The Rwandan ministry brings hope to genocide survivors

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It was raining heavily, causing the women and orphans to move away from the open windows so as not to get wet. The meeting started with singing when survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda danced their concerns. A young orphan beat time on a drum to music. Women wore long floral dresses and beautiful headscarves. Babies were sitting on laps; Small children wandered freely. After the singing, Solace Ministries' director of advice, "Mama Lambert", welcomed newcomers, many of whom walked miles to the Ministry's Kigali headquarters. They had come because someone had told them it was a place of comfort.

From April to July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed in the Rwandan genocide, and many more had physical and emotional scars. The ministries of consolation began in 1995 and grew from intimate gatherings of widows to 56 communities of survivors across the country who cared for over 6,000 families last year. Since its inception, Solace Ministries has supported around 20,000 people through counseling and spiritual care, education, employment and health. Its medical clinic of the same name serves a client population of more than 50,000 patients per year.

Mama Lambert, whose Rwandan name is Mukarubuga Beata, lost four of her children to the genocide, along with her husband and home, which was destroyed. The founder of Solace Ministries, Jean Gakwandi, lost his entire extended family, but his immediate family miraculously survived while he was housed in the house of his German teacher.

When my wife Lorna and I overheard the meeting for the next four hours, various survivors spontaneously rose and testified – often in tears – about their experiences during the 100 days of genocide. The reports varied, but contained frequent references to rape or to a church to have the building attacked by the Hutu militia. A widow described how her baby was beaten to death; She survived because the blood and body parts of the victims lying next to her in the church misled the murderers into saying that she was already dead.

Jean Gakwandi sat next to us and translated from the national language Kinyarwanda into English. When a young orphan got up and said that his mother was beheaded and that no tears shed, Jean whispered that the tears would flow with the healing of his PTSD. After another survivor offered an extensive, incoherent list of various traumatic events, Jean said that hopefully she would develop a narrative of her life over time – one that would contextualize the genocide in a wider context of meaning and purpose.

In search of faith in the dark

After interviewing survivors on multiple trips to Rwanda for 15 years, I tried to unravel some of the elements that enable survivors to regain their humanity after the genocide.

When investigating two major genocides – the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915 and the recent Tutsi genocide in Rwanda – I am convinced that the heart of a survival trauma is a sense of moral imbalance or rupture that violates all civil norms. The horrors experienced and testified by genocide survivors make no sense. There is no way to rationalize them. Only in the warm embrace of a community where you feel loved and accepted can you begin to create an identity after a trauma.

The problem of theodicy – where was God when all this happened? – is a problem that has troubled many survivors. The death of loved ones made no sense. What connected with survivors after the genocide was when a person reached out to them with compassion, cried with them, and spoke to a god of love who had a meaning for their life. In this regard, Jean Gakwandi and Mama Lambert became agents of the divine.

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Jean told me that as a child, he struggled with fear and worthlessness after his family was attacked in 1959 when the Tutsi king was killed and in 1963 after the Hutu government was formed. At the age of 18 he had a remarkable religious experience when he turned from a self-proclaimed atheist to an invitation to God to take control of his life. He completely gave up drinking, which was his way of dealing with insomnia and self-doubt. He found a guide to a purposeful life in the Christian scriptures.

In early April 1994, Jean & # 39; s family hid in a closet when attackers searched the house and accidentally shot through the widows and in their bedrooms. During the genocide, various Bible promises gave him hope when his family and some other Tutsis hid.

When the genocide ended, Jean said he felt emotionally deaf. But he also felt he had survived for a reason, and a verse from the book of Isaiah echoed in his ears: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God" (40: 1).

In response, Jean invited a group of widows to gather to share their stories. Mama Lambert was in this first group of a dozen widows. She was so depressed that she was suicidal.

Image: Courtesy of Donald E. Miller

Mama Lambert

Mama Lambert grew up in a Catholic house, was married, had five children and worked as a teacher. During the almost three months of the murder, she had carried her little son Lambert on her back.

