Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”
Dr. Philippe Rieder. After defending his PhD thesis, “Comparative Politics of Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Mass Political Violence in Rwanda and Burundi” at Concordia University in 2015, Philippe Rieder left the field of genocide studies completely. He became a fashion and eyewear entrepreneur. He has recently left his company to try his luck with a professional football club. He lives in Switzerland with his family.
Melissa C. is a Burundian national who holds a degree in Arts in Modern Languages from a university in the East African region. She is a career woman in administration, currently working with a foreign mission in Bujumbura. She has extensive experience in diplomacy and research field. Her previous posts include commercial bank agent and translator for a prominent researcher. She speaks English, Swahili and French.
Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish America, The Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
[The Rwandan genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 mainly Tutsi minority citizens (77%) and some moderate Hutus were killed by their Hutu majority neighbors over just two months, famously took place in 1994 and drew international attention. The civil war in Burundi, Rwanda’s southern bordering nation, was both spillover from Rwanda’s genocide and part of Burundi’s similar ethnic and demographic issues between Hutu and Tutsi. Less internationally known and much more protracted than Rwanda’s unbelievably horrific and lightning-fast genocide, it lasted from 1993-2005, with a death toll of 300,000 on both sides—and some genocidal actions as well.
As Swiss genocide researcher Dr. Philippe Rieder and Burundian interpreter and citizen Melissa C. discuss in the interview, the two neighboring countries’ post-genocide and postwar approaches to memory and commemoration have very much differed. Similarly, political power has shaken out differently in the postwar. Despite stated policies of a post-ethnic state, the Tutsi minority is once again in power in Rwanda, despite the vast majority of that population being wiped out in the genocide. By contrast, in Burundi the Hutu majority has emerged in political power for the first time, forming the current ruling faction.]
KLM: Thank you both for being here. Full disclosure for our audience—Phil, Dr. Philippe Rieder here, ehem.
Phil and I are old and close friends. We did our PhDs together at Concordia in Montréal. We were even flatmates for a time. I came to live in his city, in his country, in Switzerland, last year for some months. And now I’m back in North America, for now.
Anyway we’ve always liked talking politics, history, current events. Or arguing. Or both.
But this is my first time meeting—we’re calling you Melissa today, right?
KLM: As you’ve explained, because we are discussing some sensitive topics—history, contemporary politics and parties, Tutsi and Hutu– and because Rwanda and Burundi are small countries, it’s best to keep you anonymous.
But we’ll be learning about your translation work, your collaboration together, and how you’ve both felt about it. So, off we go.
Phil, I’ll start with you. We were just saying this topic could be a 500-page thesis, right? This could be a twenty-minute question alone. With academics, we know we can… go on.
But if you can briefly, just to get us jumped off, tell us a little bit about the research you did, and how it led to the fieldwork. Your conclusions, your final product. I’m going to ask you, after that, what led you to choose to work on Rwanda and Burundi? But first, if you could tell us about the project itself, as in the actual academic project.
PR: It’s been some years ago. But at the beginning, it was this point that I read a lot about the genocide in Rwanda, and later also Burundi. And on one side, I did not find accounts from… that adopted a bottom-up perspective, too much. I think that in the meantime there has been done quite a bit. But, when I started out, somewhere at the beginning of the 2000s, there was nothing.
And I just wanted… I did my master’s thesis about the Swiss reaction to the genocide in Rwanda. And it didn’t let go of me. And I wanted to know– how you rebuild a society. So, my point of view was reconciliation.
And the more I read, the more I found out that Burundi is– historically, politically, and sociologically– Burundi is kind of like a twin [to Rwanda]. Very different but also, very similar situations. Which invited to look at this comparatively.
So I went to Rwanda and Burundi, and I went to four or five pretty remote villages in northern Burundi and southern Rwanda. And I talked with basically everybody I could find, with the rural dwellers, about reconciliation politics. And how they see reconciliation, how they see reconciliation politics. And I tried to compare the different approaches of Rwanda and Burundi. So that was the original framework for my fieldwork. All in all I conducted about 90 to 100 interviews.
KLM: And I think you just kind of answered that question, that the trajectory that led you to it was first your master’s thesis, that was already dealing with that region. But then what would you say led you to that part? Led you to the master’s first, in other words?
