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The Development of Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC)
By David Zarembka
(adapted from A Peace of Africa, pages 164 to 184)

Origins of HROC
In September 2002, David Bucura, then General Secretary of Rwanda Yearly Meeting, asked me to bring trauma healing to Rwanda. Finally, in January 2003 with financial support from the American Friends Service Committee, AGLI held a one-month seminar in Kigali. We brought Adrien Niyongabo from Burundi and Carolyn Keys, now back in the United States after spending more than two years developing a trauma healing program in Burundi, to spearhead the training. From this training, the twenty participants developed the initial version of the three-day Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop. Then, over the next four months, the participants conducted twenty-five experimental workshops in Rwanda and the program was born.

Adrien Niyongabo returned to Burundi to duplicate the new HROC program he had helped develop in Rwanda. There were still gaps in the program. We needed to develop the methodology to train HROC facilitators who could continue the work in their local communities. We soon began calling these individuals “healing companions.” In the AVP program, on which HROC is modeled, there is a three-tier process for a person to become a facilitator. First, the person takes a basic three-day workshop, followed by an advanced three-day workshop, and lastly a three-day training for facilitators’ workshop. They then serve as apprentice facilitators for up to five workshops as they gained sufficient experience to be an AVP facilitator. We realized that to become a HROC facilitator was much more difficult than becoming an AVP facilitator because the deep emotions caused by trauma is much more complex than teaching the simpler conflict resolution skills of AVP. As a result, the HROC training that facilitators received is two weeks long, followed by apprentice workshops, and then an additional one-week follow-up training where the new facilitators can discuss their experiences.

The Basic HROC Workshop
In the Rwandan HROC workshops, ten of the participants are Tutsi survivors of the genocide and ten are Hutu from the families of the perpetrators or “released prisoners” who confessed to participating in the genocide. In the Burundian workshops, the Hutu and Tutsi from the two sides of the civil war are brought together. We have done a few workshops in Uganda and later we expanded the program to Kenya and North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although most of the people in a workshop are from the same community and in most cases know each other, they have not communicated with each other on a personal level for a decade or more. When they gather the first day each group sits apart, does not make eye contact with the others, and exhibit signs of nervousness such as remaining silent or, when speaking, talking in a hushed tone of voice. I am astounded when I think of how the three HROC facilitators are going to deal with such hostility.

Theoretically, the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community workshop is built on the stages of recovery from trauma as outlined in Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1992, 1997). “Recovery unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance and mourning. The central task of the third stage is reconnection with ordinary life. Like any abstract concept, these stages of recovery are a convenient fiction, not to be taken too literally.” (page 155)

Let me describe the three days of the workshop with quotes from the participants to show the effect of each session.

The most important aspect of the first day is to develop a secure environment where everyone feels free to talk and respected by the others. This may be the first time since the genocide or other traumatic event that this has happened.

The agenda on the first day includes understanding psycho-social trauma - a new concept for most participants - causes and symptoms of trauma, small group discussion on “the effects of trauma on you.” The concept of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) postulates that people who experience traumatic events can have considerable psychology damage even if physically they have not been harmed. Throughout the day, Tutsi and Hutu participants are randomly combined in small groups. Later the small groups share their insights. The day ends with a relaxation exercise to calm people before they return to their homes and families for the night.

Myself, as well as my neighbors, have lost many relatives and the situation we are in is unbearable. But I discovered that the main issue is that we have been keeping all inside us. We did not want to tell God, neither our friends about them. Grief can destroy one’s life and body. We now find new skills. God and friends can comfort me.

The second day begins with learning good listening skills, followed by learning the stages of grief and loss. The grief session, what we would call a guided meditation, is one of the most difficult sessions of the workshop. Many participants end up crying for their lost loved ones and their previous life. Constructive and destructive ways of dealing with anger are presented in the afternoon.

Having participated in this workshop, it has lifted me to another stage of understanding. I have a neighbor with whom I am in conflict. I discovered how I have been acting under my anger. Now I am ready to meet with him and tell him that I have acted wrongly. I will ask for forgiveness. Yes, I have been an evildoer.

