Healing and Reconciliation

A Seminar for Community Leaders

June 18 through 21, 2002

Gitarama, Rwanda

Facilitators’ Summary


In June 2002, Laurie Pearlman and Ervin Staub facilitated a four-day seminar for community leaders. The objective of the workshop was to provide some frameworks that could be useful in shaping public responses to the gacaca (or community justice) process. The facilitators and the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (URC) agreed that the purposes of the gacaca process--justice, healing, and reconciliation--might be advanced if people had ways of understanding how genocide can come about. In addition, understanding psychological trauma and healing might help to minimize the retraumatization that seems likely to occur as a result of the gacaca hearings.


In the gacaca, 250,000 people elected from the general population will act as judges, in groups of 19, in over 10,000 locations around Rwanda. They will judge the large majority of the approximately 115,000 people, most of whom have been in jail since 1994, accused of perpetrating the genocide against Tutsis. The population will be exposed to testimonies about horrible crimes--killing, rape, and atrocities of many kinds.



Dr. Pearlman and Professor Staub’s expenses were paid for by a grant from the United States Institute for Peace. The local sponsor was the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, which made and paid for all of the local arrangements and the participants’ expenses.



Approximately 35 Rwandese Community Leaders from around the country participated in the seminar. They came from four organizations: Ibuka (the main survivor organization, which has several constituent organizations, such as Avega, a widows' organization),  Profemmes (an umbrella organization for women’s organizations throughout the country), the Ministry of Health,  and the URC. Participants included regional representatives, directors of central medical facilities, commissioners from the URC, and others who work in leadership roles with those who assist widows, orphans, and other genocide survivors.



The four-day workshop was held at a training/retreat center in Gitarama, about an hour from the capital city of Kigali. Each day included lecture, large group discussion, and small group discussions in which participants could apply the material to past and current events in Rwanda. Participants spoke in their preferred languages (English, French, or Kinyarwanda), and simultaneous translation was provided into the other two languages.


Topics addressed

1.   Potential effects of gacaca. We asked participants to describe what positive effects of the gacaca they expect and hope for, and what negative effects they expect or fear. What are the possible positive and negative effects of the gacaca? The group listed most of what follows; we added some of these items, which were not mentioned and we considered important. 


a. The positive effects that were anticipated or hoped for included: the truth will be established (how relatives were killed, who should be punished); justice will be created; the decisions made will be respected because the whole population will have taken part in the process; when perpetrators are punished, reconciliation will be possible; the problems between the two groups will be resolved; everyone will be involved in the process; as the prisons are emptied, the economic burden upon the country will diminish; the country can develop as problems are resolved; over time, the effects of trauma will be reduced; people will find out where their relatives died and can bury them with dignity, which will enable them to mourn properly; as circumstances in the country improve, exiles will return. (We added: Innocent people can go home; those sentenced and their relatives will know their fate and can turn to the future; the whole society will gain closure).


b. The potential negative effects resulting from the gacaca that people anticipated or feared included the following: retraumatization as people give or hear testimonies; some people may give biased, untrue testimony; some won’t tell the truth because as Christians, they believe they should love their enemy and God will punish them if they accuse people; in some cases there won’t be witnesses because so many have been killed and others have moved to a different district and won’t be found; in many cases victimized people live elsewhere, so it will be difficult for them to reach places where they are to testify; their security when they get there won’t be ensured;  many perpetrators are poor and it will be difficult for survivors to get compensation; taking property of perpetrators for compensation will create problems for their children; hatred will arise or increase between families that gave testimony and those found guilty; families may be killed out of revenge or have to flee the country because they gave testimony; conflict will emerge within families as people in families with mixed ethnic origin accuse each other of perpetration; many people may be released, and some people may take revenge; people find out about more women who were raped, leading to stigma for the victims; people may not say anything about officials in high positions who may have committed crimes; there can be corruption, protecting people in high positions; some people who were involved in the genocide may now hide as judges; the gacaca judges at the cell level will categorize people, and many of them have little education and so some people will escape punishment; people will spend a great deal of time on the gacaca and they won’t have time to work, reducing productivity in the country; some people will get psychologically ill due to the stress and there may not be enough response from the ministries; some perpetrators may give testimony without any spirit of repentance, just telling of their “heroic” deeds; trauma will increase among people who committed genocide, who feel ashamed because of their terrible crimes. (Some potential negative effects that we added were as follows: new trauma among young people and others finding out about something that happened to someone close to them (e.g., rape) or that was done by someone close to them; renewed anger and rage by survivors, especially if they see perpetrators not sufficiently punished; hostility from members of the perpetrator group who were not perpetrators, as they feel constantly accused in the course of the many testimonies about horrible acts.)