PR: That was a pretty personal thing. I have an aunt and she was in Rwanda for, I think, the Red Cross in 1994. And I was fifteen at the time. And I remember that we were terribly scared if she would survive, and if she would get out. She came out, through Burundi, but…
And she had worked in Africa all of her life. But she always told me that she would never go back to Rwanda, because what she saw there. That it was very– how to say– it was very dark. The whole thing was very dark. And she’s a very positive person.
And then a few years later in– when I studied at the University of Freiburg [Switzerland], my master’s degree, I met a guy, Gilbert. And he is a Rwandan Tutsi. And he wanted to build a non-profit organization, and I was already dealing in work like that. To build and send an ambulance to his birthplace in Burundi, which was Kirundo.
So this is also where I conducted interviews afterwards, because I wanted to see what happened with the project. And, I needed a place to start somewhere. And then [seeing Gilbert again] I wanted to interview him just basically because I was interested– how he felt about the genocide. And well, it was a huge fiasco. He had kind of a breakdown.
And after this point it was just like I was kind of triggered. I really wanted to know because I thought this was– it was just incomprehensible. The whole thing was completely incomprehensible to me. I just did not, could not wrap my head around the point that at some point, more than half of the population would stand up and decide to kill the other half, more or less.
Well, this is very simplified. This is not exactly what happened. But still I wanted to know why this happened.
And so I dedicated my master’s thesis to it. And because I couldn’t do fieldwork in my master’s thesis, I dedicated my master’s thesis to the Swiss reaction to it. But I still could not wrap my head around it. So I was still just… it really– it bothered me.
I just wanted to know. How does this happen? Why does it happen? And when it happens, what can you do to basically rebuild the society? And how do you make peace in such a situation?
PR: And that was the point where I thought… I read a lot of books and none of them could give me the witness accounts. It was all basically from other academics.
KLM: Ah, yes.
PR: So I thought: if you really want to find out, you need to go there and you need to ask the people themselves.
KLM: Okay, right. And by the way– did your aunt, in the end, did she move back to Europe or did she stay in Africa?
PR: She moved back to Europe, but she went to Africa again later. And, yeah, now, she’s here [in Switzerland].
KLM: Okay. Melissa, so if you can tell us a little bit: where do you live? What is your current profession? And at the time you worked with Phil, what was your role, and how did you get into it?
MC: Like we said, you can call me Melissa today. I’m actually in Bujumbura, Burundi. I have also lived around five years in Rwanda for my studies, when I was in university for my bachelor’s degree. So now I’m actually working with an embassy of a western country, in Bujumbura, as an assistant. And that time we met…
PR: That satisfies my question from before we started the interview! Since we haven’t been in touch in some years. That’s what I wanted to ask at the beginning, what you were doing now!
MC: Yes. Embassy work!
PR: Sorry to interrupt.
KLM: That’s okay! Melissa, go ahead.
MC: Yeah, and when I met Philip, it was back in 2011. And I was just back from school. And they told me, I was told… he called me and said: I need a translator, I need an interpreter, during interviews. I’m going upcountry. I will be doing interviews on civil war in Burundi and in Rwanda. I said: I’m free.
But I can tell you– Philippe taught me Burundian history.
He is the one who taught me!
MC: It was really a very good adventure, I enjoyed it a lot. We met many people. And, if I go back… when we were at school, the Burundian history goes back, but just up to 1962. So we don’t know anything about history after 1962.
So everything I was hearing about was brand new to me.
MC: And, but then Philippe knew everything.
They… we would ask questions. We would ask questions, and then people would say: you know, back in ‘59. And I was wondering what happened in ‘59. And then Philippe would say: no, go on. Go on, I’m fine.
MC: So it was like– really, I didn’t know anything. I’m actually– if I could talk about my ethnic group? I don’t mind talking about it because, I’m… I was raised in a way that, you know, I’m not sure of my ethnic group. There’s nothing that says you are born Tutsi or Hutu. There’s no characteristic, specific characteristic, that I would say. But I heard I’m a Tutsi. That’s what I heard, like back from when I was a kid. And then in our quarter in Bujumbura, we didn’t talk too much about politics, about war or anything. So.
And then Bujumbura, in my quarter where I lived, it was somehow far from other quarters where there were maybe some things, some political security issues that happened back in ‘93. I can remember we were hearing about it. We were seeing it on TV. Some people were fleeing their homes, my cousins living in Musaga or in other places. They were coming to our home because the security issue in their quarter was not good. But then at that time, I didn’t understand anything.