On the third day, the trees of mistrust and trust are introduced. This is an apt analogy for the African rural setting. The participants list the roots, branches, and fruits (with fruits such as retaliation, revenge, and capital punishment) of mistrust on a drawing of a tree. They conclude by uprooting that tree. Next, they discuss the roots and fruits of trust, eventually concluding that the bad roots need to be replaced with good roots which then yield good fruits (rehabilitation, resurrection).

When we talked about the mistrust trees, participants expressed how the mistrust tree is real in their hearts and the consequences of such evil. They openly manifested their willingness to uproot that mistrust tree because it is the origin of all horrible times they passed through for generations.

We have to plant the trust tree in our hearts so that every Rwandan can eat its delicious fruits.

The afternoon of the third day is a “trust walk” where each participant is blindfolded and led around by another participant and then the roles are reversed.

It was very touching, inspiring, full of love to see how survivors and ex-prisoners were holding each other [in the trust walk] and carefully they walked together.

By the end of these workshops, people, who only three days before would have stayed out in the pouring rain rather than seek shelter with their opponents, and who would have refused to ask for water when thirsty for fear of being poisoned, now leave talking, laughing, and inviting each other over for dinner.

I am very happy to see that the person who had the courage to hide my husband and myself when the killers were looking and following us is now with me in this room. We need to accept that there are trustworthy persons within each ethnic group although we passed through horrible periods.

At the end of a workshop, a number of things should happen. Participants should have a good understanding of psycho-social trauma, ability in identifying it in themselves and others, and some basic skills to work with traumatized individuals. The participants should have reconnected with members of the “enemy” side and re-asserted their common humanity. This should then bring about changes in their behavior as they reconnect with family, neighbors, and “the other” with a positive, empathetic, loving attitude.

After the Basic Workshop
We soon realized that one three-day workshop was not sufficient for the healing of a person, let alone a society. The facilitators could not conduct an emotional, liberating workshop and then just walk away never to be heard from again. Our first strategy was to have a follow-up day one or more months after the original workshop. During the follow up, people shared how the original workshop affected their everyday existence.

When we introduced AVP in Rwanda in 2001, we made the mistake of having a few workshops all over the country. This resulted in having no discernable community effect. We realized that rather than hold one workshop in a community, we needed to offer five workshops to include about one hundred or more people. With HROC, we have continued to focus on the communities where we began and then sometimes expanding to neighboring communities. This would create a large enough group of trained persons in the community so that they could provide on-going support for each other.

We also found that, after completing the workshops and follow-up days, a public presentation was effective. The participants from all the workshops plus invited guests such as the local administrators, religious leaders, and other notables would gather for a day of celebration. This would include singing and dancing, poetry reading, testimonies from participants, and the usual speech making by the notables. In Burundi, where drumming corps are the national “sport,” there is a drumming group to perform vigorously including not only drumming, but also dancing and singing. The events end with a simple lunch together. The common meal is an important aspect of the peacebuilding. For some reason, Africans have a great fear of being poisoned. If a person gets an intestinal disease, some one is suspected of having poisoned the person. Consequently people are unwilling to eat with those they consider their “enemy.” Therefore, the sharing of a meal together becomes a visible sign of reconciliation. Surprisingly, we have found that this tactic does not work in Kenya because the Kenyans are not satisfied with anything less than a major feast including the slaughter of a bull. Since this is not an efficient use of our scarce resources, we do not have community celebrations in Kenya.

Our next step was to encourage the trainees to form a group, which they frequently call an “association.” These groups usually select one Tutsi and one Hutu as chairperson and vice chairperson. Some groups still meet regularly, while others naturally fall by the wayside. Their purpose is to continue the healing that has occurred in the workshop, follow-up day, and community celebration and become a force for reconciliation in the community. Some of the “graduates” of the workshops use their newfound insights to help others recover from trauma. This is usually their children, spouse, close family members, and neighbors.

