After the Headlines: Trauma and Peacebuilding in the Wake of the Rwandan Genocide

Written by Kayla Slagter // 

I’ll never forget the day I realized news headlines are a collection of real people’s life stories.

My friend was sharing her own story at a favorite coffee shop of ours in an up-and-coming area of Kigali, Rwanda. Because of her nationality and age, she was a teenager during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi. Exactly 25 years ago this spring, while these news headlines were shocking the world, she was living them for 100 days:

“Thousands of Rwanda Dead Wash Down to Lake Victoria” (NY Times, 1994)

“Peacekeepers Flee: UN Commanders Withdraw Hundreds from Rwanda as the bloodbath spreads” (The Towntalk, 1994)

“Fighting Leaves Thousands Dead, Homeless in Rwanda” (The Times Recorder, 1994)

“Americans Flee Chaos in Rwanda” (The Baltimore Sun, 1994)

These were not just headlines; these were days in her life, traumas she survived, and tragedies she endured. As she spoke, it suddenly became real to me. These tragedies that shook the world are not distant. They are close. They change the lives of my friends. While I was celebrating my first birthday, she was hiding from a mob sent to kill her.

While the news did its job to cover the horrors of the genocide, it missed reporting the stories of people like my friend: a woman whose purpose is now to heal her country one trauma at a time. And she will continue this work even after the international media ceases to cover Rwanda in its headlines.

Because reconciliation and peacebuilding are not sexy.

When people hear that I’m studying peacebuilding, they typically envision my future as some warzone-dwelling international peace negotiator. As much as I love the Hollywood image of a badass woman standing up to warring rebel groups or gangs, there is absolutely no need for another American to assert themselves into the lives of these affairs. An American peacebuilder? What irony. Leave that to powerhouse women like my friend – and people like Leymah Gbowee.

In her memoir “Mighty Be Our Powers,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Gbowee details how she mobilized Christian and Muslim women to promote peace in Liberia. She defines peacebuilding in this way:

“When I use that word, I mean something much more complicated than negotiation, brokering or signing treaties. Peacebuilding to me isn’t ending a fight by standing between two opposing forces. It’s healing those victimized by war, making them strong again and bringing them back to the people they once were. It’s helping victimizers rediscover their humanity so they can once again become productive members of their communities. Peacebuilding is teaching people that resolving conflict can be done without picking up a gun. It’s repairing societies in which guns have been used, and not only making them whole but better.”

Negotiating peace treaties in the midst of war zones gets the funding and the Oscar-winning Hollywood moment. Settling into those countries for the next several decades to heal the personal and collective trauma of a nation does not.

But the real peacebuilders I know don’t care about any of that. They know the cost of unforgiveness for both the survivor and the perpetrator. And they seek to restore both in the fullness of their dignity.

Lest you think I’m only talking about Rwanda, let me assure you this extends beyond the beautiful hills of this African country.

Do you know what my friend told me was the hardest thing to heal from after being hunted, beaten, and raped in those 100 days of the genocide? It was not forgiving the men who abused her – it was forgiving her family who did not acknowledge her trauma after the genocide ended.

The pain, hurt, and sin that the world watched reveal its horrific face those 25 years ago is the same everywhere in the world.

The pain may look like national trauma, or like families being separated at a border. And it may look like the pain of families being separated by addiction, abuse, or death. Or the pain of emotionally distant parents. Or loved ones who stop caring enough to fight.

But the same transformation made possible by God is also at work everywhere in the world.

This year as the world remembers 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, I hope the world doesn’t just pause to remember this horrific tragedy. I hope the world also reflects on the incredible power of forgiveness and reconciliation that Rwanda continues to teach us every day.



Kayla Slagter is currently living in Aberdeen, Scotland studying for her masters in Post-Conflict Justice and Peacebuilding. From interning with multi-cultural churches in the South to interviewing survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, her life is shaped by a desire to learn from others and to share their stories so the world may learn. She serves on the US board for the Rwandan organization Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assitance (CARSA) and is happy for any opportunity to discuss reconciliation over coffee.



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