The Development of Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC)
By David Zarembka
(adapted from A Peace of Africa, pages 164 to 184)
Origins of HROC
In September 2002, David Bucura, then General Secretary of Rwanda Yearly
Meeting, asked me to bring trauma healing to Rwanda. Finally, in
January 2003 with financial support from the American Friends Service
Committee, AGLI held a one-month seminar in Kigali. We brought Adrien
Niyongabo from Burundi and Carolyn Keys, now back in the United States
after spending more than two years developing a trauma healing program
in Burundi, to spearhead the training. From this training, the twenty
participants developed the initial version of the three-day Healing
and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop. Then, over the next
four months, the participants conducted twenty-five experimental
workshops in Rwanda and the program was born.
Adrien Niyongabo returned to Burundi to duplicate the
new HROC program he had helped develop in Rwanda. There were still
gaps in the program.
We needed to develop the methodology to train HROC facilitators who
could continue the work in their local communities. We soon began calling
these individuals “healing companions.” In the AVP program,
on which HROC is modeled, there is a three-tier process for a person
to become a facilitator. First, the person takes a basic three-day
workshop, followed by an advanced three-day workshop, and lastly a
three-day training for facilitators’ workshop. They then serve
as apprentice facilitators for up to five workshops as they gained
sufficient experience to be an AVP facilitator. We realized that to
become a HROC facilitator was much more difficult than becoming an
AVP facilitator because the deep emotions caused by trauma is much
more complex than teaching the simpler conflict resolution skills of
AVP. As a result, the HROC training that facilitators received is two
weeks long, followed by apprentice workshops, and then an additional
one-week follow-up training where the new facilitators can discuss
The Basic HROC Workshop
In the Rwandan HROC workshops, ten of the participants are Tutsi survivors
of the genocide and ten are Hutu from the families of the perpetrators
or “released prisoners” who confessed to participating
in the genocide. In the Burundian workshops, the Hutu and Tutsi from
the two sides of the civil war are brought together. We have done
a few workshops in Uganda and later we expanded the program to Kenya
and North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Although most of the people in a workshop are from the same community
and in most cases know each other, they have not communicated with
each other on a personal level for a decade or more. When they gather
the first day each group sits apart, does not make eye contact with
the others, and exhibit signs of nervousness such as remaining silent
or, when speaking, talking in a hushed tone of voice. I am astounded
when I think of how the three HROC facilitators are going to deal
with such hostility.
Theoretically, the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community
workshop is built on the stages of recovery from trauma as outlined
in Judith Herman’s
book, Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1992, 1997). “Recovery
unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the
establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance
and mourning. The central task of the third stage is reconnection with
ordinary life. Like any abstract concept, these stages of recovery
are a convenient fiction, not to be taken too literally.” (page
Let me describe the three days of the workshop with quotes from the
participants to show the effect of each session.
The most important aspect of the first day is to develop a secure
environment where everyone feels free to talk and respected by the
others. This may be the first time since the genocide or other traumatic
event that this has happened.
The agenda on the first day includes understanding
psycho-social trauma - a new concept for most participants - causes
and symptoms of trauma,
small group discussion on “the effects of trauma on you.” The
concept of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) postulates that people
who experience traumatic events can have considerable psychology damage
even if physically they have not been harmed. Throughout the day, Tutsi
and Hutu participants are randomly combined in small groups. Later
the small groups share their insights. The day ends with a relaxation
exercise to calm people before they return to their homes and families
for the night.
Myself, as well as my neighbors, have lost many relatives
and the situation we are in is unbearable. But I discovered that
the main issue
is that we have been keeping all inside us. We did not want to tell
God, neither our friends about them. Grief can destroy one’s
life and body. We now find new skills. God and friends can comfort
The second day begins with learning good listening skills, followed
by learning the stages of grief and loss. The grief session, what we
would call a guided meditation, is one of the most difficult sessions
of the workshop. Many participants end up crying for their lost loved
ones and their previous life. Constructive and destructive ways of
dealing with anger are presented in the afternoon.
Having participated in this workshop, it has lifted me to another
stage of understanding. I have a neighbor with whom I am in conflict.