I remember at one of the first community celebrations we held in Ruyigi in Burundi, one of the participants gave this testimony. In his community, there was a “crazy man” who would do things like take his clothes off and put them on top of his head, wailing. With such strange behavior, he was ignored and avoided by the community. After the HROC workshop, this participant decided that he would talk to the man to see what he could find out. He found him one day and sat with him on a log. He learned that during the fighting in 1993, this man had watched his wife and nine children be killed. He said that whenever he saw this man, he would stop and talk to him. While he did not become “normal,” his behavior did improve. Another female participant commented on how there was a mother in her community who was continually beating her ten year old daughter because she was acting “strange.” The participants worked with this mother and made her realize that the daughter was showing the signs of trauma and that beating her would only make her worse. As she counseled this woman, the mother changed her behavior towards her daughter.

As the years have passed by, HROC did not want to neglect those with whom we began the program. As a result, an advanced HROC workshop was developed and is now offered a year or more after the first cycle of basic workshop, follow-up, and community celebration has been completed.

There are also two special groups that have experienced the trauma like everyone else but also have additional traumas. The first are HIV+ women. Usually they have had terrible experiences during the conflicts, but also have to deal with the stigma of being HIV+. Until recently these women would die quickly, but with the introduction of anti-retro viral drugs, many are living much longer. But they face extreme discrimination and, when they show visible signs of the disease, they are ostracized by the community - from their family, from their housing, from their occupation if they have one, and shunned by the society. Therefore their trauma is not in the past, but in process. An additional part of the workshop is living successfully while HIV+. After taking part in these workshops, the women have frequently developed support groups.

The second group is the Twa who are the third “ethnic” group in Rwanda and Burundi. The Twa, who make up less than 1% of the population, suffer from severe discrimination. They are marginalized by both the Hutu and Tutsi because they lived in the forest, hunted wild animals, buried the dead, made clay pots, and were the jesters. As a result, they have additional traumas.

When we work with the Twa community, we begin with all Twa participants in the HROC workshops since they do not feel free to talk if Hutu or Tutsi are present. In Rwanda, after the initial all-Twa basic workshops, HROC follows up with an advanced HROC workshops including half Twa and half Tutsi/Hutu participants. We have found that not all of our Rwandan facilitators can conduct the Twa workshops because some cannot hide their disdain for the Twa, but we do have one excellent Twa facilitator who helps considerably in these workshops.
Under normal circumstances, Twa will not even come to a workshop when invited or to a meeting when called by the government. Our success in getting them to attend is a great accomplishment for which we have been commended by local officials.

I am frequently asked how the HROC program can work when it can affect only a small group of participants and is not the “magic bullet” that will solve the problems in the region. Most “magic bullets” are top-down answers where people think that some possible resolution to the problems can come from the government, the United Nations, NGOs, or the international community.

I, on the contrary, am a grassroots person. For me, what is important is what happens between two individuals or small groups of people. If a man attends a HROC workshop and stops beating his wife and children, that is huge! If two neighbors who are at loggerheads can solve the issues between them, that is important. If “enemies” can stop avoiding each other because of mutual suspicion and can learn to re-engage, that also is of utmost significance.

It is also very difficult to quantify the results of these workshops. If you asked the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife or child?” how does one validate the answer? As a result, the major NGOs and funding organizations have been reluctant to finance programs like the HROC workshop. This leads to a more basic question, “How do you change people’s attitudes?” Our response in the HROC workshops is to tap that inner good within everyone, to have confidence that people can, on their own volition, change for the better, and to expect divergent results from the workshop.

Lastly, there is a lesson that can apply to all of us as this participant from North Kivu noted:

There is one exercise we did of remembering someone who did something good to you and give thanks to that person. Through others’ sharing I realized how many times I have been ungrateful, how many times I take things for granted, thinking they are minor, therefore no need to say, “Thank you.” From now on, I have decided to be grateful.