When she approached Hutu friends, under strict government mandates, they refused to host any Tutsis. Once a former Hutu student saved her from a string of Tutsis to be slaughtered. On another occasion, disgusted with God's absence, she threw a small Bible that she carried in the bushes to discover some ripe berries in which the Bible ended up. These berries enlivened little Lambert, whose name she took on after the genocide – the mother of Lambert or Mama Lambert.

After the genocide, Mama Lambert found consolation and consolation in her belief and said that prayer, both collectively and personally, makes a living. Neither Jean nor Mama Lambert rationalize genocide as God's will. Instead, they believe that they have survived for one purpose. I am convinced that part of their personal healing day by day is that they see themselves as agents of God's comfort to others.

Create a community-shaped identity

Initially, people present themselves as a bundle of problems – that's their identity, said Jean. In fact, they are often hungry, sick, and struggling with various symptoms of PTSD, such as insomnia, flashback memories, or avoiding their trauma.

Jean said these issues need to be addressed, but it is equally important that the survivors develop a sense of personal identity and freedom of choice. While individual counseling is important, a new self in the community must grow in interaction with others.

In the community, the survivors can share the burdens. When a survivor testifies about her experience, she can free herself from traumatic memories. and in the community one can discover new, meaningful roles as a replacement parent or grandparent of an orphan.

At the heart of Jean and Mama Lambert's approach to healing is compassion – crying with fellow survivors, listening to them when they reveal experiences that were previously too painful to share, and creating a community structure in which survivors cannot meet and receive regular support only emotionally, but also with their physical needs. Unlike the many non-governmental organizations funded and operated by First World countries, Solace Ministries is an indigenous organization led by individuals who have developed a program to respond to their own need for healing.

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Two steps forward, one step back

One day we went with Mama Lambert to where her house once stood. We saw the lake where her husband's body was thrown after being killed. We stood next to the monument that she had erected after finding the bodies of her two daughters that had been thrown into a pit latrine. We visited a nearby place where several dozen of her Tutsi friends, including her son, had been killed.

I asked Jean and Mama Lambert if they had forgiven the genocide. Both reject any quick interpretation of forgiveness and believe that forgiveness is a process that often involves a step or two forward and similar steps backward. When forgiveness is not healed from trauma, it is often accompanied by an emotional numbness that seals the pain, which then paralyzes other deep emotions such as love and joy.

Forgiveness is not a rational process; When it comes to that, it's almost the end of a long struggle with sadness, anger and loss. Both Jean and Mama Lambert said it was helpful for survivors to return to the place where their loved ones were murdered because they are emotionally capable. When they know where the murderers buried the bodies, it is important to recover their bones, wash them ritually, and then rebury them with dignity.

Both Jean and Mama Lambert see the value of forgiveness – not for the perpetrator, but for the victim, who may experience a new sense of freedom from the spinning nightmares, flashbacks, and preoccupation with what happened. In her experience at Solace, forgiveness is most difficult for survivors who have been raped and continue to struggle physically with the aftermath of the genocide.

For survivors who receive heartfelt forgiveness for the perpetrator, this is often perceived as a gift, an act of transcendent grace at the end of a long struggle. Above all, forgiveness does not mean forgetting.

How can survivors of war, earthquakes and genocide – situations in which the social trauma is so extensive that individual advice is not possible – regain their humanity? The answer suggested by Solace Ministries is that healing is best done in a community of survivors who can accept their pain – by sharing the burden of the other.

Such a concept is only possible in a compassionate community in which God's love is embodied in the caring actions of people who see themselves as agents of a divine purpose. Moral break is rarely cured rationally. A moral equilibrium is more easily achieved if fellow survivors are cared for who understand the pain of genocide and can help to carry the burden of their neighbors' memories.

Donald E. Miller is Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California. His upcoming book, Becoming human again: An oral story of the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsisis based on interviewing hundreds of survivors over 15 years.

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