Healing old wounds: How the world can learn from reconciliation in Rwanda

Twenty-two years on from the genocide, Rwanda is a dramatically different country. The economy has boomed, life expectancy has increased and infant mortality is dropping rapidly. However, the deep wounds of violence and trauma have passed down through generations and the need for reconciliation work is as great today as it was two decades ago. We have published a new paper looking at the challenges that remain in Rwanda and lessons that can be learned.

Our approach to reconciliation and reintegration in Rwanda, where we began working in 1996, is innovative as it engages not just with genocide survivors, but also former combatants, ex-prisoners, women and youth. This is central to our project on healing fractured lives in Rwanda, which has been running for the past seven years.

The project has three main components: psychosocial support, dialogue and economic recovery. A total of 5,613 people took part in the project from April 2013 to July 2016, with nearly an even split between men and women. Of these people, nearly 3,000 were reached through reconciliation activities, nearly 1,000 received psychosocial support and over 1,700 (predominantly men) got involved in socioeconomic activities. An external evaluation proved that the project was trusted and supported by both communities and local authorities.

Dialogue clubs were a key part of the project’s reconciliation activities. They were set up to allow people from all backgrounds to come together and share their experiences, hopes and fears, and find common ground. They have been praised by the Rwandan government, who have recommended that the project should be scaled up and replicated across the country. The facilitators of these clubs, either genocide survivors or perpetrators, were committed and highly regarded as community leaders and conflict mediators.

Our new publication highlights five key lessons for policy-makers and practitioners interested in the challenges that lie ahead in Rwanda. It sets out good practice for addressing these challenges, with the findings relevant both for Rwanda and other countries where reconciliation is needed.

Firstly, after a period of intense violence, counselling has proven to be a fundamental prerequisite for any dialogue process. Personal healing must begin before relationships can be restored, and only then can a dialogue process commence. The second lesson is that bridging divides through dialogue takes time and needs to be managed carefully. Investing in a long-term process allows groups to progressively build trust in each other.

The paper also highlights the success of the project’s dialogue club model. This involves training respected community members as facilitators and has inspired people to set up their own clubs, making the reconciliation more sustainable and far reaching.

Another key finding was that microfinance initiatives encourage people from different backgrounds to collaborate around a shared goal are a valuable way of promoting both reconciliation and economic growth.

Lastly, as trauma and grievance can be intergenerational, the paper stresses that it is vital to support young people in reconciliation efforts. In Rwanda, peace clubs bringing together youth through dialogue were set up in schools, with graduates replicating the approach and creating new clubs in 18 villages.

You can read the full publication here and view our photostory on the topic here.

Photo: © Carol Allen-Storey for International Alert