Go back to start again. With the awareness that nothing will be the same as before. That those hundred awful days, from the 6th of April to mid-July 1994, dug an abyss of horror and grief that fifteen years – and many more – cannot erase. A word of division: genocide. With all that it meant then – 800.000 people dead, 2 millions of refugees and evacuees, a devastated and disfigured country in all its folds. And with all that it means today, in terms of remembrance, justice, reconciliation… All terms to be read in the imperfect present tense. The tense of a hard and insufficient path of social fabric reconstruction and of an almost always betrayed aspiration of truth and justice.
The Brothers of Charity –a Belgian congregation with international inspiration – were in Rwanda before and they are there still now. They have been there since 1929, working in the fields of education, disability, and mental health. They were there during the first weeks of genocide, which they experienced in all its dramatic force. And they are still there today, carrying a heavy burden.
Brother René Stockman is a doctor, a specialized professor of mental health and the general superior of the congregation. He has always lived Rwanda, playing the double role of a professional as well as manager of his fellow brothers. “For us – brother Stockman recounts coming back from one of his very many trips to Africa, including Rwanda – this country was a model of action for anything related to the treatment of mental illnesses in Africa. Here we started working with typical Western parameters and then, as we became more in-tune with the local culture, customs and mentality, we slowly began integrating even the traditional healers with all the positive contribution they may give to face these kinds of pathologies which have a very important social repercussion”.
The question of mental illness in Africa is a delicate issue. It is an illness, for sure, but it evokes the phantasms of black magic and prejudices, of curses and occult. Mentally sick people are branded by a terrible mark which condemns them to a life of hiding and reclusion. Often tied up with chains, they are abandoned in dark, isolated corners in order to keep them from sight and stifle their cries.
“In 1967 – explains Stockman – by government request, we opened, through the Caraes organization, a psychiatric centre in Ndera, near Kigali. At the beginning, the aim was first of all to release the psychiatric patients imprisoned because of their aggressiveness and to welcome them in the hospital. In the meantime, we started to offer consultations and appropriate treatment”.
After eight years, when, by that time, the Ndera structure was consolidated, the Brothers of Charity tried to answer the needs of the more outlying areas of the country. Thus, two dispensaries were created, one in the north, in Ruhengeri, and one in the south, in Butare, near the big Groupe Scolaire, the first secondary school in the country, opened in 1929 and today run by the local Church. In the rest of the country, twelve other “antennas” are set up, where specialized staff is trained in order to meet the basic needs of the communities. Thus, traveling teams are organized to go from the Ndera center to visit the pilot-centers and the dispensaries for consultation and training. In short, an articulated net that has developed during the years an approach to the treatment of mental illnesses, rooted in the social and cultural context of the country.
Then, in April 1994, the end began: the shooting-down of the presidential airplane began the first attacks in Kigali and its environs. The Brothers in Ndera retreated into the convent and the hospital. Inside, apart from the patients, many tutsi refugees poured in. Outside, hutu militiamen surrounded and threatened the buildings and their occupants. “For almost two weeks – Stockman says, his heart full of grief – the brothers were imprisoned in the convent. There were about ten people; most of them involved in the work of the psychiatric hospital. We were unable to have any contact with them until they were evacuated by Belgian military men and they left with the last group of soldiers. They knew that later on the catastrophe would arrive”.
And later, indeed, the horror came: “Every patient and member of the staff was slaughtered”. Stockman saw the video of that evacuation: “Just once – he says -. Then, I could not anymore. In that footage I saw the faces of my patients and my collaborators. And they were all massacred. I was not able to watch it after that”.
A very deep wound has remained. In Stockman and in his fellow brothers. One of them was killed: “He was traveling by car with two Belgian brothers. They were stopped along the street and they killed him just because he was tutsi”. Another one has been accused of complicity in the genocide. “He is still in prison in Rwanda, subject to the gacacas’ justice, the traditional trials, that I personally do not consider adequate to face such a big issue like the genocide. I witnessed testimonies of people who were not even there at that time…”.
The whole congregation was deeply shaken and traumatized and started a process of reflection on both the congregation itself and on those days, the choices made and their consequences: “To stay and be killed, or to go away? – this is the question the superior still asks himself -. We did not have a choice. And even if we stayed and we let them kill us, what sense and value would have that act? These are question that are still difficult to answer today”.
However, signs remain: wounds of the heart and soul which are indelible in those who lived those dramatic events. “The brothers who were in Rwanda, in one way or another, are still influenced by the consequences of those facts; some of them are still traumatized , others live a personal drama that will probably never leave them for the rest of their lives; most of them did not manage to go back, even the people who tried… some have left the congregation…”.
Not differently, in Rwanda it is difficult to cure that collective trauma. All the more considering that the government is doing little or nothing to let the truth come out and promote justice and reconciliation; rather, it is withdrawing into the rhetoric of memory, which is functional only to the political propaganda and to self-legitimization.
In November 1994 – brother Stockman continues – we returned to Rwanda to evaluate the situation. The hospital was completely abandoned and devastated, a distressing sight. We decided to start again immediately, here and somewhere else, like in the fields of Congo and Tanzania. We told ourselves that we were here not “in favour” or “against” the government but for the sick people and the population”. Today, the Ndera psychiatric hospital is again an excellent centre not only for Rwanda but, probably, for the whole of Africa, together with the one in Butare: both are the result of a great effort to investigate thoroughly the treatments and the relationships with the sick person. Furthermore, in Gatagara a centre for children with physical handicaps was reopened. At present, in Rwanda fifteen brothers are working, all of them Rwandans with the exception of two Belgians. But in their centres, next to those affected by mental illnesses, now there are also many people traumatized by genocide.
Among them – the superior explains – we have also some twenty young people who at that time were kids and who are still influenced by the consequences of what they underwent or of what they witnessed. This is why we elaborated specific programs for these kinds of traumas with a specialized team. It is a really hard job, and we also have to face the possibility of many relapses, above all during the month of April, when many of them re-live the suffering of those days, developing psychotic attitudes”.
In the meantime, an important job with the relatives of patients has been started, in terms of psychological services and family treatments, even if distances often impede this kind of intervention. “Within the boundaries of what is possible – explains the general superior – we ask the families to participate. It is a small contribution that we have tried to give to the difficult process of reconciliation. In the treatment of traumatized people, the aspect of reconciliation is important because it helps them, first of all, to find peace”.
We are talking about small seeds which, in a difficult country like Rwanda, built on an extremely precarious balance, represent an important investment for the future.
(translation from the italian language by Elena Dini)