Healing, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Project Summary and Outcome

Ervin Staub, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Laurie Anne Pearlman, Trauma Research, Education, and Training Institute, Inc.


In this project, we provided training in a seminar/workshop to 30 people in Rwanda. They were mainly staff of NGO's that worked with groups of people in the community. These staff were working with religious and secular groups in the areas of healing and community building. To the extent we could determine, 21 of them were Tutsi and 9 Hutu (information about ethnicity is difficult to establish in Rwanda at this time).  Our purpose was to prepare participants to use the training, or elements of it, in their own work with groups in the community. A primary purpose of the training was to promote psychological healing from the traumatic effects of the genocide as well as skills in promoting healing in others (in Tutsi survivors, in Tutsis who returned from other countries after the genocide, and Hutus who were affected by the violent actions of their own group and other aspects of the situation in Rwanda). The training also aimed to promote reconciliation, and in turn initiate a process of forgiveness, or more broadly, a more positive orientation toward members of the other group.

The training had psycho-educational and experiential components. The former consisted of lectures and discussion. One topic was the origins of genocide and mass killing. Brief lectures, based on the work of Ervin Staub (as described in his book, The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence, and other publications) as well as other scholars, were followed by extensive discussion in which participants applied what they learned to understanding the genocide in Rwanda.

Exploring the origins of genocide seemed to have powerful effects on the participants. Survivors seemed to feel reincluded in the human realm, as they came to see the horrors they had experienced as the result of understandable human processes and realized the extent to which such tremendous violence has also taken place in other countries. They appeared more open to perpetrators whose actions, however horrible, seemed at least somewhat comprehensible, rather than simply evil. They expressed the desire to prevent future violence using the understanding they gained.              Another important lecture topic was the role of basic human needs and their frustration in both originating genocide and in the aftermath of genocide. A further topic was the psychological effects of trauma, and specifically of genocide, on survivors and on all members of the victim group, as well as on members of the perpetrator group. This portion of the training was based in part on previous work by Laurie Pearlman (including her book, Psychological Trauma and the Adult Survivor), as well as that of other trauma experts. This topic was intended to help foster understanding and acceptance by participants of how they and others had been affected by the events surrounding the genocide.

There was also a lecture and discussion of avenues to healing from trauma. An important avenue is engagement with traumatic experiences, talking about them under safe conditions. As part of the training we worked on how to respond to other people’s stories empathically. A final component was a lecture on traumatic grief, based in part on research done by research teams in the US on this topic and in part by interviews conducted after the genocide by our Rwandese collaborator, Dr. Athanase Hagengimana.  Again, the purpose was to provide a normalizing framework for participants' experiences."

The discussion of these topics was likely to have experiential meaning, to engage and create change not only in thought and knowledge, but also feelings. In addition, participants talked in small groups about their experiences during the genocide, empathically supporting each other. They told powerful stories, which many of them said they had never told anyone before. We thought that the beneficial effect of these experiences with regard to forgiveness and reconciliation would be enhanced by the presence of members of both groups. While Hutus in the group did not talk much about their experiences during the genocide, their presence and empathic response were likely to further a positive orientation by Tutsis toward Hutus, and perhaps even healing by Tutsi survivors.

While there was not enough time to do this extensively, we made some effort to help participants integrate the approach we used with the type of training they and their organization traditionally did with groups in the community.

To evaluate the effects of training, we examined three groups. In one set of (integrated) groups, participants in our training integrated our approach with their own and used this integrated approach with groups in the community. In another set of (traditional) groups, facilitators from the same or similar organizations as the integrated groups, but who did not participate in our training, used their usual or traditional approach with groups in the community. In both cases, these groups were newly created and met for a period of three weeks, twice a week. There was also a control group, which did not receive any training, but completed the same questionnaires at the beginning and end of the program.

To allow us to evaluate the effects of treatments, questionnaires were administered to all participants as the groups began, before any training or interaction, immediately after the training, and two months later. Those in the control group were administered questionnaires at about the same times. There was a questionnaire to assess traumatic experiences. A second questionnaire assessed the effects of trauma. This had several parts. It assessed post-traumatic stress disorder, other trauma symptoms, traumatic grief, and beliefs about self and others. Because this last part was less reliable, it was not included in most of the analyses. These questionnaires were in part taken from previous measures, and in part created by us and our collaborator, a Rwandese psychiatrist, with sensitivity to the expression of trauma in Rwandese culture.

 Based on the research literature, other existing measures and our discussions with Rwandese “cultural consultants,” we also developed a questionnaire to assess forgiveness, or more broadly, orientation to the other group. We used a part of this measure in our final analyses that was derived from factor analyses and was theoretically meaningful. A high score on this measure means that a person saw violence as having had complex origins, expressed a willingness to work with members of the other group for a better future and was open to forgiveness–under certain conditions (see below). A fourth questionnaire asked about demographic information–including ethnic group membership, which is highly sensitive information at this time in Rwanda.  



Our participants reported a very large number of traumatic experiences. The main analyses focused on the Tutsi participants, since the number of Hutu participants was too small for meaningful, separate analyses. However, analyses with the whole group showed similar results.

            Tutsi participants in the integrated group started out with greater trauma and less positive other orientation/forgiveness than participants in the other two groups. We could not establish the reason for this initial difference. Over time, the level of trauma in the integrated group decreased–on the delayed post-test, two months after the end of the treatment, it was significantly less than at the beginning. Controlling for initial differences, we found that their level of trauma was less on the delayed post-test than the trauma in the other two groups, whose participants started out with less trauma.

However, not only did participants in the integrated group get better, but those in the other two groups got worse. Since there seemed no other reason for this (for example, no evidence of deteriorating conditions in the country during this period), the most likely reason is that the administration of the questionnaire reactivated trauma. In the control group, there was nothing to counteract this reactivation. In the traditional group, the experiences of participants did not succeed in counteracting this. In the integrated group, participants’ experiences were apparently sufficiently healing to reduce the original level of trauma and protect people from reactivation.    

Analysis of the other orientation measure showed findings similar to those with trauma. At the start Tutsi participants in the integrated group were more negative about members of the other group (including less “conditional forgiveness,” as we called it, since a readiness for forgiveness was conditional on acknowledgment of harmful action and apology by the perpetrator group) than participants in the other two groups. However, on the delayed measure they showed significantly more positive other orientation than at the time of the first administration, and when we controlled for initial difference, they also showed significantly more positive orientation than Tutsi participants in the other two conditions.

In summary, the procedures we used in training facilitators increased their effectiveness with members of the community in reducing the level of trauma and promoting more positive orientation by Tutsis toward Hutus.





December 28, 2000