How Rwandans Cope With the Horror of 1994

"The genocide is not over," a trauma counselor says. "The survivors are still living with those who committed the crimes."
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Pictures of genocide victims in the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

Consolee Nishimwe has an easy giggle and repeatedly uses certain phrases when we talk: “pain,” “painful,” “it wasn’t easy at all,” “I was only 14 years old.” Bearing in mind what she endured in 1994 during Rwanda’s genocide, some of these are possibly understatements. Now 34 and living in New York City, Nishimwe said she can describe the events that brought her here, but not without difficulty.

“In our culture, we don’t talk a lot about experiences,” said Nishimwe, who is a public speaker on the conflict. “It takes a long time to express how we feel. I am trying to show the other survivors that we need to express that pain we have.”

Today, 20 years after an ethnically motivated genocide in which nearly 1 million Rwandans died and up to half a million women were raped, the government forbids certain kinds of public discussion about Hutus and Tutsis. When I visited the country in February, I heard a lot of chatter about something called “Vision 2020,” which is supposed to transform the country into a thriving state marked by good governance and a healthy economy. Construction is booming in the capital, Kigali, and President Paul Kagame has expressed a desire to make his country more like Singapore—a sort of authoritarian democracy. There is a robust effort, in other words, to deliberately “move on” from the tragedy—a determination to never lose control again.

But what Rwandans endured is so extraordinarily horrifying—in terms of how many people experienced or witnessed brutal acts, and the sheer scale and speed of the killing—that the more time I spent in the country and talking to Nishimwe and others, the more I wondered how such a place could possibly go on after what happened in those horrible 100 days from April to July. How did each person survive? How does a whole country thrust into a hideous nightmare of people hacked to death and raped and tortured survive? What is it like to live in a society in which nearly everyone over the age of 20 has memories of such inhumane deeds?

The skulls and bones of Rwandan victims at a memorial inside the church at Ntarama, just outside Kigali. Some 5,000 people, mostly women and children, sought refuge near the church in April 1994, but were massacred by Hutu extremists who used grenades, clubs, and machetes to kill their victims. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Consider that 15 percent of Rwandan children were forced to hide under dead bodies to survive.

Consider that 90 percent of those children believed they would die.

Consider that Nishimwe still won’t wear a skirt because she doesn’t want to show the scars a man etched onto her legs with a sword as he raped her—or the marks the HIV he gave her has left on her body.

Consider that her three brothers—Philbert, 9; Pascal, 7; and Bon-Fils, 18 months—were hacked up and thrown in the septic tank of their burned-down house while Nishimwe was with her mother nearby on May 9, 1994. Her father had already been killed in the first weeks of the genocide, on April 15.

And then consider the response Nishimwe gave when I asked her how she survived: “There are others who really had it worse,” she said.

This phrase, “others had it worse”—I heard it time and again from other Rwandan survivors. It is hard to understand how someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events in a short period can think their experiences are not as bad as what others have gone through.

“We’re going to be breathless in realizing that they have the capacity to come out of atrocity with this very modest sense that others had it worse,” said Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University and a pioneer in the field of trauma therapy. “The Rwandan example is one of endurance.”

But just because Rwandans have endured doesn’t meant they’re living lives free of pain.

***

In Kigali, there is a walkway that herds you through the country’s genocide memorial. But after half an hour of dutifully progressing with my audio guide from room to room, I fled the building. I had come to something called the “Children’s Room,” which features large portraits of toddlers above descriptions of their favorite foods, what they loved in the world, and how they were murdered. Ariane, 4, was a “neat little girl” who loved cake. She was fatally “stabbed in her eyes and head.” Her parents said she enjoyed singing and dancing.

To recoup, I escaped to the bright sun outside and started speaking with some Rwandans who were working as tour guides. As they talked about their family members being dismembered and shot, we looked out over the 14 steps of concrete burial plots that contain the remains of 249,000 people killed in 1994. The memorial is still accepting bones, which are even now being discovered around Kigali and its outskirts.

The mass tombs in which nearly a quarter-million genocide victims' remains are interred at Kigali's genocide memorial. (deepphoto/Flickr)

Part of coming to terms with something as massive as genocide involves coming to terms with the dead, according to experts I spoke with.

“The dead have powerful and legitimate claims on us: to remember, to bear witness, to remain attached,” said Richard Neugebauer, a professor of clinical epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. “So if Rwandans can resume their lives in the world, many of them must first renegotiate their ties with the deceased.”

Neugebauer has worked on and off in Rwanda since 1997, and is quick to emphasize that he cannot speak for the Rwandans he has met. But his observations as a clinician are devastating. When he first went to the country, he said, “the laws of nature were reversed. The dead were more alive than the living. The dead were everywhere in the sense that you could almost feel them around you, clamoring to be heard. Whereas the people who were literally alive were so bereft or left empty for the moment that it seemed they were dead.” (When he returned to the country in 2010 and 2011, he again sought out some of these people, who seemed younger and revitalized.) It is this strong pull of deceased relatives and friends that “must be overcome to actually live,” he said.

