Post-conflict reconstruction: Experiences in Rwanda

Ethnic ConflictEthnic ConflictPeace-building

by Ian Wallace.

The events in Rwanda in 1994 had an impact around the world. At Tearfund they caused us to think long and hard about our response both to the needs of the survivors of the genocide and the rebuilding of the social trust that had been destroyed.

Deep roots

Contrary to what many outsiders believe, it is not simply an ethnic conflict. The two principle ethnic groupings (the Hutu and Tutsi) share language, culture and history and have also inter-married. The roots of the complex conflict run deep in Rwanda’s history and involve colonial mismanagement, power struggles, shallow doctrine in the church, unresolved injustice and false beliefs about racial differences. In the years before the genocide Tearfund had worked closely with the church, helping the poor. However, it soon became clear that most of our traditional partners had been seriously affected by the conflict and were not able to respond to the needs which existed.

As we studied what had happened, it became clear that an accurate understanding of the problem was vital to help the Rwandan people escape from the cycle of conflict which has troubled them for many years. Several things appeared significant:

  • Any political settlement reached was unlikely to alter the way in which one person regarded their neighbour. The desire for personal revenge would undermine any agreement reached by politicians.
  • Only the Rwandans could solve the problems which had prevented them living together peacefully. Our role as outsiders was to stand with them in their time of trouble and help create secure situations where they could look honestly at the events which had destroyed their country.
  • For the Rwandan people to work hard at making peace they must believe in a better future and have confidence that some of their hopes (for their children, if not for themselves) would be met for the future.
  • For people to make progress in development they must work together within communities.

Building trust

The difficulty was that for people to work together there needed to be social trust between them. Yet the most damaging consequence of the war was that it had encouraged hatred, resentment and mistrust among ordinary people. We recognised that any response from Tearfund had to encourage the rebuilding of social trust as a priority. The real needs were not financial, but for restoring relationships, addressing the pain in people’s hearts as well as their bodies.

We recruited a married couple, Dick and Judy, to visit Rwanda for 15–20 days every two months. They were a couple who had experienced tragedy in their own lives and were able to win the trust and confidence of the Rwandans they worked with. Their instructions were to spend time listening to Rwandan people and to identify and work with Rwandans whom God seemed to be using to bring healing. Their role was to be that of friends and facilitators. The fact that they were only ever visiting, prevented them taking a leadership role. They were also careful not to rush people into finding short-term results but to take a long-term view.

An exceptional organisation

They quickly identified a local organisation called MOUCECORE as having an important role and formed a close working relationship with Michel, the Director. MOUCECORE became one of the most important elements of our work in Rwanda. It is an exceptional organisation for several reasons:

  • It modelled the kind of relationships which it was trying to promote. At first it had just two staff: a Tutsi, male lay preacher in the Anglican Church, and a female leader (a Hutu) of the women’s movement in the Presbyterian Church.
  • It was not interested in power and status so was not seen as a threat by others trying to develop their own power and influence.
  • Its staff were sufficiently well-known and trusted by those with power to be given freedom to go about their work, yet they were able to relate to people at village level.

Together they travelled the country challenging people about the way they saw their neighbours. Dick and Judy supported them in this work.

Michel’s basic message challenged people to think more deeply about what it meant to be a Christian in Rwanda. He focused particularly on the idea of a new identity in Christ as more important than ethnic identity (2 Corinthians 5:17). In this, Michel was addressing one of the key issues head on, since the threat to ethnic identity was one of the causes of the conflict. Once people began to understand that their identity was not just tied up with their ethnic origin, Michel would challenge them to decide what effect this might have on their daily lives and to live out their new understanding in a practical way. He also made it quite clear that lack of support from others should never be an excuse for not doing what you believe to be right. The result of this ‘training’ was that small groups of people at village level started to take the initiative to put right what had gone wrong. There were examples of houses being rebuilt for those who had been disabled, of gardens being dug for widows, of people cooking food and taking it to the hospital to feed those who now had no family.

Supporting local initiatives

As more of these initiatives sprang up, small grants enabled groups to buy the basic tools and equipment they needed. MOUCECORE took on a development advisor to help the groups plan how to use the money most effectively. MOUCECORE administered the grants through a local committee of trusted church leaders. The maximum grant was $300 and there was an understanding that if the grant helped set up an income generating activity, the group should ‘pay back the credit’ by helping someone else with similar needs. A lot of trust was placed in these new groups and in most cases this trust was respected. One group of young people saw that disabled people in their neighbourhood were having a particularly difficult time, so they taught them how to make furniture to sell in the local market. Gradually, both trust and activity began to grow.

After such conflict people find it almost impossible to talk about their hurts and feelings. However, in a programme run by African Revival Ministries the emphasis was put on working together to put right what was wrong. As people worked together, they discovered their ‘enemies’ had suffered in similar ways to themselves and felt the same hurts. This provided the basis to begin discussion about the pain in people’s hearts; discussion which gradually broke down the deep sense of mistrust that had existed. The group later dug and planted the gardens for those remaining in a nearby refugee camp as a way of demonstrating it was safe for them to return home.

The impact of ‘reconciliation’ initiatives is hard to assess. The critical question is whether there has been a permanent change in attitude towards people previously regarded as enemies. One sure sign of reconciliation is when someone allows their livelihood to become closely tied up with the livelihood of their Finding a new identity in Christ is more important than ethnic identity. traditional enemy. That is what we have seen within the new groups established by MOUCECORE.

Lessons learnt…

  • People are more important than money in post-conflict reconstruction.
  • Key people are those who can bridge the gap between those in power and the ordinary villager.
  • Programmes should encourage the growth of social trust.
  • Listening is an important way of building confidence and security which will allow deeper issues to be explored.
  • Meeting to work together can help remove the initial tensions between people and help them learn about each other. This may lead onto discussions which may not otherwise be possible.
  • It is necessary to challenge people to think through their assumptions, particularly about the basis of their identity and the threats they think exist to that identity.
  • Responsibility for finding the solution must always remain with the people who are involved in the conflict. The role of the outsider is that of friend and facilitator.
  • True reconciliation takes a long time and cannot be rushed.

Ian Wallace is International Services Group Leader in Tearfund with experience in community development in West Africa and in managing Tearfund’s response to the conflict in Central Africa.