Saturday, 23 March 2013

Peace-building course in Rwanda helps next generation learn from the past

Ceremony at the Kigali's Genocide Memorial/courtesy of the Aegis Trust

On a recent reporting trip to Rwanda, I spent a day at the Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre. It is a harrowing and moving place of remembrance and learning for Rwandans and international visitors, built on the mass graves of 250,000 people killed there during the genocide.
I had first visited the Genocide Memorial in April 2004 for its inauguration and events marking the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide during which Hutus soldiers and militias killed nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The country was still in ruins and the scars of the genocide were visible everywhere. Survivors told me horrific stories and I was wondering how they would ever manage to heal and go on living. I thought the country would never recover from something like that.

But 19 after the genocide, the country is recovering. Rwanda's is the fastest-growing economy in Africa. Its infrastructure is rapidly expanding and so is access to health and education. The government has adopted policies of peace and reconciliation, encouraging people to leave behind their divisive ethnic identities and think themselves simply as Rwandans. The perpetrators have been tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, and in the Gacaca courts, the traditional village courts in Rwanda.  You can see convicts in pink jumpsuits all over the country, toiling in the fields and on the roadsides, working for the public good, and that helps the nation to mend.
On the surface, Rwanda is healing and has moved on from its terrible past.  But at the Genocide Memorial, I was told there are worrying signs that children who were not even born during the genocide are perpetuating the ethnic prejudices of their parents.
Over 60% of the Rwanda’s population is under the age of 24, so their understanding of the genocide is shaped by their families and communities. “There are resentments and ideologies that children learn from their parents and wider communities, and these feelings pose a threat to long-term stability,” says Dr. James Smith, CEO of the Aegis Trust, the British charity which runs the Genocide Memorial with the Rwandan government.
The organization believes that the next five to ten years are crucial to reach this generation to help safeguard Rwanda against internal strife.  It has designed, alongside the local organization “Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace” (IRDP), a peace-building course where young people who were not born during the genocide or were very young can learn how hatred and prejudice can lead to mass violence and why peace and reconciliation – even when it may seem difficult and at times impossible – is vital for their personal future and that of their country. 

Peace-building course at the Kigali Genocide Memorial/Veronique Mistiaen

This is very important, says Mona Weissmark, Associate Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School and an expert in the inter-generational impact of injustice.  “If left unresolved, the trauma of any atrocity inflicted on an ethnic group is then passed along to the next generation and those in turn lead to entrenched ethnic tensions and group conflicts.”   She is the author of  “Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II”, which explores the psychology of hatred and ethnic resentments passed from generation to generation.  In the face of unjust treatment, says Weissmark, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, the natural response is resentment and deep anger - and a desire for revenge. While legal systems offer a structured means for redressing injustice, it often does not redress the emotional pain, which, left unresolved, is then passed along to the next generation - leading to entrenched ethnic tension and group conflict.

I’ve written a piece for the Guardian on the Genocide Memorial’s peace-building programme.  You can read it here.

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