Genocide-linked trauma rising among teens, young adults

Saturday April 15 2017

Victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide at the Genocide Memorial in Nyamata, inside the Catholic church where thousands were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide at the Genocide Memorial in Nyamata, inside the Catholic church where thousands were slaughtered. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

By ROBERT MBARAGA

More than two decades after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda is seeing a rise in cases of trauma among the children of survivors and perpetrators.

“We have a relatively small but growing number of cases of trauma among children of survivors, and we witness this frequently during the commemoration time,” said Naphta Ahishakiye, the executive secretary of Ibuka, the umbrella association for Genocide survivor organisations in Rwanda.

Reports also cite trauma among young children of genocide perpetrators and those who were not exposed to the violence.

Figures from the Ministry of Health show that 24 per cent of all people who were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during last year’s commemoration period are aged between 15 and 24 years old.

The ministry is yet to conduct conclusive research on the issue but Yvonne Kayiteshonga, the mental health division manager at Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC), links the trend to the search for identity.

“When people get into their teens, they start asking themselves who they are and where they belong in society. When they discover that they belong to the sad history of genocide, they become vulnerable to trauma,” said Dr Kayiteshonga. 

She cited cases of teenagers who do not have grandparents, aunties or uncles to share with.

Besides this, experts also link intergenerational trauma to family conversations that focus on memories of the violent times and especially loved ones who were killed by people living in the same community.

Coffins meant for victims of the 1994 Genocide

Coffins meant for victims of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Kigali. Figures from the Ministry of Health show that 24 per cent of all people who were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 2016 commemoration period were aged between 15 and 24 years old. PHOTO| CYRIL NDEGEYA

Genocide in Rwanda was marked by the widespread involvement of the local population — neighbours went after neighbours during house-to-house hunts or at roadblocks, killing using machetes or clubs; referred to as Nta mpongano y’Umwanzi, which literally means “No atonement for the enemy.”

“The environment we live in has a living history of genocide and it is not surprising to see the young generation having genocide-related trauma,” said Adelite Muramana, a mental health professional working with Kigali Memorial Centre.

Findings of a study on Holocaust survivors published in 2015 by a hospital in New York found that children of genocide survivors could inherit trauma in their DNA.

Besides the upward trend of trauma among young men and women born after the genocide, Rwanda has seen a general increase in the number of people who seek services related to trauma.

Recent research by the Ministry of Health showed that 26 per cent of Rwandans suffer PTSD.

Eighty-nine per cent of sufferers are female, and professionals link this to the sexual violence that occured during the genocide.

According to Achour Ait Mohand, a psychiatrist working with RBC, more than a half of those with PTSD also have other mental-related issues such as depression, which can make it more difficult to treat the patient.