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Confront the past or lose the future

Africa’s Great Lakes region is marked by violent conflict, migration and constantly recurring dynamics of violence. The experience has traumatised the people, and the failure to properly address their suffering has exacerbated the propensity for violence – and the potential for further conflict.
An event in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to commemorate the genocide of 1994. Ben Curtis/picture-alliance/AP Photo An event in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to commemorate the genocide of 1994.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994, which left more than 800,000 people dead, was an incisive event. It destabilised the entire region. Many Rwandan refugees gathered across the border in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). New armed groups formed in the confusing scenario. In 1996, the First Congo War erupted, marking the start of an enormous military confrontation, and conflicts over land, natural resources and power continue to this day.

In the eastern DRC, the state performs few of its basic duties. Indeed, government agencies at times perpetrate violence themselves. Rwanda has developed into an autocratic state that exerts strong control over its territory and people. Burundi, which borders both countries, has repeatedly recorded cycles of violence since becoming independent in 1962, with massacres of both the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. After 12 years of civil war, an increasingly autocratic regime has taken hold. The contentious re-election of former President Pierre Nkurunziza plunged Burundi into a new political and humanitarian crisis in 2015.

Experiences of violence have triggered major traumas in the people of the countries. Failure to address these issues causes them to reproduce and be passed on – potentially for generations. Currently, the three countries are addressing their violent pasts in different ways.

DR Congo

In 2018 alone, violent conflicts displaced 1.8 million people in the DR Congo. Around 12.8 million people in the country depend on humanitarian aid. The east in particular has suffered from violence for over 20 years. In 2019, over 130 armed groups were counted in the provinces of North and South Kivu (see interview with Christoph Vogel in E+Z/D+C e-Paper 2018/02, Focus section).

Sexualised violence is a widespread phenomenon. In South Kivu, in the years 2005 to 2007, over 20,000 rape victims were registered, a third of whom were minors. The number of unreported cases is certainly considerably higher. Other traumatic experiences, like kidnappings, are also very common. A 2008 survey of the north-eastern province of Ituri, revealed that 95 % of 13- to 21-year-olds had at least one traumatic experience, and 52.2 % of respondents exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The perpetrators frequently were from the ranks of the army and police. They are rarely taken to court. Widespread impunity reinforces people’s lack of trust in the justice system, so victims all too often do not report crimes.

The public health-care system is dilapidated and cannot provide the necessary psychiatric treatment. State programmes to address the past are practically non-existent. “The responsibility for caring for traumatised people is passed off to national and international NGOs and faith-based organisations,” says Kavira Nganza, one of the few trauma therapists in the eastern part of the country.

There are just two hospitals that treat trauma patients, and both are church-­financed. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege (see Mahwish Gul in E+Z/D+C ­e-Paper 2018/11, Debate section) works in one of them: Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. He has treated many rape victims and has repeatedly called for an end to the violence and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Yet the current government is doing nothing to either confront the past or address rampant impunity.

Most violence occurred during the 18-year term of former President Joseph Kabila, whose security forces actively contributed to the problem, most recently during the brutal suppression of the protests against the postponement of the presidential elections between 2015 and 2018 (see my article in E+Z/D+C e-Paper 2018/05, Debate section). Kabila has nothing to fear from his successor, Felix Tshisekedi, however. Shortly after taking office in 2019, Tshisekedi announced that he would let the past be past and that he saw Kabila as his ally.


Rwanda is often considered to provide a model of how to confront the past. The state authorities have gone a completely different way than the DR Congo. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was among the 20th century’s most atrocious crimes. Twenty-six years later, the legal proceedings have been concluded, but social reconciliation still has a long way to go.

During the genocide, around half a million women and girls were raped. Many people witnessed friends and family members become victims of violence. Studies have shown that between 25 and 29 % of people in Rwanda exhibit symptoms of PTSD. A 2018 study demonstrated, more­over, that the prevalence rate of depressive disorders is as high as 53.9 % among the survivors of the genocide. Generally speaking, it is assumed that at least a quarter of the country’s 12 million residents were severely traumatised during the genocide and their mental health is affected accordingly today.

At the end of 1994, the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which reviewed complaints against the parties primarily responsible for the genocide. The majority of the proceedings were transferred to Rwanda’s own national jurisdiction, however. Because Rwanda’s justice system lacked the necessary capacity, pre-colonial Gacaca courts were reintroduced in 2002. These are layperson’s courts that were traditionally only responsible for minor crimes such as theft. Their application to violent crimes in Rwanda’s post-genocide state created many challenges, and their effectiveness is disputed.