Still, many survivors of the genocide are tied to the past by dint of not knowing where their relatives rest. Nishimwe said she knows where her father was killed, but not where his bones lie.

***

When I started work on this story, my basic inquiry was this: How do people survive the extreme trauma of genocide? More than once, I was told I was asking the wrong question.

“Your question assumes survival is possible, but survival can be just at the margins of tolerable existence,” Neugebauer said. He pointed to the book If This Is a Man by Holocaust victim Primo Levi, who eventually killed himself in 1987 (which is why I use the word “victim” and not “survivor”). The book was renamed Survival in Auschwitz when it was published in the United States—perhaps an indication that the idea of a living death is intolerable to readers here.

On the other hand, Wietse Tol, a psychologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, said my question was “a little bit biased.” “It leans toward thinking it must be extremely hard to survive,” said Tol, who has spent years working with survivors of ethnic violence in nearby Burundi. “The question is very much reflective of how people from stable settings think about such issues.”

Tol explained that humans have always undergone traumatic experiences, “so we’re able to deal with that.” “Resilience is a major thing. The majority of people go on to do quite well as long as they receive social support and as long as their basic needs are met as they live in a stable environment.”

Rwanda stabilized itself militarily in relatively short order. But the country’s social networks and mental-health system were utterly devastated. After something like a three-month genocide, experts say, it is critical to provide a “good recovery environment.” And, as Tol pointed out, that can mean focusing on social justice, which presents its own challenge when a country’s judicial infrastructure is destroyed as well. (Rwanda created “gacaca” courts to quickly try perpetrators, but these were problematic, with international observers pointing to a lack of qualified lawyers for the defendants. Overall, very few women who were raped have seen justice.)

Godeliève Mukasarasi, a trauma counselor at SEVOTA, a Kigali-based organization that supports widows and orphans of the genocide, said that survivors are not necessarily living in a conducive environment for recovery even now: women are struggling with HIV/AIDS from rape and may not have a “real home” since so many houses were burned in 1994. And they live among men who killed their parents and brothers, or raped their sisters.

“We must learn how to live positively with the bad and good,” said Mukasarasi, who bring female survivors together so they can feel comfortable sharing their stories. “Everyone still lives with the consequences. Some of the perpetrators went to jail, but they come back and live close to the survivors. The genocide is not over; the survivors are still living with those who committed the crimes.”

Like so many others, Nishimwe knew the man who raped her. A couple years after the attack, in fact, she went to visit him—the man who beat and cut her, who raped her and left her for dead—in prison. He didn’t talk much, she said. And she just cried.

***

When her brothers and father were killed, Nishimwe and her mother went into hiding for three months. They hid in the community of Rubengera in Kibuye, a lush green city in western Rwanda on Lake Kivu—taking refuge in the bushes during the day and in the ceilings of people’s homes at night, and finally in an abandoned house, where they were found by a neighbor who began showing up to beat Nishimwe with his hands and a sword—“Simply because of my Tutsi ethnicity,” she said. He finally raped her. She wouldn’t know for years that he’d given her HIV. Getting tested meant potentially dealing with more than she thought she could handle, she said. The rape, the bloodshed—to be HIV-positive on top of that would be too much. But her body slowly began to break down, as sores appeared on her skin.

Nishimwe lived for years in the city where her family was murdered—every day growing a bit more silent in school and withdrawing a bit further into herself until she finally left her native Kibuye for New York City in 2001. Here, she began psychotherapy and sought treatment for her HIV.

A banner that reads "Remembering 20 years" and "Remember—Unite—Renew" at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, in 2014. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

It if sounds like denial for a rape survivor to not get tested for HIV for seven years, keep in mind that those who suffer extreme trauma often experience an emotional duality that allows them to survive the unfathomable. “From the Holocaust survivors I know,” said Neugebauer, “it’s not as though you’re either thriving or in despair—you’re both alternately.” This helps survivors confront bits and pieces of the trauma as they surface rather than becoming completely overwhelmed by the horrors they’ve witnessed. “Different people have different mechanisms for being able to carry on, but many carry on with immense but quiet suffering,” Neugebauer explained.

Nishimwe agrees that it’s not “all happy,” as she put it. “Not every day is good for me,” she said. “I have some days where I just sit down and cry. It’s not like everything is perfect all the time.”

***

When we face terror, our bodies shut down and desensitize us to the experience, Ochberg said. “We can tolerate being nearly eaten alive. We can tolerate seeing other members of our species eaten alive. It’s in our biology.” It’s what happens afterward that can mean the difference between a healthy or unhealthy individual—and between a robust or eternally warring society.

“Afterward, when our ability to withstand these extreme things gets contrasted with our civilized selves, we experience horror, terror, disgust, this whole range of feelings,” said Ochberg. “When you no longer need the shutdown and you think about it—you re-experience it—there’s often a deep feeling of shame.”

Shame enrages and isolates. It can lead to predation, sadism, and evil, or self-loathing, hatred, and depression.

But if Nishimwe’s public sharing of her pain, her overall lack of shame, is any indicator, there is hope for survivors of the genocide. There is hope for Rwanda. 

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Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. Wolfe is a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She writes regularly at laurenmwolfe.com.

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