Trusting again, even after a genocide

Donatile Uwicyeza is a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. In 1994, her family was slaughtered. She was left to navigate the aftermath of the bloodshed and the return to peace as best as she could.

“I could only see people through their ethnic identity. The genocide against Tutsi swept out my family and I became very bitter, deeply sad and overcome by feelings of loneliness, quick to label and discriminate people based on their former ethnic groups. I considered everyone from my opposite ethnic background as a perpetrator, accusing all of them of having orchestrated the death of my family,” Donatile recalls.

“I trusted none, and I had no friend to turn to for advice. I had a deep-seated hate towards those formerly called Hutu. I even told my children that those people killed their grandparents and demanded that they have no dealings with Hutus. My children started hating the children from the family whose parents killed my parents and relatives, and they started wishing for revenge. I even went to school to check how many Hutus my child studied with. The school leaders told me that there was no room for such requests.”

Donatile Uwicyeza, a participant of the Light project

The psychological wounds from a genocide deeply affect not just people’s attitudes, but also their ability to learn and work, to have friends, earn a living. Donatile saw her hatred negatively impact her work. “I am a tailor, but I could not work for a person that I thought to be a Hutu. When women would bring me fabric to work with, I would immediately think that they had stolen the fabric after killing people killed like my family members.”

With each passing day, Donatile found herself further and further away from her community. “It’s a custom in the villages to help your neighbours, to lend them chairs during social events, for example, or to let them come into your house to hide from the rain, but I could not bring myself to do it. My generosity was gone.”

The problems stemming from the trauma of the genocide were growing, and Donatile saw no way out of this darkness. That is when the USAID-funded project Light came into her life.

“Urumuri [Light] project came at the right time for me. I have changed due to the healing and the support I got from the therapy group sessions.”

Donatile Uwicyeza, Light project participant

Over a period of six months, Donatile received support from psychosocial healing services through a therapy group, facilitated twice a month by trained community facilitators. The therapy group is facilitated as a community-based safe space that allows participants to enhance their confidence and ability to open up. Over time, participants develop techniques to promote healthy communication, regulate their emotions, hold space for other people’s emotions, set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.

Donatile now offers her tailoring services to every client, regardless of their ethnic background. She is working hard to undo the negative perspectives she had built up in her children. “I sat with my children, recalling what I told them, and renouncing the negative part. The Urumuri therapy group sessions helped me realize that my children grew up under the influence of my trauma and wounds, and that this was likely to affect their future.”

There is still much to be done in the area of reconciliation and rebuilding of trust. Donatile is one of 2,761 people who received help through the Light project, implemented by International Alert Rwanda, but many communities are still struggling to heal and move on. Some are hesitant to accept the change in attitudes that comes with the therapy sessions.

Donatile sees this in people’s reactions to the changes in her behavior. “People in my area are confused by my attitude and behaviours. Some are impressed, and they always tell others about the changes that happened to me. Some believe it, while others don’t.”

Even almost three decades after the genocide, the wounds are still open and the need for healing is still high. USAID funds reconciliation efforts and projects providing psychological healing for the people of Rwanda. Urumuri is one of several activities aimed at promoting social cohesion and ensuring sustainable peace, so that people like Donatile can heal, and that children like hers can grow up free of hate.


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