“Like a stone growing roots”: Restoring interpersonal relationships in the aftermath of the Tutsi Genocide.

A German version of this article is printed in Wissenschaft und Frieden (W&F) in their issue 1/2022: https://wissenschaft-und-frieden.de/artikel/wie-ein-stein-der-wurzeln-schlaegt/  I warmly thanks them for the kind authorization to publish here its english version. See: Faucheux, Amélie (2022): Wie ein Stein, der Wurzeln schlägt. Zwischenmenschliche Beziehungen nach dem Völkermord in Ruanda. W&F 1/2022, S. 28-31.

I have lost my husband, my children, my livestock. I have no one left except those in front of my house who have killed my daughters”. Can a relationship be rebuilt between an individual and those of the community who did or helped raped and murdered their relatives? Through a situation of unprecedented magnitude in history, most of the former perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide and their victims have to live together as they did before. But how can a relationship be reconstruct when there is an abyssal level of atrocities in between people? This article reviews three means that fostered a capacity to coexist: the formalization of truth, intimate shared storytelling as well as concrete cooperation.

From early April to the beginning of July 1994, between eight hundred thousand and one million people (75% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda), were assassinated. Most survivors (approximately 300,000), persons that were hunted for the sole reason of belonging to the “Tutsi” category, live with physical wounds, marks of being struck by machetes, pickaxes, hammers, etc. After hiding in the bush or under corpses in churches, schools or houses, they are often left without a roof, sometimes reduced to begging and feel desperately alone. In addition, of the seven million Rwandans in 1994, nearly two millions complaints are progressively filed against participants in the massacres: killers are everywhere and as the use of machetes is re-instituted for agriculture, the fear of being hunted is revived. To this living burden, there is an additional feeling of powerlessness: being without livelihood and seeing their pasture cultivated by others. The killers have taken possession of their parcels, and in a state previously without land register, when it is the voice of one against another, the minority rarely has a hearing. With the establishment of justice looming, genocidaires being questioned seek to eliminate their last witnesses. The suffering of the survivors seems endless and trauma is shared on both side.

Hutu families, dismembered as well, are counting their dead. In July 1994, two to three million men and women, genocidaires and their families, fled to neighboring Congo; thousands perished in exile by the Kivu wars or at the vengeful raids of some soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) now in power and seeking vengeance for the death of their relatives. More than a hundred thousand other alleged murderers await trial behind bars. There is no court, no lawyer. Cells are congested. Inmates live for years in dampness and excrement. The rot, lack of care lead to disease and gangrene. The households of the detainees in the hills deprived of the strength of their sons and husbands, became impoverished. Many children grew up without their fathers even though some of them are alive, not far away. The survivors are blamed: people often hold grudges against those they have hurt and the genocidal ideology has not disappeared. Distrust creeps in among the executioners. To kill, men were in bands: everyone witnessed, everyone can denounce and is therefore suspicious. And for all of them, this time, there is the memory of agonies, tortures, corpses, the shared indigence resulting from the ruins that have been made of the country. This entire world, bruised to the marrow of its bones, finds itself back where it was, each with its own extreme experiences, its frustrations or its shattered trust. The traumatic memory of the events occupies the psychic scene of the inhabitants (Kervran, Mukamabano, 1999), but they have no other place. Numerous survivors, perpetrators and their relatives consequently avoid each other. It’s an ongoing community polarization and no one can hope that time alone will heal. How can a social fabric so deeply shattered be rewoven? The situation, unprecedented in history, is forcing Rwandan State and NGOs to multiply initiatives, becoming a breeding ground to build a Nation in tatters. A challenge that has partly succeeded, as if something at first sight impossible, something inert, had found life: “Ibuye ryabonye umuzi”, “like a stone growing roots.[1]

Share the truth and be recognized.