So I’m still– I’m still learning. Every day I learn. But I learned really many things that time with Philippe back in 2011. Because I didn’t know about ’88, I didn’t know about ‘72. I didn’t know about history, Burundian history.
And then even what we got, me and Philippe, what we got from the interviews: when you talk with a Tutsi person who might be giving this information, and then you talk to a Hutu person giving quite different information. And then we don’t even know if– what is right and what is wrong.
KLM: Right, yes.
MC: I don’t know, with the end of the study, if Philippe could get any answer.
KLM: Well, yes– when you’re dealing with human subjects and people are telling you different stories, right. How do you draw a narrative, and how do you come to a conclusion with that?
MC: Yeah, exactly.
PR: I think there is always quite a lot of overlap. Even in conflicting stories. And, for me it was just– I thought that this was the interesting part of it. Because I always had the feeling that contrary to Rwanda, in Burundi at least people talked about it. They also talked about having conflicting narratives, somehow.
I mean, one of the most funny anecdotes I remember with Melissa was– as she said, the community sometimes, in Burundi, they were quite separated [from conflict]. And at one point she told me: if you would have told me that we are going to sit at a table with ex-guerillas, I wouldn’t have agreed to do this.
KLM: Right. Phil, do you think… so you both saw the original sheet for this series, which is the idea of speaking to people who do what I’m calling traumawork. People who do work in society that people– other people, most people– don’t want to do. That most people don’t want to think of.
I think, Melissa, there’s a reason why history is not centered in most places, most countries, but especially places that have a history of war. People… my premise here is that most people want to live their lives. They want to have children, they want to have an enjoyable life. And people don’t exactly enjoy thinking about these things.
And so, Phil, the first question, from an academic perspective. Would you consider what you did traumawork? And if so– well, you already talked about it a little. You were saying it was incomprehensible to you and that’s why you wanted to get to the bottom of it. But, why do you think that some academics are drawn to painful, depressing topics that can cause them stress themselves?
So I’m thinking about my work as a feminist researcher working on rape, working on misogyny, working on sexual assault, sexual harassment, systems of abuse of women. I’m thinking about Holocaust scholars. I’m thinking about– why do some of us do this really kind of unpleasant work? What’s the reason that we go that way when, my joke is, we could all be doing medieval chamber music to write a PhD. We could all be writing about the history of animation, right?
So why do some of us do this tough stuff? And why did you do it? And do you consider it work in trauma, as an academic?
PR: It’s a big, big question.
PR: Because on one side, would I consider it traumawork? I think yes. But, I think it was more traumawork for the interviewees than it was for me.
I had the feeling that it was– for quite a few interviewees, it was cathartic in some kind of way. I had a lot of people who told me after the interviews that they were so glad that they were able to tell their story to an outsider, someone who is from far away. So they could tell their story, and it’s out there. But it’s not “what I would discuss with the neighbors”.
KLM: Right, right.
PR: Because with the neighbors, there is always this thing about– you have to live together. You occupy the same space. So you try to reconcile. And if reconciliation requires you to shut your mouth, basically you shut it, because it’s just easier to get along with each other.
But, I mean, those are horrible, horrible stories sometimes. And they, they’re bottled up inside. And I had the feeling that it was actually– for me, it was a rewarding experience. I had the feeling that it did help these people.
And also, I have to say that– I did not press on. Like if somebody was blocking and he didn’t want to talk more about certain stuff, I wouldn’t press on.
PR: I had some guys where, other people in the village told me that they were murderers. And I tried to ask them about the killing. And that’s a point, that’s a topic where most of the people did not want to talk about. And I let them. I just said: yeah, okay, good. I let him tell his story, and not– you know, press on and try to get my story out of it.
What draws you to it? I think like my PhD advisor, Frank Chalk, whom you know, he said it in the best way. What drives a person to be a doctor? Most doctors that I know, they just like to help people, and it’s kind of their nature.
And Frank said, being a genocide scholar is pretty similar. You see the cancer. And so you go and you see the cancer and you try to find out… Probably a doctor is the wrong thing to say. But say, somebody who does medical research. You look at a sickness, but it’s a sickness of the societal body. And, well, you try your best to find out where it comes from, what the symptoms are, and what you can do against it.
PR: So I always had this astronaut’s view of my topic. Even when I was in Rwanda and when I was in Burundi, I always looked at it like a doctor would look at it. I thought: yeah, this is the specific point. There is no sense for me to take anybody’s side here. I’m just trying to find out what the problem is. And who thinks what about what the problem is.