The group noted that it was important to try to address these potential negative effects.


2.      Psychological trauma. Through lecture, group brainstorm, and large group discussion, Laurie Pearlman invited participants to engage with the following questions: What does psychological trauma look like in people in Rwanda? What are its causes? How can it be prevented or minimized? The model presented was one in which symptoms are viewed as adaptations. While it is useful to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma permeates the self and relationships, and thus is evident in every aspect of people's lives, including their spiritual lives and goes far beyond PTSD. We discussed the impact of trauma on people's relationships and abilities to manage their everyday lives.


Participants readily listed many different effects of the great trauma that people have suffered as well as characteristics of a traumatized society. Through the discussions, it became clear that most people in the society are likely traumatized and that trauma does not preclude effective participation in daily life or in helping or leading others. People who have suffered victimization can be highly effective, as is evident in Rwanda.


3.      Healing from trauma, retraumatization, and vicarious traumatization. Again, the group engaged with the issue of healing through group brainstorm, lecture, and large group discussion. The focus here was on the Risking Connection model (Saakvitne et al., 2000), with respect, information, connection, and hope at the core of the healing process. We emphasized a neighbor-to-neighbor rather than a professional counseling approach. We emphasized choice and control as essential ingredients of managing retraumatization. We discussed ways people can manage retraumatization by preparing for exposure to potentially painful material, obtaining adequate support during the process (for example, going to hearings with a "buddy"), and debriefing or talking about one's experience afterwards.


The group discussed vicarious traumatization, the negative impact that working with traumatized people can have on helpers, including the leaders who were participating in the seminar. We also talked about the rewards of doing the kind of work these people do. We considered special needs that helpers who themselves are traumatized might have. Participants also worked in small groups, exploring together what they and others in similar roles need to sustain themselves for their work and sharing resources and strategies with each other.


4.      Origins of genocide and other group violence. Ervin Staub lectured and facilitated discussions about the origins of genocide, using examples from around the world. The group discussed the nature and extent of conflict before colonization. The group largely expressed the belief that there was no conflict before the Belgians colonized Rwanda and that the conflict was caused by outsiders. Small groups worked on one or two dimensions of Ervin Staub's model of the origins of genocide (see Staub, 1989 as a primary source), to address whether those dimensions were present in Rwanda before the genocide. (For example, one group worked on “Strong respect for authority and monolithic culture”; another on “Devaluation, discrimination and the role of internal bystanders.”) After they reported their findings back to the large group, a lively discussion ensued. As in our prior seminars and workshops in Rwanda, participants found that the elements in culture and social circumstances that have been found important as origins of genocides elsewhere were also present in Rwanda.


Participants’ recommendations

At the end of the seminar, the participants prepared and delivered the following recommendations:

1.         A committee should be developed in each province to coordinate all trauma work.

2.         A manual should be developed to prepare trauma counselors and coordinate helpers. The concern here is that people are working on trauma from many different frameworks which might not be consistent with each other.

3.            Participants should work with others to support people in the gacaca

4.         This seminar should be provided elsewhere, in other regions and at other levels in the country.


Participants’ feedback

We obtained written feedback from participants at the end of each of the four days. We used the feedback from the first three days to modify the plan for the following day.


Participants were asked the following questions:

1.What was the most valuable or useful aspect or part of today's seminar for you?

2. What was valuable about it (or how was it valuable or useful)?

3. How can the concepts and information shared today be useful for your work?

4. How could the seminar be modified or made different so that the remaining part of the seminar would be more interesting or useful to you?


These questions were followed by a series of brief questions, asking participants to rate the lectures, the large group discussions, the small group discussions, the facilities, the feeling of respect or sensitivity, and the overall seminar that day (and the entire seminar on the last day). There was also room for additional comments.


Overall, the feedback was very positive. In general, people found the information useful, stating that it would help them in their work with survivors.  They especially liked the small group discussions, and wanted a longer seminar. Some people wanted more specific information on how to help others with trauma and retraumatization.




Saakvitne, K.W., Gamble, S.G., Pearlman, L.A., & Lev, B.T. (2000). Risking connection: A training curriculum for working with survivors of childhood abuse. Lutherville, MD: Sidran Foundation and Press.


Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.

       New York: Cambridge University Press.  














Summary of leaders seminar, june 2002.doc