Dealing with Trauma in Post- Conflict Burundi and the African Great Lakes Region

The Free Online Dictionary defines trauma as “an event or situation that causes great distress and disruption”. In Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC), the violent inter-group conflicts and civil wars that have ravaged these countries of the African Great Lakes region for the past 50 years constitute traumatic events. The International Community cites the number of casualties to highlight the impact of such conflicts and wars on the countries and the people. These events have been traumatic; the casualties from Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC are estimated at about 7 million.

The purpose of this article is twofold. I discuss the complexity of trauma in post conflict Burundi and the African Great Lakes region, and propose culturally relevant ways to address trauma-related issues in the region. I conclude with general reflections about fostering trauma healing to chart the course for futures of peace and nonviolence.

Understanding the Complexity of Trauma

Addressing issues of trauma in post-conflict Burundi and the African Great Lakes region calls for a broader understanding of the complexity of trauma in the region. The survivors of violent conflicts and wars have been and are still distressed by the loss of their loved ones. But, this is not all. They are distressed by their experiences, memories, poverty, displacement, and fear. I shall explain briefly how overlooked elements constitute trauma.

Experiences as Trauma

The people of Burundi and the African Great Lakes Region have witnessed and experienced indelible suffering in the past 50 years. The world should wonder if they can be referred to as “survivors” at all. Many have not truly survived the carnage only dying more slowly than those killed with machetes, guns, and other weapons. When people talk about what they witnessed and heard, and recount the emotional toll of their “survival”, it is evident that they have not survived, as their trauma is palpable.

Memories as Trauma

A very significant wave of mourning has emerged in recent years with widows and children of the victims of the 1972 genocide of the Hutu by the predominantly Tutsi government and military in Burundi. When these survivors recount the events surrounding the loss of their husbands and fathers, it feels like 1972 was just yesterday. Their pain, tears, and anger indicate vivid trauma. Some of the 1972 families have organized traditional cultural mourning ceremonies to honor their loved ones, to begin the overdue healing process denied them at the time of the atrocities and following years. Unfortunately, these ceremonies remain incomplete as the still grieving families have no memorial place—a painful reminder that their loved ones were massacred and thrown into unmarked mass graves.

Poverty as Trauma

Inter-group conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC, more than human lives, have destroyed homes and the natural environment, leaving survivors, especially the women, left to pick up the pieces. There is no greater trauma than being incapable of providing for one’s children. Yet, scores of women in Burundi and the African Great Lakes region, often widowed, live with hopelessness and debilitating poverty, unable to care for and educate their orphaned children.

Displacement as Trauma

The cyclical inter-group violence of Burundi and the African Great Lakes region have pushed millions of people to seek refuge in other countries. Some of these refugees have thrived, by international standards, often achieving educational and economic integration in their host countries. Integration usually means having to raise children who are disconnected from extended families, with the psychological identity issues that such situations entail. Trauma issues should, therefore, include displacement.

Fear as Trauma

There is a saying in Kirundi stating that “Ingoma Yagukanze Irahuma Ugahunga”, which translates as “The Sound of the Drum that Traumatized You Causes You to Flee”. The years of conflicts and violence eroded inter-group and inter-personal trust in Burundi and the African Great Lakes region. The phenomena of neighbours killing neighbours, wives betraying their husbands and selling them out to the killers, and many other instances of inter- personal betrayals have caused the survivors to live walking on egg shells. Although people are eager to share their stories of suffering and trauma in Burundi, they find it difficult to trust one another. The situation is worse in Rwanda where people are forbidden to acknowledge their ethnic membership, forced to adopt the current government-imposed discourse of “we are all Rwandans”. Dealing with post-conflict trauma must address the legacy of fear and fear-mongering in Burundi and the region.

Culturally Relevant Trauma Healing

Burundian wisdom teaches that “Uwushaka Gukira Ingwara Arayirata”, meaning that any illness must be exposed in order to heal. This wisdom suggests trauma must be part of the public discourse in Burundi and the African Great Lakes region for post conflict healing efforts to be effective. How can this be done in reserved cultures? One way would be to engage villagers in age and gender appropriate group sustained dialogue. These groups would be organized with high sensitivity to dividing issues such as ethnicity, where intra-group dialogue would precede inter-group dialogue sessions to maximize feelings of safety and trust. In such groups, parents would be coached on how to hold similar dialogues within their families.

Dealing with trauma issues requires addressing poverty. There is rampant poverty caused by years of destructive conflicts and wars, and poverty caused by the countries’ emerging political leaders concerned of their own material gains rather than by the welfare of their people. In Burundi, such leaders are amassing wealth and property—often from desperate villagers—while their people are become more destitute. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing ever more deeply, and exacerbating post-conflict trauma. Therefore, the post-conflict era is a moment of truth for the new political leaders of Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC. Assuming and hoping that they are committed to their people’ and nations’ trauma healing, they should reflect and act upon this important question: Are we using our newly acquired political powers to further the common good or our own economic gains? Fostering culturally relevant trauma healing means acknowledging that the past is not really past, and that silence-- especially forced silence—does not heal trauma. Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC must acknowledge and own their respective histories of inter-group conflicts, from traditional pre-colonial practices, to the colonial divide-to-conquer policies, to their post-independence failures to unite and empower their people. The past contains truths that must be told before futures of peace and nonviolence can be negotiated and envisioned.


Inter-group violent conflicts and wars have caused incalculable distress and disruption among all the people of Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC across ethnic groups and societal strata. Trauma healing must begin with the acknowledgement of our shared losses, shared painful memories, and shared uncertainties about the future. Such recognition will ultimately lead to our validation of our shared humanity. Never have our shared Ubuntu values been more relevant. To heal from conflict and war trauma we must heal together

Elavie Ndura

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