On the other side, I have to say that I finished my PhD, but I did not stay in the field.
KLM: Right. That’s been a big factor for you, your trajectory away from it.
PR: After one year of fieldwork, more or less, I also– I had a pretty tough situation at home in Switzerland. And I also had enough. I felt like I wanted to do something for a period of time that has nothing to do with murder and killing. Just to have… different.
And then my friends came along and they said: we are doing a fashion company [in Switzerland]. Do you want to join us? And at first I felt: yeah, I could do this for half a year and then go back to Canada and continue this work from my studies. And then in the end, the fashion company ended up being my career for years, basically.
PR: But I’m not that, how to say, unhappy about it, leaving– because the traumawork, it does take a toll on you. It is difficult to do this– you need to have a kind of a sense of mission. I always doubted if I have enough sense of purpose and sense of mission to take this on as a lifelong career. This is one thing.
And yeah, well, the other thing is that… it is the historian’s dilemma.
I tell it like this… I saw some things coming, that I wrote about in my dissertation. As in, some of the [troubling] developments that have been going on in Rwanda and Burundi now were pretty clear in 2011 already. And I thought: if nothing changes course, it will come to this. And then it came to this. And you just sit there and you think: yeah.
KLM: Yeah. Sigh.
We’ve talked about that many times, right? That we are Cassandras. Historians are Cassandras. And it’s maddening.
KLM: When you feel like you [as a historian] can see what’s coming, and people aren’t listening. For sure.
One more question on those points. And then I’m going to switch over to Melissa. But Phil, would you say then– so take this question of secondary trauma for researchers.
Do you think that you experienced… you just kind of alluded to it, right? You had enough. It was a lot of death and murder and dealing with difficult topics, to the point where you rather felt like not doing that for the rest of your life. Right?
Would you consider it secondary trauma? Or did you ever feel that, when you were interviewing people or listening to these stories, you had to sort of protect yourself– and that your own mental or even physical space were important to consider?
PR: I always had the feeling that I was pretty detached. It didn’t bother me that much during the interviews. There were some interviews, especially in one Burundian community, where displaced people lived, that were pretty tough.
But I always had the feeling that: you know, I’m here to write about this and I’m here to look at this problem. So, I had quite a distance. I never had the feeling that I needed counseling for this kind of stuff.
So I think the secondary trauma– I think you have to be the person for it, somewhat.
MC: Yeah. I think so, too.
KLM: Right, I see.
PR: For example if you… there were a lot of horrible stories. And I think if you are somebody who is very empathic, for example, and feels for people very much, it might be too tough to take on. For me, it was just really this scientific interest. That sounds horrible, and I know. But it was to, also to shield myself.
KLM: Right, exactly. It doesn’t sound horrible.
PR: One other thing I remember is, the funny thing about the whole traumawork, was that– I had a much more negative outlook on humanity before I started doing fieldwork than after.
Because really I came away with the feeling that, basically, humans are very, very resilient. And, well, somehow it always– there is always a way out. There is always, I don’t know, a silver lining? Time heals all wounds. People are not that horrible.
And even when you hear the most horrible stories, you also hear the stories of how people dealt with them, and reconciled, and built new existences out of the ashes. And that was– for me, that was the crazy thing. So a lot of people always said to me: if you study genocide, don’t you just lose all hope in humanity, because of the horrible things that are going on?
KLM: Right. Exactly. One of my questions, more or less.
PR: And for me, it was kind of really the other way around. I always felt that okay, genocide does happen, civil war does happen, and horrible, horrible things do happen. But it’s also– there are always stories of humanity. There are always stories of resilience, and of rebuilding. And most humans are quite amazing!
KLM: That’s a really interesting answer, and a way to take it. And that’s anice segue to Melissa, too.
So, Melissa– it’s a very different case for you. It’s your– you’re not coming there to do research. You can’t have that same detachment. You have family, you have friends, you have tribal histories, you live in this community.
So first of all, as far as your biography– how did you relate to the work you were doing, when you were going to these places and doing the work?
And also, would you consider it working in trauma? Would you consider it doing traumatic work that was difficult or uncomfortable?
