Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist 

 

Healing the scars from Rwanda's war

June 16, 1999 

This article is one of a series of radio spots prepared by Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D. for 
WAGE 1200 AM RADIO

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Except for the bullet holes in buildings and an unusual number of amputees, life looks almost normal in Rwanda.  The genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and 50,000 moderate Hutus in 1994 has left surprisingly few physical signs. But underlying that calm exterior, is an entire nation suffering from psychological  
trauma.  With only two psychiatrists and no psychologists in the entire country, Rwandans are struggling to come to grips with the aftermath of convulsive violence.  Now, two American Psychologists are trying to find ways to heal the survivors, thanks to a $232,000 grant from The John Templeton Foundation's program on scientific studies on the subject of forgiveness. 
     
The project that Ervin Staub, Ph.D. and Laurie Anne Pearlman, Ph.D. are creating has a twofold purpose: learning more about healing, reconciliation and forgiveness and bringing them about in the most daunting of social laboratories.  Staub is a psychology professor at the  
University of Mass. at Amherst.  Pearlman is president of the Trauma, Research, Education and Training Institute, Inc. in South Windsor, Conn. 
    
For Staub, the origins of genocide are more than academic.  As a Jewish child in Hungary, he survived the holocaust only because he was hidden by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg and other Christians.  That experience inspired a career spent thinking about why some people turn to genocide and other forms of mass aggression and why others risk their lives to help. 
    
Staub's book, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, outlines the theory he came up with.  He rejects the idea that evil is incomprehensible. 
He believes that political conflict and social disorganization make it hard for people to satisfy needs for security and self-esteem.  Because they can't change the external situation, people, especially those in cultures in which some group has been devalued and there is strong respect for authority, may turn against another group within the society as a way of fulfilling those psychological needs.
Unless bystanders intervene, scapegoating and devaluing of others produce psychological changes in perpetrators until they feel justified in committing mass violence.  
    
 "Genocide is not simply political," emphasizes Staub, who is also president-elect of APA's Division 48 (Peace).  "It is also psychological and cultural." Rwanda provides a perfect example, according to Staub.  A dire economic situation  
coming from falling prices for coffee and tin exports and reduction of international aid created the soil for genocide.  Authoritarianism was the rule politically and culturally.  The majority Hutus discriminated against the minority Tutsis, excluding them from power.  The Hutus psychology was also important.  They had a history of low status and Tutsi domination during the Colonial era.  The Hutus felt victimized.  Socialized into obedience, Hutus were receptive to the elite's attempts to incite fear and hatred. Playing the role of bystander, the international community refused to intervene.  In the end, only the victory of Tutsi rebels stopped the killing. 
    
The Rwanda project is the first large-scale testing of Staub's theory.  His goal is to break the cycle of violence by helping both victims and perpetrators heal.  Rather than being part of the long tradition of Westerns "parachuting in," doing something and then leaving before results can be achieved, Staub and Pearlman are working instead with eight local nongovernmental organizations.  With the help of locals, they started identifying partners who will implement their two-year project. 
    
The intervention consists of both psychoeducational and experiential components.  Using minilectures designed to prompt discussion, the staff will help their constituents talk about basic human needs, group violence, trauma and healing.  Participants will also write about their experiences and practice connecting to others through talking and responding.  Rwanda psychiatrist Athanase Hagengimana, Vice Dean of the Medical School of the National University of Rwanda will serve as the project's onsite coordinator. 

Pearlman says she was amazed at how grateful people were just that we showed up.  Staub and Pearlman aren't the only ones who are guardedly optimistic about the project's potential, despite continuing violence and the nation's struggle to balance healing and justice.  Divison 48 founder Mike Wessells, who has worked extensively in Angola, Sierra Leone and Guatemala, points to their willingness to adapt the project and collaborate with local partners.  "Too often members of the international community arrive in conflict situations with predefined approaches and don't listen to what local people think," says Wessells. "That  
amounts to cultural imperialism.  I take my hat off to what Dr. Staub and Dr. Pearlman are doing."  Wessells is a psychology professor at Randolph-Macon College. 
 

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