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Thirty Years after Genocide, a New Generation Works for Peace

By Danica Damplo

Rwandans take part in “Kwibuka Twiyubaka” Walk to Remember. Kigali, Rwanda. April 7, 2014. Tom Gilks / Alamy Stock Photo

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, we recognize Rwandans across generations who have sacrificed and worked tirelessly for reconciliation and peace. In this blog we spotlight young people in Rwanda born during and after the genocide, how they have been impacted, and why addressing their trauma and ensuring their agency is critical.

From April–July 1994, between 500,000 and one million predominantly Tutsi as well as Hutu moderates were slaughtered when a Hutu extremist-led government launched a plan to murder the country’s entire Tutsi minority and any others who opposed the government's policies. In post-genocide Rwanda, survivors have been a critical force in driving reconciliation and peace in Rwanda, rebuilding their lives—at times alongside the very people who perpetrated the genocide. Learn more about the genocide.

Today, approximately 78% of Rwanda’s population is below 35 years of age. For some, the genocide had a very direct impact on their childhood. More than 100,000 children were orphaned during the genocide. Thousands of children were born as the result of rape, leading to distinct childhood trauma that has included social and cultural alienation. For others, trauma has been transmitted from their parents, and through a collective memory and experience of grief.

Grappling with inherited trauma

Considerable research on the transmission of trauma comes from studies of Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, where trauma symptoms could be studied across generations. There is evidence of inherited trauma for those born after the genocide in Rwanda. One study found that trauma has been transmitted from genocide survivor parents to their children through patterns of silence and/or speaking about the genocide, and the absorption of trauma by the child from being in proximity to a traumatized parent. 

Researchers have also documented the impact of communal loss and the memorialization of that loss on young people in Rwanda. Young people experience trauma as part of what has been referred to as the generalized suffering of the Rwandan population during and following the genocide. While as a society Rwanda has emphasized the importance of defining a national memory of this suffering, within families, many traumatized parents (some victims, some perpetrators) choose to remain silent about their experiences, or even minimize them to protect themselves or their children. Some young people may have difficulty reconciling familial narratives with national ones. 

One scholar described young people in Rwanda as having “unlived memories”, memories of traumatic events that a young person may not have personally experienced, but that haunt that young person and affect their sense of identity and purpose. She adds that unlived memories can also be influenced by familial stories of the genocide, and that supporting young people in making sense of their parents' trauma and their own experience will be critical for peace. 

As access to mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS) grows in Rwanda, young people increasingly seek to participate in these programs. One young peacebuilder told me that for his generation, reconciliation begins at home, not within the community or between ethnic groups. Intergenerational dialogues will generally involve mental health professionals and the creation of safe spaces for family members to discuss their experiences. It is also important to consider the unique psychological needs of young people. Experts in the peacebuilding and MHPSS fields have indicated not only the importance of recognizing inherited trauma in young people, but of designing a youth-centered MHPSS approach to address it.

Contributing to peace

Rather than be deterred by these challenges, many of Rwanda's young people have sought to confront the past and play a positive role in their country's future. This includes participating in intergenerational dialogues, and creating civil society organizations that seek to organize and participate in memorialization efforts, volunteer with vulnerable communities, engage in innovative entrepreneurship, and contribute to reconciliation efforts.

Scholars of transitional justice, the process by which a society emerges from conflict, mass atrocity, or massive systemic change, have increasingly recognized the importance of including young people in the design and implementation of transitional mechanisms. In fact, engaging with young people and their priorities offers to improve “the ‘what’ of transitional justice, but also to expand the ‘how,’ and thereby contribute new and creative methodologies.” For example, intergenerational dialogues in Rwanda can be used for more than to address the past, they can also be platforms to inform the future. As one peacebuilder described, these dialogues can be opportunities “for elders and adults to frankly share the truth about the past, and for young people to openly ask questions about the history of their country and guarantee the rights of imagining and creating the future they want.”

One of the challenges young people face in Rwanda is the extent to which the inherently creative spirit of young people can be integrated into processes which can be highly personal to survivors, political by nature, and fervently protected by the state. Young people have expressed their support for national reconciliation and remembrance in Rwanda; many have also called for more involvement by young people, including in decision making, in building sustainable peace. 

Investing in the mental health and capacity of young people in Rwanda, and ensuring their meaningful participation, will help them make sense of the past and connect meaningfully with efforts to memorialize and learn from it. It will help them navigate the unique challenges of their time, and ensure the future remains peaceful for the next generation.

Danica Damplo is the Policy Manager for the Simon-Skjodt Center.