MC: Considering it trauma– maybe as Philippe said, on the side of the other person. But as I said before, I was learning quite many things. It gave me another, the other side of the… the other people’s point of view. Because there were the Tutsi people talking about their history, much of it I didn’t know. And the Hutu people, who are saying something like the opposite. And then I was wondering: I don’t know my country? I was thinking: what’s really happening?
So it helped me question myself, and question the politics. Politics and history. And then, I don’t think it has affected me a lot, but I did like the way I learned many things. Like now, when I’m talking about politics, when I’m talking with people, I know more.
And since then, now, many things have changed.
Now the other party [Hutu] is ruling the country [in Burundi] and they are somehow– the way they are reacting shows, the way they are ruling shows what they have been through. And I understand them more than what– how I would be understanding them if I didn’t go through that, those interviews. And if I didn’t meet those people. Now I understand why they are doing this.
I said: okay. What’s different between Burundi and Rwanda? What’s different is that Burundians express themselves. So, you see it, you hear it. They [the Hutu ruling party] say: now it’s our turn. They’re really emphasizing it. It’s our turn. You have been doing this and that to us. You have been… we have gone through this.
I remember one teacher. That there was a [Hutu] woman, a teacher we met, with Philippe. And she was very intelligent. And so I was really impressed. And then, she told us she wanted to be a doctor. But she didn’t get the opportunity because of her ethnic group. So this really touched me. And I said, and I wondered: what did these people do to the other people?
And so– I felt really good after the interviews. I really liked them. I don’t know if I could call it trauma, but if so it would be looking into trauma in a positive way.
KLM: Yes, I see.
MC: Because I learned about my country. I learned that… how people felt. Whether they will be T people– we call them T or H.
Like sometimes when we are with the other.
KLM: Yeah. Like a code.
MC: Yeah, like a code. Sometimes we say, you know: that T person is doing this. Or that H.
Yeah. T and H. So we really– we are learning. Every single day, we are learning. H people, what they have been through– like they didn’t get much education. So they had the opportunities after. People of my generation, H people, now they have been to school, they have done university, and now we are all working together.
But, so when we talk, when we chat, you see that they have some grievings in their lives. And then we remember how we have been as kids, and we said maybe we have been, maybe not kind with them. Sometimes we wonder.
And I don’t know what they think about us. But they are really proud that they are educated now, and they are showing it. And they are making their best to teach their children, and teaching them history. What we might not be doing! They are teaching their children that: we have been through this and this. You have to work hard. You have to do your best to be the best, to be the president, to be, to rule a party, to be at the top.
So I wouldn’t maybe– I wouldn’t say it has been some traumawork, but I learned a lot. And then, I appreciated it a lot.
KLM: And so, just as Phil talked about– less of the emphasis being on you as the listener and the person doing the interviews, and more feeling that there was a catharsis for the people you’re listening to.
Because it’s your area and your region and you’re not an outside researcher, did you have a sense that by taking part in this work, you’re taking part in healing, from– helping to heal the conflict, and helping to heal some of these divisions? Catharsis and healing?
You say you had a sense that when you were listening to the interviews that it was helping the people to tell their stories. So it’s less about how you’re feeling while you’re listening, and more that you’re doing them a service in a way? So it’s more of a positive thing than a negative thing to listen to their stories.
MC: Well, yes. Because the people could express themselves. Sometimes maybe I may have shown that I was hearing it was really good for them. They appreciated a lot, they were happy to talk to somebody.
But at the same time, too, they were– if the person was from the other ethnic group, they were really checking if I’m giving the right information. To Philippe.
KLM: Melissa, do you think– did you ever experience what we might call secondary trauma? Did you ever feel afraid, or really uncomfortable or, like “I don’t really want to do this anymore”? Or, “it’s too upsetting for me”? Or, it really was mostly a learning and okay experience for you?
MC: I loved it. I think it was a really good experience, talking to those people and then learning what they have been through. Learning about history.
And I think that what you guys are doing will help people write about history. Burundian history or Rwandan history. So I think it’s really helpful.
But for me, I don’t think I have been through secondary trauma. I was really fine. I was still young. It was an experience. An experience for me to hear about history.
KLM: That’s great. And a bit unexpected, for me! In this project.
I wanted to go on a little side note.
Phil, we’ve talked before about– and I think you met him in Montréal in genocide studies circles at MIGS [the Montréal Institute for Genocide Studies] at Concordia, or you did some work on him— Roméo Dallaire. And the film about him and his book and everything.
