12 September 2017

Rwanda: Post-Genocide Trauma Could Be Inherited, Say Researchers

Photo: Nadege Imbabazi/The New Times
A visitor looks at photos of children killed during the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi at Kigali Memorial Centre in Gisozi.

Post-Genocide trauma is affecting not only survivors but also descendants through genetics, studies show.

According to researchers from the University of Rwanda's Department of Clinical Psychology, who have been conducting a study on the impact of post-Genocide trauma, it can be passed from individuals to their children.

Eugene Rubingisa, a lecturer at School of Clinical Psychology, said the study was conducted on 25 Genocide survivors who were pregnant during the pogrom and a group of 25 women who were pregnant living outside the country and whose families were not targeted.

The study was also carried out on their children after their DNA samples were taken and analysed.

"Results show a big difference between children born of survivor mothers and the others. The latter looked alike apparently, even in school they all performed well, but concerning body structure, survivors' descendants have trauma symptoms in their genes," said Rubingisa.

During Genocide commemoration, teenagers show the most symptoms of trauma, they said.

"One day I met a case of a mother who has been traumatised since 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Whenever she got into a crisis, she would go and lock herself in her room. Her child would experience all this. Shortly after, the child started to have trauma crises more serious than her mother's. When we had a conversation, the child told us he could imagine all troubles her mother went through during the Genocide and could not bear it," said Rubingisa.

The main cause of the trauma among post-Genocide generations is due to the lack of communication between parents and children, he said.

"In human kind, we feel safe when we know where we are from. We want to know our ancestors, what happened to them, and if we don't get that information from direct relatives, we tend to search it on our own, which could be more stressing," said Rubingisa.

When a person is stressed, he said, there are symptoms such as hiccups, ulcers, among others, which could bring changes to their brain.

"It could even create changes in some hormones in the body, which also changes our genes, a phenomenon called epigenetic factors," the don said.

"A parent with post-Genocide trauma risks passing it on to a child with genetic trauma symptoms."

Dr Jeannette Uwineza, a clinical psychologist and one of the five researchers who conducted the study, said as time passes, the trauma keeps manifesting and children ask many questions about the Genocide and parents aren't ready to offer satisfactory answers or simply don't have responses.

"Children need to know their history, and the main question here is to find the right method to use and it's being developed in studies to help them get the whole truth, which could help them build their future," said Uwineza.

The study was supported by Université Catholique de Louvain, Université Libre de Bruxelles, and Université de Namur in Belgium.

Charles Muligande, the UR deputy vice-chancellor for institutional advancement, said the university is sensitising citizens to know how to make the most of mental health experts.

"Rwandans still confuse mental problems with witchcraft," he said.

More than one-quarter of Rwandans have trauma, according to data gathered over the last 23 years.

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