Justice to Protect Survivors

Chantal Mudahogora
Chantal Mudahogora

Genocide denial: A trigger calling for justice to protect survivors-mental health expert

By Jade Natacha Iriza, The New Times

Rwandans continue to commemorate for the 28th time, the victims of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, for a period of 100 days.

Occurrences such as the genocide result in various traumas, like Post Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, which are oftentimes generational. Traumas may persist even numerous years after the tragedy.

The New Times’ Jade Natacha Iriza had a conversation with Chantal Mudahogora, a mental health expert and survivor of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, who shed light on various aspects such as trauma, genocide denial, emotional pain and the journey towards healing.

Trauma can mimic many things. Among the symptoms we look for, there are triggers. For example, if someone has survived a car accident, and every time they go in the car, they start hyperventilating and feeling palpitations and so forth. If someone can’t sleep because when they close their eyes, the event keeps replaying in the mind, and so on. That’s something they need to seek help for.

In the case of genocide, who is likely to be traumatised?

There’s no fine line, it depends on each and everyone’s coping. It’s case by case, because there are different types of trauma. Sometimes there are people who are medically ill, have symptoms that are debilitating, and prevent them from fully functioning.

Other times, people have built some resilience, and live with emotional pain or physical pain in some cases. So, not everyone who has been through trauma will be traumatised the same way. 

However, we use the word ‘healing’ only slightly because even after healing from a wound, you have a scar, and the scar is usually very sensitive, so you have to always protect it.

When we work with someone who has been traumatised, we help them to develop coping mechanisms, help them deal with their triggers, deal with their pain, and learn how to recognise the symptoms.

When do we say that trauma is generational?

Children become reservoirs of their parents from the time they are in the womb. Whatever circumstances a mother is going through will usually be transferred to the child. It’s not always the case, however, we need to diagnose the child when they grow up because it’s very prevalent. 

That’s why a mother should be preserved and taken good care of. If you are pregnant and going through sad situations, crying all the time, and being emotionally driven, it’s most likely that this may be transferred to the child.

That’s general for all mothers or parents because fathers too, can influence children’s minds and the way their brain works. So, when the child grows up, they may have some behaviours or body responses that they don’t have control over.

For example, I have triggers that I know of, something I can see or hear, and then my body will respond. The alarm system in the brain gets set off and then it starts sending messages, signals that there’s danger. Now as a child, the brain will register some information that the child did not live through directly.

The frontal lobe, the front area of our brain where the filter lies, is the place that gives us a sense of danger. That’s why kids don’t have a sense of danger. They can touch fire or anything and you’ll keep saying stop because their frontal lobe is not fully developed.

In the case of generational trauma, the kid won’t recognise the triggers because they don’t have the information. The brain has registered some information that the individual doesn’t have access to. This becomes very tricky because as a teenager, one starts responding to events that they don’t even recognise.

When teenagers don’t understand why their bodies overreact, they may be depressed. They may even develop conditions like anxiety, panic attacks, and lack control of fear.

Is it possible for the post-genocide generations to be traumatised as well?

I’ve done some research on it. We’ve seen kids or young adults who tell you that they can’t sleep but they don’t know why. When you track back or talk to those whose parents are still alive, they tell you (mother) had the child on the back for a month hiding in the bush. Obviously, at that moment, they never slept and the brain has been conditioned to that fear of being asleep.

Doctors give them sleeping pills that work for one week and then the body creates resistance to it, then goes back, increases the dosage, and so forth. To be able to sleep, one takes a beer or a glass of wine to be able to relax the nervous system, and soon the body creates resistance to it. If one glass of wine or one bottle of beer was working for one to be able to relax and sleep, it doesn’t work anymore, one has to double the dose and then keep doubling to the point where they are dependent on alcohol or develop any substance use disorder without knowing.

Kids who are directly linked to survivors or maybe perpetrators, in some cases are not the only ones likely to face generational trauma. If a child grows up where there’s a lot of domestic violence, it’s most likely that they will have some symptoms of trauma. There’s something that we call collective trauma, things that have been passed on. One has to track down the ancestors and sometimes you have to make sure that you stop it to this generation through collective healing. So when you go back in our history, obviously there’s a lot of trauma, so we don’t know what has been transferred and what hasn’t been transferred.

How can this be prevented or cured?

There’s a quote I like, “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” Since I’m a survivor, I will always have emotional pain, but I can manage that emotional pain through healing. To allow the pain to turn into suffering, that’s optional. So there’s help, someone can heal, live at peace with the wounds, and fully function. Through treatment there’s hope.