[Dallaire is a now-retired Canadian general who was in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1994 when the genocide broke out. Famously unable to stop the slaughter, in his post-military work as public speaker and writer he has been open about the severe depression and PTSD with which he was left after his experiences in Rwanda, and his multiple suicide attempts.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Random House, 2003; Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, CBC documentary, 2004; Shake Hands with the Devil, fictionalized feature film, 2007.]
And so I was thinking about Dallaire, when you think about trauma and secondary trauma, right?
And so, one of the reasons that he talks about why he dealt with so much mental health strain, and so many issues after, was because as an outsider and as somebody who was a high-level person in the world community, he tried to stop what was happening and he couldn’t stop it.
But also that, while it was happening, and after it happened, he had this sense that people didn’t care, that there was a hopelessness. That this horrible, horrible thing had happened, and that the rest of the world was just going on with their lives, basically.
So obviously you were there after the fact, and not before or during. But do you think that when there is darkness or depression in all this sort of work, is there the sense that: I know things that other people don’t know, and maybe they don’t want to know, and there’s a kind of hopelessness in that?
I know you said actually you felt it to be positive for you, because you found the silver lining in people growing and changing and learning and healing. But do you think that part of why this work can be difficult is sort of– like there’s a sense sometimes of shouting into the void, right?
Like what you said. The historian’s dilemma. Sometimes things happen and we can’t stop them. And then, once we do talk about them, people sometimes seem to say: okay, I’m going to watch reality TV now. That aspect is what I wanted to ask you about.
PR: Well, but Roméo Dallaire’s trauma is as direct as it gets. You know. I mean, he was there at the time, as you said, he tried to stop it. Well, they literally killed his soldiers.
KLM: Yeah, good point. I guess his trauma couldn’t or shouldn’t be called “secondary”, for sure.
PR: But me– I was more of a researcher. I just– as I said, I came more than, what was it? Around sixteen years after. Or not. Almost twenty.
And, yeah. I think that this has a lot to do with the sense of purpose that I talked about before. I think that, if you go into a topic to the point where it defines your existence– where you’re not just a researcher anymore, but in fact you become an activist because this is very dear to your heart– I think at that point it will most probably become traumatic, at some point. Because that’s what I meant with the shouting into the void. What you said. This is– yeah. It can be very frustrating when you’re looking into a topic of contemporary history.
And what Melissa said with the CNDD-FDD, the ruling party right now [Burundian political party The National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy]. Already in 2011, it looked very much like, that at some point, they would just grab power and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I was horrified that this might actually just refresh the conflict. The ethnic conflict.
What has happened is something in between. I think Melissa knows much better than me, but I think the conflict nowadays is much more political. Probably it’s more of opposition and government. But the point that this ex-guerrilla movement would at some point do away with the remnants of this fledgling democracy was clear, pretty much at the outset.
And I have to say– I’m not, let’s say, personally involved enough in Burundian politics that this has traumatized me. But of course, if I read the newspapers, if I just listen to the radio, I just did the other day about some of the mechanisms– of course I get really angry about that whole thing! But it’s not comparable to somebody who actually lives through it.
KLM: Right. Melissa. Along those lines, of closest to home.
So somebody else that I’m interviewing in this series. She’s an Indian therapist, and she works with children who have lived through war. And she also was a lot in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in 2004. And she was in communities where the whole community was wiped out. And so people are incredibly in shock. They’ve lost every single thing. They’ve lost all their neighbors, et cetera.
And she said something interesting to me… she said: you know, I want to be interviewed and I want to be in this series. But to me, the concept of trauma itself, it’s very white and western, really, because it’s– she said the people there think more in terms of rebuilding the community.
And she was saying– she said: I’m trained as a therapist, but in western methods. And so even though I see this cultural disconnect, even though I’m not white myself, I don’t know a better word to use either.
Because I had said: right, after all trauma comes from ancient Greek. It comes from the word “wound”. So trauma is very individual, in the way that we’ve learned about Freud and all this sort of theory.
And she was saying there should be a better word for how communities deal with things. That there’s a difference between dealing with the individual and the person, and dealing with the community.
So, in that sense, would you say that in Rwanda and Burundi there, is the society itself “traumatized”?
And/or: certain communities, certain cultures seem to be better at growing and coming back from trauma, where others really bury it and there’s a lot of pain. So how would you see life there now, and how does it compare? As in, where is the trauma? Is there trauma? Are people living with trauma, or is it a pretty happy society? What’s the communal aspect of trauma there, after what has happened?
