Peace of Mind: Marie-Josée and Theobald’s story, Rwanda
“The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi left me with severe trauma because my husband was killed before my eyes,” explains Marie-Josée. Her son was also killed during the genocide, as were her brother with his wife and three children.
“As a result, I spent sleepless nights full of nightmares … Whenever I met a man holding a machete, I started trembling.” So Marie-Josée began avoiding such men altogether. “I felt very lonely, depressed and fearful. I had a lot of negative feelings.” Raising her children alone, she struggled emotionally and financially.
Among the group of neighbours who killed Marie-Josée’s husband was Theobald. After the genocide, he fled to Burundi. He recalls how he was “always haunted by the crimes that I committed”.
When Theobald decided to return home, he was arrested for his role in the genocide. After serving 12 years of his prison sentence, the Rwandan government encouraged him and other prisoners to confess and apologise for their crimes. “I opened up, confessed and apologised … I was pardoned.”
“After being released back into the community, I avoided meeting genocide survivors. I felt so ashamed that I could not even attend a market. I feared attending genocide commemoration activities or church services.” Theobald’s wife and children were also afraid of attending public gatherings.
“My child once asked me why we did not behave heroically like the students of Nyange school, who refused orders from their attackers to separate themselves [between Tutsis and Hutus]. He wondered how heartless we were to kill innocent people.”
When International Alert first started our Duhuze project in Marie-Josée and Theobald’s community in the Southern province, they were both approached by the community facilitator and invited to join a therapy group. “She helped me along the healing process,” explains Marie-Josée.
The project, which ran from 2017 to 2022, delivered mental health support alongside group dialogue and livelihoods initiatives to help strengthen community cohesion and reconciliation in seven districts in Rwanda.
It was a partnership between International Alert and the national association of trauma counsellors, ARCT-Ruhuka, and a Rwandan human rights organisation, AJPRODHO-JIJUKIRWA, and was funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“They encouraged us to join therapy groups that included genocide survivors, ex-prisoners, teen mothers and ex-combatants. It was a mix of Rwandans of various backgrounds,” explains Marie-Josée. Over time, the group members began to learn to live side by side with their neighbours once more, despite the horrors they had experienced during the genocide.
“My group mates gave me support because they knew that I was sick,” recalls Marie-Josée. “They helped to till my farm, which saved my household from descending into poverty. We became a united family.”
Meanwhile members of the group helped Theobald to make bricks to build him a kitchen. “It gave me hope that they accepted me as a human being, contrary to the past where I felt hopeless and rejected.”
Next year will be the 30th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda and more people involved in the genocide will be released from prison. It is vital they receive the support needed to successfully reintegrate back into society and reconcile with their neighbours who are still trying to live with the trauma of the past, like Theobald did with Marie-Josée and others in his community. “This will enhance cohesion in the Rwandan society,” says Theobald.
Peace of Mind research
Mental health and psychosocial support such as that received by Marie-Josée and Theobald is critical to building peace in communities around the world that are suffering the effects of past and current conflict. Our research, 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.