Skip to main content

The Painful Legacy of the Rwanda Genocide and Its Ongoing Trauma

Angela has been writing on issues in Africa for the Perspective Africa Magazine for the past year.

PTSD From the Rwandan Genocide

Since four years after the war officially ended, signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been recorded in Rwanda genocide victims. In April, 1997, the Nyanza secondary school saw more than thirty of their students develop acute emotional reactions such as agitation, seeing vivid images of genocide, and weeping for over two days after attending the reburial ceremony of the remains of their relatives who died in 1994.

Another incident occurred in Nyamata at a similar memorial service. An investigation after the event suggested mass hysteria.

Shortly after, a study was published detailing the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in Rwanda in relation to the period of genocide (Hagengimana,1997). This study detailed victims suffering from acute grief reaction, depression, and PTSD directly associated with experiencing isolation, the helpless witnessing of atrocities, rape, and loss of family.

The growing burden of mental illness in Rwanda remains unknown and untreated for the most part. The culture and its language lack words for depressive and anxiety syndromes. The 1994 Civil War forced the emergence of the word ihahamaka to represent PTSD, which means ‘breathless with frequent war.’

The 1994 Civil War forced the emergence of the word "ihahamaka" to represent PTSD, this means breathless with frequent war

The 1994 Civil War forced the emergence of the word "ihahamaka" to represent PTSD, this means breathless with frequent war

Recognising the Transgenerational Trauma of Genocide

More recently, psychologists have widened their scope of study to include people who weren’t directly involved, particularly to the children of the traumatised. In Rwanda last year, psychologists found many people aged 15 to 35 who suffered from genocide trauma. Those aged 35 were only 14 at the time of the war, and those aged 15 were not yet born, but still they show symptoms and appear to suffer through hereditary and environmental factors.

Of this transgenerational effect, Dr. Yvonne Kaitenshonga said this:

“Those who were not yet born, though they never saw or experienced the physical pain or mental effect of the genocide, have grown in a traumatized society, thus fall in the same category. Someone born after the genocide can experience or acquire the trauma from parents, relatives, neighbors and generally people that surround them because he/she is in a world where they see trauma thereby developing their own imagination of the genocide after observing their parents in unusual conditions."

Scroll to Continue

The Lasting Effect of Trauma

There is some precedence for this phenomenon where transgenerational trauma has occurred in children living in countries like Israel, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Armenia. In these places, children born to survivors have been observed to experience and inherit trauma from their parents. Potential evidence has even appeared in the children’s DNA, with research showing Holocaust survivors and their children with lower cortisol levels than Jewish families who were outside of Europe during the war. Low cortisol levels can cause depression, social anxiety, and emotional hypersensitivity due to cortisol being the key hormone that helps humans cope with stress.

PTSD Treatment In Rwanda

People suffering from PTSD and those suffering from intergenerational trauma can be helped to lead a normal life. However, the treatment is time-consuming and expensive as experts warn against chemical medication.

“The healing comes better through psychological and social treatment through conversation and counseling which allow the victim speak their heart out, crying or other forms of relief as one speaks about the tragic history,” Dr. Kaitenshonga reports.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is triggered by the anxiety and fear of events that happened before and could be only handled psychologically not like other kinds of mental disorders like depression and psychosis that can be healed through medicines,” says Dr. Jean Damascene Iyamuremye.

Unfortunately, still to this day, Rwanda remains ill-equipped to effectively treat psychological disorders. In 2008, over 10 years after the genocide, there were only three practicing psychologists in all of Rwanda. Since then the official health institutions and policies have developed gradually in an attempt to respond to the needs of the Rwandans suffering from PTSD and other psychological traumas but consistent adequate counseling and treatment for PTSD has yet to be fully achieved provoking the question whether the children suffering from transgenerational trauma can be helped in time.

10 Facts About the Rwanda Genocide

  1. It took place between two ethnic groups populating Rwanda: the Hutus and the Tutsis.
  2. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Immediately after that, violence ensued.
  3. Between April and June 1994 (~100 days), an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed.
  4. Soldiers and police officers encouraged ordinary citizens to take part in the killings. Hutu civilians, forced by military personnel, were to murder their neighbors, friends, and even relatives.
  5. An estimated 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the genocide.
  6. Corpses in the countryside were covered with banana leaves to screen them from aerial photography.
  7. During this period, more than six men, women, and children were murdered every minute of every hour of every day.
  8. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 100 days of genocide. As a result of this rape, up to 20,000 children were born.
  9. More than 67% of women who were raped during the genocide were infected with HIV and AIDS. In many cases, this resulted from a systematic and planned use of rape by HIV+ men as a weapon of genocide.
  10. The Hutus used mostly machetes, knives, and clubs in their deadly assault on the Tutsis. Bullets were too expensive to use. Some Tutsis were given the option of buying a bullet so that their death would be quicker and less painful.

Hutu extremists carefully planned, then led, the murder of some 800,000 fellow Rwandans, mostly Tutsi

Hutus who refused to go along were murdered, too. A Hutu-controlled radio station repeatedly urged the nationwide slaughter, shouting "The graves are not yet full!"

Hutus who refused to go along were murdered, too. A Hutu-controlled radio station repeatedly urged the nationwide slaughter, shouting "The graves are not yet full!"


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 06, 2017:

I had heard of Rwanda but this is the first article I've read about it. It is so brutal and sad. I hope the country is doing well now.

Related Articles