In view of the country’s size and demography, and the need for manpower to rebuild, the limitations of mass incarceration immediately arose the question of coexistence. In this respect, the first task of the government implemented in July 1994, was to restore what the previous regime had most radically broken: the social pact of protecting its citizens through the primacy of the judicial imperative. The priority was then to put an end to the culture of impunity, which for thirty years legitimized and trivialized the massacres of the Tutsi. This led to the establishment of more than 12,000 punitive community courts [2001-2012] adapted from a centuries-old tradition that reminded the Nation of its unity: the ‘Gacaca’, a hybrid and complex public tribunal often described as controversial, held in the very places where the genocide took place, without lawyers and professional judges (the delicate judgement of a neighbor by a neighbor) summoning the whole of society with almost every Rwandan adult participating in the trials. Its aim was to bring about a memory of the event, a recognition of the status of the victims and to face the colossal mass of perpetrators, encourage confession and forgiveness with a view to alternative sanctions and restorative objectives (Rosoux, Shyaka Mugabe, 2008, 35). Law is trying to re-assume the saving duty of its origins by drawing the first base for the restoration of the survivors and criminals to a common community.

The survivor first, despite testimonies that “reopen scars” (Mutarabayire-Schafer, 2010, 145): faced with this unfathomable experience and whose aura of non communicability further imprisons him within himself, the trial and its public recognition initiated his reintegration into the world of humans. Seeing the acts committed against him sanctioned, being able to express his anger, his shame, is the beginning of a process of emotional discharge. It is also the possibility of sometimes learning where their loved ones were abandoned and offering them a burial: finding a meaning to one’s survival, whose miracle and solitude feed incomprehension and guilt. “Why me? What must I do?” This is where the work of mourning begins. The feeling of rebirth of a dignity that has been taken from them without feeling that he is betraying his own, without inscribing them in a biography that the genocide wanted to erase. It’s a way to confer to their death the status of a former living person through place and name, to give them back a memory through publicity and material. Finally, in a long term, it is introducing a reflection on the uselessness of revenge and the interest of remissions: as this man who, to parents who refuse the upcoming release of the murderers of their relatives, argues:

“This guy killed your family, and while he is in prison, you pay to feed him. Why not use that money to educate your son and look after your wife? (…) The most important thing now is to know the truth, then we’ll manage.” [2]

For the perpetrators, and despite the serious judicial errors denounced during the trials, the informal encouragement to remain silent among Hutu, the corruption of witnesses and other settling of scores linked to a justice done in a hurry, it is a way, as the tessellation of the massacres emerges, to openly deconstruct racism and confronts them with their faults. Despite this ordeal, it is nonetheless a means, for the accused, of recovering a little of the humanity that they have taken from themselves. It is a rite of reintroduction into the social fabric and their families: “Since I have participated in recognizing the crime, I have earned my place again.” Only by feeling safer and widely recognized for survivors and only by being plainly put in front of their responsibility for perpetrators, could both hope, afterwards, to communicate again.

Intimate shared storytelling.

One of the features of Rwandan post genocide therapy was to promote community resilience through shared storytelling as the country was trying to build its public healthcare with integrated mental health and social therapy. Starting in the year 2000, tens of thousands of Rwandans, mostly survivors, benefited from this program, initially in homogeneous groups of ten to fifteen people. These discussions favoring reciprocal disclosure while treating sensitive personal issues, enabled the victims to support each other before the judicial hearings, to reduce isolation and through income-generating activities, help to find meaning in life (Gishoma and al., 2014, 472). It was mostly after the trials that groups of perpetrators, victims and youth clubs (meetings between their descendants), were created. These places of alterity running for two to four hours fortnightly presented a moment for listening and expressing feelings (Lordos and al., 2021, 111) that could only come after the attempt at justice: communicating in a space where there was less risk of punishment or denunciation. Without considering the participants as interchangeable individuals, this voluntary therapeutic approach takes as its principle the consideration of motivations and autobiographical accounts in mutual respect and honesty as one of the keys to cut across group lines: understanding what the other have done and suffered, to be a human being who has again found his place in the social whole. There is an example of a man who, during a sociotherapy session, reveals his feigned indifference to the relatives of his victims: he who killed in the spring of 1994 and claims to go to Uganda every April during commemorations, hides himself in scrublands. He lives under a bush and his wife comes to feed him. There is another example of Thelma, a Tutsi survivor, who, in a group, hears one of her killers admit the shame of his acts by visibly “wetting” the fabric of his panties. The next session, she stands up:

“I live among those who did the genocide. I see their families. I know their relatives. I hear their children. They are so close, in the evening and in the morning. I can see the stones of their houses, the lights through their windows. I can hear the voices. It’s been twenty years and I haven’t known a night without being afraid of being killed as soon as the lights go out but when I listened to the story of our friend (…), he who regrets as his body has shown, I felt a release. From what I saw of his person on his trousers, I suddenly thought: “Is he suffering too? And in the evening I repeated it to myself as if to convince me: “He too can suffer.” I dreamed about it afterwards and in the dream he was walking through my door and he was walking through it like a man.” [3]

Concrete cooperation: equal status and common goals.

    Adding to these prior means, studies show that cooperative action, especially community-based solutions with income generation, hold another key (Peredo, Chrisman, 2006, 309): when the divided community participate in achieving a common goal (Sentama, 2009, 37-39; Mafeza, 2013, 793) such as working in a manioc or coffee cooperative, livestock breeding, rebuilding houses, roads through “Reconciliation Villages” or “Umuganda” (a monthly compulsory activity dedicated to maintain public infrastructures) – and if the project is successful (effective and with equal status among participants), by enhancing livelihoods, it cements the prior effects of Group Therapy (Lordos and al., 2021, 112). Indeed, cooperation is the moment where collaborative members can speak more intimately together and that acknowledgment and apology eventually arise (Sentama, 2009, 142). These measures, organized at the local level (particularly Prison Fellowship Rwanda, see Mafeza, 2013, 789) are supported by government programs such as “solidarity camps” and national days of honor, where an analysis of the past has removed all ethnic references from public life (after 1994, “Hutu”, “Tutsi” and “Twa” mentions were immediately erased from identity cards). It is combined with activities aimed at mutual aid: perpetrator clubs organizing to harvest the fields of survivors or “ubusabane” (ceremonies for exchange of gifts), participation in educative session or to debates. All problems are addressed in different entities where society takes into account citizenship before any other criteria.

While concentrating on an unrelated but reciprocal issue, by providing new horizons, survivors, perpetrators and their descendants are also more able to reconfigure the essential distinctions they have collectively devised and to adjust mutual misconceptions. Many, indeed, have argued: “How can I accept to live again with ‘them’ when ‘they’ burned down my house and then I can’t afford my children’s studies?” (see also Mafeza, 2013, 795). While this has not been the government’s focus point [4] experiences on the grounds show that when Rwandese have been provided the possibility to redefine their neighborhood identity through new collaborative and economic role, where lives and socio-economic conditions were enhanced, the traumatic identity salience of survivor and perpetrator have gradually reduced (Lordos and al., 2021, 112).

Conclusion: Nothing can be pure white.

Nevertheless, after such events, even though most survivors and perpetrators can now live side by side, none can ever say that genocide is ‘behind’. If most accept to coexist, some continue to feed polarized thoughts, and many, if not all survivors, keep anxiety and fears: “Nta byera ngo – Nothing is pure white” they said, “we do think about genocide everyday, but we can work and live [5].” In a society where direct contacts in between groups were constant and compulsory, such contact obligation has been key to help restore social ties. Indeed, a notable distinction exists between the relations maintained between survivors and perpetrators living in Rwanda and those living abroad: in France and Belgium without these efforts imposed by the political and demographic context, a stronger polarisation remains. From a peacebuilding perspective, this means that the closer and higher the contact, with institutional support and equal respects in between parties, the less prejudice subsists and the more harmonious the interaction (Sentama, 2009, 35-42 ; Mafeza, 2013, 795-796). In a small trickle quietly escaping from his throat, Narcisse Nzamurambaho, survivor, adds a final consideration:

“But there is something that is often unthought: the experience of the voiceless. If the actual cohabitation is due to initiatives of states, religious institutions, civil society, sometimes to executioner’s gestures, it is perhaps first a fact we owe to the survivors and to what their lives were like before 1994. We didn’t have a voice so we didn’t make noise. Since independence, Rwandan Tutsi have struggled in silence. After the genocide, they continued. And this is one of the reasons for the traumatic crises during the commemorations: they constitute the narrow space of time where we are allowed to express ourselves. For the rest of the days, humility of life before allowed humility of life after.” [6]



1 – Innocent Ruzigana, guide at the Ntarama memorial, email, Kigali, Rwanda, December, 1th 2021.

2 – Ayad, C. (2004) : Dix ans après, vivre avec ses bourreaux. Journal Libération, 6.04.2004.

3 – Executioner / survivors support groups, Surname, Mushubati, Rwanda, March 2019.

4 – Nevertheless, to help the neediest, the Rwandese government created a Genocide Survivors Assistance Fund (FARG) from whom Rwandan State send 6% of it Internal revenue and each workers 1% of his Gross salary.

5 – Narcisse Nzamurambaho, survivor, phone-call, Bugesera, Rwanda, december, 4th 2021.

6 – Ibid.


Clark, P. (2010) : The Gacaca courts, post-genocide justice and reconciliation in Rwanda: justice without lawyers. Cambridge, New-York: Cambridge University Press.

Gishoma, D. ; Brackelaire, J.L. ; Munyandamutsa, N. ; Mujawayezu, J. ; Mohand, A.A. ; Kayiteshonga, Y. (2014) : Supportive-expressive group therapy for people experiencing collective traumatic crisis during the genocide commemoration period in Rwanda: impact and implications. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2 (1), pp. 469-488.

Kervran, P. ; Mukamabano, M. (1999) : Cinq ans après le génocide des Tutsis au Rwanda. Episode 2: Le temps des assassins. LSD, La série documentaire. France Culture (Radio), 54 min, first diffusion: summer 1999.

Lordos, A. ; Ioannou, M. ; Rutembesa, E. ; Christoforou, S. ; Anastasiou, E. ; Björgvinsson, T. (2021) : Societal healing in Rwanda: toward a multisystemic framework for mental Health, social cohesion, and sustainable livelihoods among survivors and perpetrators of the genocide against the Tutsi. Health Human Rights Journal, 23 (1), pp. 105-118.

Mafeza, F.  (2013) : Restoring relationship between former genocide perpetrators and survivors of genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda through reconciliation villages. International Journal of Development and Sustainability, Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 787-798.

Mutarabayire-Schafer, A. (2010) : Du traumatisme du génocide à la violence de la réconciliation: Gestalt-thérapie et soutien psychologique des rescapés du génocide au Rwanda. Cahiers de Gestalt-thérapie, 26, pp. 143-162.

Peredo, A.M ; Chrisman, J.J. (2006) : Toward a theory of community-based enterprise. Academy of management Review, 31/2, pp. 309-328.

Rosoux, V. ; Shyaka Mugabe, A. (2008) : Le cas des gacaca au Rwanda: jusqu’où négocier la réconciliation?. Négociations, Vol.9, no. 1, pp. 29-40 (printemps 2008).

Sentama, E. (2009) : Peacebuilding in Post-Genocide Rwanda. The role of cooperatives in the restoration of interpersonal Relationships. University of Gothenburg, Phd.


This article was possible thanks to the kindness of Valérie Rosoux, the benevolent reading of Louis-Philippe Moreira and Elise Rouméas, and the patient discussions with Valens Kabarari, Narcisse Nzamurambaho and Innocent Ruzigana.

Citer ce billet
Amélie Faucheux (2022, 1 mars). “Like a stone growing roots”: Restoring interpersonal relationships in the aftermath of the Tutsi Genocide. Altérité & Violence. Consulté le 26 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/ssvp

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