March 31 2004
"You have to learn to live again, otherwise what will become of you?"
Innsbruck (31 March 2004) - The beginning of April this year marks ten years since the start of the genocide in Rwanda which claimed the lives of up to a million people, above all Tutsis, in a period of just thirteen weeks. The systematically prepared genocide left an estimated 95.000 orphans, talk was of the "land of the widows and orphans". Wherever one goes, one comes across the legacy of the all-encompassing crime. There is hardly anyone who has not been affected, either directly or indirectly, not even in the Rwandan SOS Children's Villages.
The history and work of SOS Children's Villages, active in the small central African country since 1979, came to a caesura in 1994, after which nothing was the same again. Nine co-workers and nine children and youths in the care of SOS Children's Villages were murdered. There was no-one in the Rwandan SOS team who did not lose relatives; some of them lost their whole family. All the children in the three SOS Children's Villages (in Gikongoro, Kigali and Byumba) who lived through the genocide, carry with them the horrors of the past. Many of the women today working as SOS mothers are widows of war who lost their husbands and, in many cases, their children and who became "mothers of others' children" in the state of acute emergency both during and after the genocide.
The extent to which the past still lives on to this day can be heard in almost every conversation. Marie Théogène Umuteteli, an SOS mother in Kigali whose husband was killed, tells of the ever present legacy of 1994 in living together with the children, most of them orphans of the genocide: "Later I started on a course about coping with traumas. I find it very interesting, because you discover that you have been traumatised yourself. You just haven't shown it, because you're there to protect the children. The course shows us how we should treat the children. We haven't started to deal with our own traumas yet, because we have to finish working on the subject of the children's traumas first."
The psychological, physical and social damage the children suffered through their experiences of war led inevitably in Rwanda to very high levels of trauma. The number of children affected and the nature of their experiences alone where overwhelming. Even two years after the genocide, Rwanda had only one psychiatric hospital, in the whole country there was one "Centre de Traumatisme" for the special treatment of those traumatised by war.
During the three month long massacre, the SOS Children's Villages in Kigali and Gikongoro had to be evacuated, later they were expanded to be able to look after more children. An emergency village was constructed in Ngarama, where lost, orphaned and totally exhausted children were taken in. Many were picked up by SOS Children's Village staff from the overflowing refugee camps and orphanages. The children found themselves in wretched state; they were undernourished, ill and injured and for some the help came too late. About 800 additional children were looked after. The village in Ngarama - later replaced by an SOS Children's Village in Byumba - served in this region, in collaboration with UNICEF and Save the Children, as a hub for bringing families together at a time when thousands upon thousands of children were searching for their families.
"When Coucou came to me I asked God, 'Why do You give me this child who is in such a state and hardly alive at all, when I'm so unhappy anyway?' He couldn't sit up for two years, because he was physically so weak but then he slowly got better. Yves, Florance and David saw how their father was murdered near Lake Victoria. They were totally traumatised. I took them to my home and showed them where I had lived with my husband. I said to them, 'We lived here. This is a photo of my husband and he's buried over there. I have also been through exactly what you are going through now.' I told them that all the children in the village had lost somebody and they should take courage. I wanted them to understand that they weren't alone and that everyone was in the same boat. That helped them to deal with their trauma. I also said to them, 'Please learn something from this! Try! Despite everything, you still have your lives ahead of you. You have to learn to live again, otherwise what will become of you'", recalls Marie Théogène.
The difficult and protracted reconciliation process, with which Rwanda's society, lawyers and politicians will be occupied for many more years gives one an idea of how difficult or even impossible the attempts to heal are for the individually affected people. What happens with children who were wounded with machetes, who had to witness with their own eyes the murder of their parents, brothers and sisters, who were witness to mass executions, who wandered about for weeks without protection?
The consequences of such experiences for children, who are dependent upon their families and their environment to a special extent, are devastating and often lead to the wiping out of their personality and self. According to their age, children react with different symptoms, all of which are subsumed under the term "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder" by experts. Symptoms that can be seen in children and youths traumatised by war include arrested growth, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, retreat from social contact, feeling of emptiness, loss of communicative faculties, phobias and panic attacks, obsessive playing out of past experiences, aggression and regression, alcohol and drug abuse, fear of the future, and suicidal tendencies.
Four-year old Eric from the Gitarama region displayed serious psychological disorders due to his experiences. He was unable to suppress the memories of the fear of death and screams of his relatives or the pictures of the dumb corpses, he was pursued in his dreams, was absent-minded, had no appetite, often sang alone "Tubabarire nyagasanyi" (Forgive us, Lord) and trusted no-one. Like most of the children in the care of SOS Children's Villages, Eric was taken onto the "de-traumatisation programme", which was started straight after the end of the mass murder.
Psychologists, social workers, family helpers, teachers and kindergarten staff - all trained in child-care and education - try together with the SOS mothers to guide and support the children through the process of healing and coming to terms with the past. Forging relationships is the best therapy here, since reliable, loving relationships should stand in the foreground where the loss, mourning and the experience of what fellow human beings are capable of have destroyed all trust.
Peace education and constructive methods for conflict resolution are likewise important aspects of the educational work within the SOS Children's Villages and the schools and kindergartens run by the organisation. In the SOS Children's Village facilities there is, as before the genocide, no separation of Tutsi and Hutu. Nothing can be taken for granted after the years of racism and the rift torn over the decades between the two ethnic groups.
"It's a wonder that the people of Rwanda can live together peacefully in such close contact." It is in the light of the country's recent history that Alfred Munyentwari sees his role as national director of SOS Children's Villages in the daily struggle to create and consolidate peaceful coexistence as "the only way ahead. Where will it lead us if people only feel responsible for their own ethnic group?"
SOS Children's Villages is a non-governmental and non-denominational organisation providing long-term care for destitute, abandoned and orphaned children in 131 countries. More than 50,000 children are being cared for at the organisation's 439 SOS Children's Villages worldwide. In addition, the organisation also provides families with welfare and educational services. Some 120,000 children and youths attend SOS Schools, SOS Kindergartens and SOS Vocational Training Centres, while more than 500,000 benefit from SOS Medical and Social Centres and SOS Emergency Relief Programmes.