I discovered how I have been acting under my anger. Now I am ready
to meet with him and tell him that I have acted wrongly. I will ask
for forgiveness. Yes, I have been an evildoer.
On the third day, the trees of mistrust and trust are introduced.
This is an apt analogy for the African rural setting. The participants
list the roots, branches, and fruits (with fruits such as retaliation,
revenge, and capital punishment) of mistrust on a drawing of a tree.
They conclude by uprooting that tree. Next, they discuss the roots
and fruits of trust, eventually concluding that the bad roots need
to be replaced with good roots which then yield good fruits (rehabilitation,
When we talked about the mistrust trees, participants expressed how
the mistrust tree is real in their hearts and the consequences of such
evil. They openly manifested their willingness to uproot that mistrust
tree because it is the origin of all horrible times they passed through
We have to plant the trust tree in our hearts so that every Rwandan
can eat its delicious fruits.
The afternoon of the third day is a “trust walk” where
each participant is blindfolded and led around by another participant
and then the roles are reversed.
It was very touching, inspiring, full of love to see how survivors
and ex-prisoners were holding each other [in the trust walk] and carefully
they walked together.
By the end of these workshops, people, who only three days before
would have stayed out in the pouring rain rather than seek shelter
with their opponents, and who would have refused to ask for water when
thirsty for fear of being poisoned, now leave talking, laughing, and
inviting each other over for dinner.
I am very happy to see that the person who had the courage to hide
my husband and myself when the killers were looking and following us
is now with me in this room. We need to accept that there are trustworthy
persons within each ethnic group although we passed through horrible
At the end of a workshop, a number of things should
happen. Participants should have a good understanding of psycho-social
trauma, ability in
identifying it in themselves and others, and some basic skills to work
with traumatized individuals. The participants should have reconnected
with members of the “enemy” side and re-asserted their
common humanity. This should then bring about changes in their behavior
as they reconnect with family, neighbors, and “the other” with
a positive, empathetic, loving attitude.
After the Basic Workshop
We soon realized that one three-day workshop was not sufficient for
the healing of a person, let alone a society. The facilitators could
not conduct an emotional, liberating workshop and then just walk
away never to be heard from again. Our first strategy was to have
a follow-up day one or more months after the original workshop. During
the follow up, people shared how the original workshop affected their
When we introduced AVP in Rwanda in 2001, we made the mistake of having
a few workshops all over the country. This resulted in having no discernable
community effect. We realized that rather than hold one workshop in
a community, we needed to offer five workshops to include about one
hundred or more people. With HROC, we have continued to focus on the
communities where we began and then sometimes expanding to neighboring
communities. This would create a large enough group of trained persons
in the community so that they could provide on-going support for each
We also found that, after completing the workshops
and follow-up days, a public presentation was effective. The participants
from all the
workshops plus invited guests such as the local administrators, religious
leaders, and other notables would gather for a day of celebration.
This would include singing and dancing, poetry reading, testimonies
from participants, and the usual speech making by the notables. In
Burundi, where drumming corps are the national “sport,” there
is a drumming group to perform vigorously including not only drumming,
but also dancing and singing. The events end with a simple lunch together.
The common meal is an important aspect of the peacebuilding. For some
reason, Africans have a great fear of being poisoned. If a person gets
an intestinal disease, some one is suspected of having poisoned the
person. Consequently people are unwilling to eat with those they consider
their “enemy.” Therefore, the sharing of a meal together
becomes a visible sign of reconciliation. Surprisingly, we have found
that this tactic does not work in Kenya because the Kenyans are not
satisfied with anything less than a major feast including the slaughter
of a bull. Since this is not an efficient use of our scarce resources,
we do not have community celebrations in Kenya.
Our next step was to encourage the trainees to form
a group, which they frequently call an “association.” These groups usually
select one Tutsi and one Hutu as chairperson and vice chairperson.
Some groups still meet regularly, while others naturally fall by the
wayside. Their purpose is to continue the healing that has occurred
in the workshop, follow-up day, and community celebration and become
a force for reconciliation in the community. Some of the “graduates” of
the workshops use their newfound insights to help others recover from
trauma. This is usually their children, spouse, close family members,
I remember at one of the first community celebrations
we held in Ruyigi in Burundi, one of the participants gave this testimony.
