the trauma training will help her to help others: “When they selected me to come and attend the seminar on trauma, I was happy because many of my friends had the problem of trauma and no one knew ways in which to help them”.

Venancia Nyiramana further drew important lessons from the workshop: “Again what I have learnt; they drew us a picture of a pot, full of contents and completely closed. They compared that pot to a person full of thoughts. So, when that person confides in some one and tells her/ him the whole story of what happened to him or her feels relieved. That is compared to that pot being emptied. The lesson helps me.”

Experts say that people suffering from trauma often feel overwhelmed by the symptoms. Compassionate counseling helps them to re-focus on more positive aspects of their lives.

They also learn to access useful resources in order to improve their mental outlook and medical health. Such assistance has helped countless victims of trauma all over the world.

In Rwanda, while justice aims at national peace, counseling aims to bring personal peace.

Ideally, this will happen at the same time, throughout the Land of One Thousand Hills.


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