Peace of Mind: Bernard’s story, Rwanda
“I experienced trauma when I was serving my jail term,” recalls Bernard Gakiga, from Kigali city in Rwanda. “I had nightmares in which I saw the faces of the people that I killed.”
Bernard thought he would be in jail forever. He was convicted for participating in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.
When he was released from prison as part of the Gacaca trials, Bernard was always afraid of meeting survivors of his past crimes. If he needed to fetch water, he would avoid people he might know by going to a water source further away. He felt deeply alone for a year. That is when he heard about the USAID Dufatanye Urumuri project.
“The Urumuri project enabled me to open up and overcome my fear,” he explains. The project delivers mental health support alongside group dialogue and livelihoods initiatives to help strengthen community cohesion and reconciliation in 30 districts in Rwanda.
It is a partnership between International Alert and the national association of trauma counsellors, ARCT-Ruhuka, and is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“We had decided that there was a need for a healing session,” says Bernard. “What helped me the most was meeting with genocide survivors. If people don’t engage in open dialogue, they can’t reach mutual trust.”
His confession and apology during the Gacaca trials were intended to secure his release. His confession during the dialogue sessions are what helped start to heal his mind.
“I used to be held back by fear. But now I live in harmony with genocide survivors hurt by my actions. We live together peacefully. We met at our local meeting hall and had an open conversation on the wrongs that we did to them.”
Remarkably, many of the genocide survivors and perpetrators who participated in the process are “no longer suspicious of one another”. Now, when one of Bernard’s group has a family event like a wedding, they invite the others. “It pleases me a lot,” says Bernard, amazed at how far he and the others have come.
Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and more prisoners, with their fears, regrets and trauma, will be released from prison. It is vital they receive the support needed to successfully reintegrate back into society and reconcile with their neighbours, just like Bernard.
Peace of Mind research
Mental health and psychosocial support such as that received by Bernard is critical to building peace in communities around the world that are suffering the effects of past and current conflict. Our recent report, Peace of Mind, demonstrates how peacebuilders can effectively incorporate mental health and psychosocial support in their own projects, drawing on lessons from our experience in Rwanda and Tajikistan.