As part of the aftermath of genocide, we see genocide denials or minimisation, how does this affect traumatised people?

There is nothing as painful to survivors as when the genocide is denied because we lived it, we survived the genocide. When your parents were killed, your siblings, your children, or your spouse, and then someone gets up in the morning and says “oh, by the way, that thing never happened,” that’s the most painful thing.

You’ve seen these emerging YouTubers who talk about how the genocide never happened or that it was the victims’ fault that they were killed, they traumatise the survivors. I have been receiving calls, especially from old folks, saying “I was watching this video, now my heart is almost stopping.” These things are triggers for us and we call upon authorities and justice to make sure that they protect us.

We don’t want people who have been trying to go on with life for the past 28 years to fall back. We have made steps forward, trying to rebuild ourselves and our lives, but then these deniers try to put us back into our pain.

In worst cases, we see people who kill survivors’ livestock, or abuse genocide survivors, is this some type of trauma as well?

I believe that they do it purposely with the intention to harm. As I said, trauma has to be diagnosed; however, survivors get traumatised but will never harm anyone despite those traumas. I’ve heard people say that so and so is saying what they say or doing what they do because they’re traumatised. But trauma does not always take you to do harm. Trauma comes in different forms but we can’t justify these acts through trauma.

Some argue that the commemoration period worsens the trauma, while others say it actually helps in healing. In your perspective, what is the essence of having a commemoration period?

I have heard those rhetoric narratives, but I don’t agree with them. Commemoration makes the perpetrators recognize the depths and the magnitude of the human loss they have caused. But for the survivors and the nation in general, commemoration is healing. When you have lost someone, you need to go through the grieving process. No matter if you lost them to old age, diseases or anything else, you need to have your grieving time. In the case of genocide survivors, we never had that chance. We never said goodbyes to our people, never buried them in most cases, and never grieved. That’s why most people are still in deep emotional pain because they never had a chance to release it.

When we do commemoration, that’s a type of grieving because you are surrounded by the people who went through the same thing, you are able to share your story, you are able to remember but also, are able to go through what we call ‘healing through exposure’. So commemoration is important, not only for survivors’ healing process but also for the next generation. Prevention can only take place if people understand what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent it. If we don’t have the true history exposed, we will tend to repeat this.

Also, Genocide is a crime against humanity. Commemoration is an educational tool not only for the new Rwandan generations but also for the whole world, so they know that any country can have a Genocide. So when we commemorate, we tell the world that actually ‘Never again should be never again’.

Provide tips on how to help traumatised people, especially in this commemoration period

Be there for each other, be there for your people, and be there for your friends. Let all of us be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. If you can’t support someone or if the symptoms are those of a crisis, there are hotline services in place, you can call and get the support you need. Even at healthcare centres, there are counsellors who are there to help. If someone has symptoms, don’t wait until they get worse, because mental health worsens if you don’t treat it in time. If someone starts hyperventilating, being detached, disoriented, or talking about pain don’t wait, don’t brush it off, always validate and seek support.

What could be your message to young people who distance themselves from this?

Some distance themselves because, maybe they feel guilty. If they come from the perpetrators’ side, they feel they have no space in this, but we have to realise that they can’t be accountable for their parents’ wrongdoings. The most important thing which will bring Rwandans together is to have the same level of understanding of our history. 

There’s a saying that goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If we really need to bridge to a safer society, young people need to be involved, learn from history, and get to understand that they are a new generation. They have no role, no regrets, no guilt from the past because they were not aware nor present but they have a responsibility to bridge to a brighter future. 

Some youth distance themselves as a defensive mechanism. I’ve heard some young people say “I can’t go to the commemoration because I’m too weak, too emotional,” that’s a stage. Eventually, you should go because the more exposure you get, the more healing you get. Even for the triggers, your brain has to normalise that situation, that’s when you get healed, but if you keep running away from it, you don’t get healed. 

Any other comment…

Thanks to young people who are involved in this, raising awareness, and being there for others. To my fellow survivors, “Impore” (stay strong). We need to live and live fully. If there’s anything that can hurt our perpetrators who once wanted to wipe us out, is to see us thriving. Today when they see us, they see our children, they see that we did not get terminated as they wished, that’s what we need to live for.

It would be very sad if your people have been killed and you live a half-life. If we survived, we survived for a reason, and we have to have a purpose, not just going by. We chose a fight, but a righteous one.

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