Ghosts of Rwanda Genocide Haunt New Generation

Sarah Uwumugishan, a 19-year old Rwandan, was born two years after the genocide that ripped her country apart but she says she is scarred for life.

"I feel I have lived through the genocide," said Sarah, who is swept up in grief, horror and torment when commemorations are held in April to remember those killed in the most brutal of ways.

Around 800,000 people -- mostly members of the minority Tutsi community -- were slaughtered in a 100-day orgy of violence, largely by Hutus.

Every year, mental health professionals receive hundreds of Rwandans too young to have witnessed the killings but who show the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder of those who witnessed and survived.

They report intense anxiety or obsessive visions related to horrific scenes and events that took place before they were born.

For Sarah, her trauma began when she was just six, after her mother Alice Mukarurinda told her what she had seen.

On April 7, 1994, the first day of the killings, Mukarurinda and her husband fled with their baby daughter, Sarah's sister.

They took refuge in the church of Nyamata, hoping it would offer sanctuary from the murderous attacks from the Hutu Interahamwe militia, who were hunting people down with guns and machetes.

When the church was attacked, they managed to escape -- but 36 of their family members were massacred.

They hid in nearby marshes for days where they were eventually tracked down.

"They slashed me, cutting my hand and killing my daughter who was on my back," said Mukarurinda, whose left cheek carries a deep, long scar, and whose right arm is a stump. Left for dead, she later crawled away with her husband.

This terrifying story was recounted to their children, three sons and two daughters. But it was only Sarah who developed anxiety attacks.

"My primary school was located next to a prison," where many of those who carried out the killings in the genocide were held, she said.

"It scared me, I thought that if the prisoners saw me they would kill me."

"I'm always afraid," said the student, adding that she often has disturbing and scary visions.

"I think about it every day, but it is worse during the commemorations... I can't be alone, and when I look at my mum, they come back," she said, quietly looking down at the ground.

Sarah has never seen a psychologist, but mental health specialists say she could a child victim of "trans-generational trauma", something seen in children of the survivors of the Holocaust.

"What we have noticed is that in families, those who look after children can unknowingly transmit what they have experienced," said Francoise Murekatete, coordinator of the mental health program at Avega, an organization that supports widowed survivors of the genocide.

It is not uncommon for mental health professionals to support young people born after 1994 showing the same symptoms as the survivors.

This is particularly visible during the period of the commemorations, which begin every year on April 7.

During this period of national mourning, survivors recount their stories, sparking strong reactions among others -- sometimes collectively -- including fainting, seizures, weeping or screaming.

"It is a phenomenon that was expected... all that is not said, is transmitted," said Rwandan psychiatrist Naasson Munyandamutsa.

As in the case of Sarah, attacks are triggered by family stories, educational debates in villages or films broadcast on television.

"It can lead to a kind of contagion in the collective subconscious," said Rutakayile Bizoza, a psychiatrist at the Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital in the capital Kigali, describing emotional scenes when films are screened in schools.

Even children whose families were untouched by the killings are affected.

While experts say the trauma is not unexpected, Murekatete says most are alarmed at the reactions.

People sympathize with those who actually survived the genocide but "do not understand the behavior" of the young, she said.

Source: Agence France Presse

Copyright © 2012 All Rights Reserved.