Rwanda’s policies of remembrance are subordinated to an official state doctrine in many areas. Thus the state has developed clear mechanisms regarding how the past is to be dealt with and how it should be discussed. The state speaks exclusively of “the genocide against the Tutsi”. Hutu who opposed the murders and were therefore killed, and the Twa, an ethnic minority of whom an estimated one third were murdered, are rarely mentioned in official state discourse. Furthermore, the government under President Paul Kagame to this day refuses to take part in addressing the human-rights violations that it itself has committed since the end of the genocide.

Kagame’s government has strictly defined how the genocide is commemorated. Every year, a week-long commemoration takes place “in order to show solidarity with the murdered Tutsi”, as the official phrase states. The other ethnic groups are denied an opportunity to memorialise their dead. The extremely offensive commemoration, during which, for example, survivors report on their experiences and the remains of the victims are laid out, triggers another retraumatising crisis every year. Participation in the events is mandatory and misconduct can be punished.

Whereas the government has made great efforts to tackle the genocide from a political (and educational) standpoint, the psychological/medical side has received far too little attention so far. Despite some development success, Rwanda remains a low-income country with limited resources.

This is evident in the health sector, particularly when it comes to the treatment of mental disorders. In the entire country, only one clinic specialised in mental health in 2016. In this area, Rwanda depends entirely on local and international NGOs as well as on faith-based institutions. According to the Ministry of Health, however, mental health has now been declared a top priority. Correspondingly, the number of medical personnel specialising in this field has dramatically increased in recent years.


Burundi’s recent history has been shaped by various cycles of violence beginning in 1962 and a twelve-year civil war that cost around 300,000 lives. The tensions persisted following the Arusha Peace Accords of 2000 and the end of the civil war in 2005. The most recent cycles of violence occurred both before and during the presidential elections in 2010 and, even worse, in 2015 (see my comment in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2016/02, Debate section). Political power struggles have hampered attempts to confront the country’s violent past in the context of various peace and reconciliation efforts. Many perpetrators of human-rights violations and war crimes still hold political positions, which makes coming to terms with the past significantly more difficult.

Since 2000, multiple state and civil-society initiatives have aimed to tackle this history. The most important document is probably the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of 2000. This agreement laid the foundation for a comprehensive division of power between the Hutu and Tutsi – in the government, legislature, administration, police and army. Transitional-justice mechanisms were established, including an independent national human-rights commission and a truth and reconciliation commission (CVR).

However, the CVR only began its work in 2014 and has been harshly criticised. One reason is that it has shied away from addressing the current political conflict, which began in 2015. Instead, it has attracted media attention with the exhumation of mass graves, which, according to its director, contain only the victims of massacres perpetrated against the Hutu in 1972. These finds, their documentation and above all the lack of psychological processing potentially retraumatise people and, in the worst-case scenario, revive ethnic resentments. The staffing of the CVR is determined entirely by the government, which thus ensures that responsible parties within its own ranks are not brought to justice. The human-rights commission is also more or less under government control, so its contribution to an open and honest confrontation with the past is likely to remain minimal.

The regular justice system is not doing its part to handle the numerous attacks on members of the opposition, human-rights activists as well as civil society actors. Impunity is common. Moreover, in 2017, Burundi became the first member country to quit the International Criminal Court, following the Court’s announcement of a thorough investigation of the events since 2015. In 2018, a controversial constitutional amendment largely repealed the division of power between Hutu and Tutsi that was agreed in the Arusha Agreements. A new government took office this year, and it does not conform with the agreement. The country’s fragile peace and reconciliation process is at risk.

The many acts of violence in the distant and more recent past have deeply traumatised Burundi’s people. According to a recent study, 63 % of people know at least one person personally who was murdered. A 2012 study discovered that about a fourth of all Burundians are so severely traumatised that they exhibit clinical symptoms of a trauma-related disorder such as PTSD. Another investigation even determined that just under 40 % of people experience symptoms of PTSD. In a study from 2010, 91.7 % of the surveyed Burundian refugees reported having closely escaped death, while 96.7 % had lost a family member to a violent death. Like in Rwanda, however, the state-regulated examination of such violence tends to focus primarily on the political dimensions.

On the whole, the conflicts and associated traumas of the people in the African Great Lakes region are very complex. Their triggers include the genocide in Rwanda and years-long cycles of violence and civil wars, as well as ongoing internal displacement and flight. The conflicts continue to smoulder and are being exacerbated by various political, military and economic factors. Without a comprehensive confrontation with the past, it will remain difficult to carve a path to long-lasting stability, security and peace for people in the region.

Gesine Ames coordinates Ökumenisches Netz Zentralafrika (Ecumenical Network for Central Africa, ÖNZ), a German faith-based organisation.

Luca Bootsmann previously worked for ÖNZ.