In his community,
there was a “crazy man” who would do things like take his
clothes off and put them on top of his head, wailing. With such strange
behavior, he was ignored and avoided by the community. After the HROC
workshop, this participant decided that he would talk to the man to
see what he could find out. He found him one day and sat with him on
a log. He learned that during the fighting in 1993, this man had watched
his wife and nine children be killed. He said that whenever he saw
this man, he would stop and talk to him. While he did not become “normal,” his
behavior did improve. Another female participant commented on how there
was a mother in her community who was continually beating her ten year
old daughter because she was acting “strange.” The participants
worked with this mother and made her realize that the daughter was
showing the signs of trauma and that beating her would only make her
worse. As she counseled this woman, the mother changed her behavior
towards her daughter.
As the years have passed by, HROC did not want to neglect those with
whom we began the program. As a result, an advanced HROC workshop was
developed and is now offered a year or more after the first cycle of
basic workshop, follow-up, and community celebration has been completed.
There are also two special groups that have experienced the trauma
like everyone else but also have additional traumas. The first are
HIV+ women. Usually they have had terrible experiences during the conflicts,
but also have to deal with the stigma of being HIV+. Until recently
these women would die quickly, but with the introduction of anti-retro
viral drugs, many are living much longer. But they face extreme discrimination
and, when they show visible signs of the disease, they are ostracized
by the community - from their family, from their housing, from their
occupation if they have one, and shunned by the society. Therefore
their trauma is not in the past, but in process. An additional part
of the workshop is living successfully while HIV+. After taking part
in these workshops, the women have frequently developed support groups.
The second group is the Twa who are the third “ethnic” group
in Rwanda and Burundi. The Twa, who make up less than 1% of the population,
suffer from severe discrimination. They are marginalized by both the
Hutu and Tutsi because they lived in the forest, hunted wild animals,
buried the dead, made clay pots, and were the jesters. As a result,
they have additional traumas.
When we work with the Twa community, we begin with all Twa participants
in the HROC workshops since they do not feel free to talk if Hutu
or Tutsi are present. In Rwanda, after the initial all-Twa basic
workshops, HROC follows up with an advanced HROC workshops including
half Twa and half Tutsi/Hutu participants. We have found that not
all of our Rwandan facilitators can conduct the Twa workshops because
some cannot hide their disdain for the Twa, but we do have one excellent
Twa facilitator who helps considerably in these workshops.
Under normal circumstances, Twa will not even come to a workshop
when invited or to a meeting when called by the government. Our success
in getting them to attend is a great accomplishment for which we
have been commended by local officials.
I am frequently asked how the HROC program can work when it can affect
only a small group of participants and is not the “magic bullet” that
will solve the problems in the region. Most “magic bullets” are
top-down answers where people think that some possible resolution
to the problems can come from the government, the United Nations,
NGOs, or the international community.
I, on the contrary, am a grassroots person. For me,
what is important is what happens between two individuals or small
groups of people.
If a man attends a HROC workshop and stops beating his wife and children,
that is huge! If two neighbors who are at loggerheads can solve the
issues between them, that is important. If “enemies” can
stop avoiding each other because of mutual suspicion and can learn
to re-engage, that also is of utmost significance.
It is also very difficult to quantify the results of
these workshops. If you asked the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife
or child?” how does one validate the answer? As a result, the
major NGOs and funding organizations have been reluctant to finance
programs like the HROC workshop. This leads to a more basic question, “How
do you change people’s attitudes?” Our response in the
HROC workshops is to tap that inner good within everyone, to have confidence
that people can, on their own volition, change for the better, and
to expect divergent results from the workshop.
Lastly, there is a lesson that can apply to all of us as this participant
from North Kivu noted:
There is one exercise we did of remembering someone
who did something good to you and give thanks to that person. Through
I realized how many times I have been ungrateful, how many times I
take things for granted, thinking they are minor, therefore no need
to say, “Thank you.” From now on, I have decided to be