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Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda (Book Review)

Paul Wahrhaftig provides a review of Richard Salem’s Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda:

Evode Kozamoko, a social worker, remembers rounding up child survivors when the Rwandan genocidal war was over. “There were children everywhere,” he recalled. He and his colleagues faced problems caring for the them. Some were aggressive, others numbed and mute, others cried, wet their beds or became sick from eating too much or too little. At that time he knew nothing of trauma. There was no such word in the Kinyarwandan language,” he said. “At first we thought the children’s wartime living conditions had caused the disorders. If we fed, clothed and played with them the problems would disappear.” UNICEF workers soon helped Kazasomako understand war trauma and its treatment.

The problem is particularly severe in Rwanda, according to psychiatrist Dr. Munyandamutsa Naason, because, “In Rwandan society the identity or persona of a child is deeply rooted in his or her relationships with parents, siblings and community. These relationships have a spiritual quality and the child is taught never to forget where she comes from or to whom he belongs. All of this was obliterated for survivors when trusted members of the community turned on Tutsi families. The children lost their frame of reference. What could they believe? Whom could they trust?”

Trauma is a response to a life-threatening event that overwhelms a person and renders him or her helpless. Effective treatment requires open and trusting communication about the precipitating events, even though recalling them can be painful and overwhelming. To promote healing in this ravaged society, the Rwandan government’s social ministries established the National Trauma Center in 1995. Along with help from NGOs it has provided direct treatment. Moreover, within two years, some 20,000 teachers, ministers, orphanage staff and other caregivers have been trained to recognize trauma and employ some basic methods for its alleviation.

Art is a powerful tool to help children to communicate what they saw, felt, or did that led to the trauma. As part of their treatment children have drawn their experiences and nightmares. A haunting collection of these drawings constitutes the core of Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda, edited by Richard A. Salem, with a forward by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The writing in this little book briefly covers the history of the Rwandan Genocide, profiles of some of the children and hopes for the future. But the real story is in the pictures Dr. Raundalen, another psychiatrist, reflects that a traumatized child will have difficulty contributing to building a peaceful society with democratic institutions. “How can you start thinking about peace with the picture of dead bodies before your eyes, when the picture of throats being cut comes before you every day?” But the potential is there, illustrated in a short analysis of a Children’s Parliament, convened in Rwanda in 1998. There, Rwandan children shared visions of a discrimination free society.

Witness is short but compelling reading. Watch out. It will make you want to do something about the situation. I read it and felt compelled to write this review – all in one sitting. So buy it at your own risk. Proceeds from the sale of this book, and contributions beyond the purchase price, will be contributed to Rwandan trauma treatment centers, which are desperately in need of funds.


Paul Wahrhaftig

Paul Wahrhaftig, has been active in organized conflict resolution since its modern beginnings in the early 1970s, both as a practitioner and organizer/networker. While maintaining an active mediation practice he continues to maintain contact with conflict resolvers around the world. Recently retired from his  position as President of the Conflict Resolution… MORE >

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