MC: Burundi and Rwanda have been through almost the same things, but they really didn’t react the same. Because Rwandans, they have– they are traumatized. They are living it. They recognize it, and they are dealing with it.
Whereas in Burundi, it’s quite different. We don’t even think about it. We have to live. People are wondering: where will I get food? How will I nourish my kids? How will I live tomorrow? More than thinking about what happened in the past.
In Rwanda, the history, they are teaching them, every single day, teaching the kids. Like today at twelve years, kids know about genocide. Whereas my kids will never know about it. I don’t think they will even learn about civil war, or anything about it. They don’t know about it. So, they are two different countries.
Talking about Burundi? The word “trauma” doesn’t even exist.
MC: I always tell my colleagues, like North Americans, Europeans, that we don’t know depression, we don’t know… we don’t consider it, we don’t give those words value. So even if the person is depressed, the person will never know it. The family will never know it, and the society will not consider it. And so I would say: I wouldn’t know how to talk about trauma in Burundi.
But what I like about Burundians, they live. They live their daily lives. They have to live. So even if, like today, the ruling party is the CNDD-FDD, or the H people, they are ruling the country. But there is someone, in the side country somewhere. He is an H person, but he’s very poor, and he’s wondering how to feed his kids. So he wouldn’t think about politics at that time because he’s only worried about his family.
MC: Yeah. So, I think that’s what I would say about trauma in Burundi. Maybe when we were dealing with those people interviewing them and they were talking, we could see trauma in them. Some– there were those displaced people [from Rwanda] in Ngozi [Burundi]. Ruhororo, I think, Philippe?
PR: Yeah, exactly.
MC: Those people, when you heard them, they were really depressed. They were traumatized. They were living in that area. There was no more war in their region. But they preferred to stay there. Because they didn’t think they could live back in their homes, and so they preferred to stay in that displaced area. So, you could see that they are traumatized and they really need help. But I don’t think they are getting it.
KLM: Well, I think that’s most of what I wanted to cover. I had a couple more questions– about what kind of a person do you need to be to be able to do this work?
But I think Phil kind of covered that with: well first, you need a sense of detachment. And Melisssa, from you I get, you also need a sense of… joy. Or a sense that life goes on, and so you have to live your normal life.
And if you become too preoccupied, then you do end up kind of, Phil, like Roméo Dallaire. If it consumes you, you will become depressed.
But if you can keep it as: I’m doing something that helps other people, and I can go on and I can go back to my family, then it seems like there’s– that’s the guard against secondary trauma, I think is what you’re both saying. So when you have a sense that you’ve done something useful for other people, and also that you’re not so close to it that it’s consuming you, I think, right?
Phil, do you want to say any last bit on either that, or anything at all? Melissa?
MC: Just something about– there’s something about this one person, he was my classmate, that connects here.
He was from Ruhororo [the displaced persons’ camps]. I didn’t know at that time, because it was back in secondary school. I didn’t know at that time about his history. So when I met those people in Ruhororo, that’s when I understood him.
Because he was someone who was like, if in class, he will get a B, he would say: you know, the teacher didn’t give me an A because I’m an H person. So, all the time he was– he had that reaction that I didn’t understand. I would say: you know, what you wrote wasn’t perfect. So the teacher has to have a point of view about that! But him saying: no, no, no, he did this because… And then in another class: you know, it is because I’m an H person. All the time he was talking about that.
Later on, I was telling him when– after university we met, after even the interviews with Philippe and everything, we met. And then I told him: you know, you have to find something good, something good for you to make you live, want to live and everything. So that time he met his girlfriend, and he got married. Today, he is the best, the most happy person in the world. He has a kid. He has forgotten about all the things.
But if I could tell him how he was in secondary school. He was like a depressed person, all the time he was depressed. He would say: if this doesn’t happen to me, it’s because of this. If I’m not lucky in life, it’s because of this. Then I told him: you have to be positive. Be positive. If you are positive, things will come. You will be happy. And today he is really a happy person.
PR: Yeah, that’s exactly what… I’m really happy that that Melissa brought that up because that’s like my takeaway of it, too. Because trauma is not something that just happens. It’s also something that can be cherished, and brought with you wherever you go.
It’s like sometimes with the remembrance ceremonies in Rwanda, I had the feeling that some– not even the persons that were affected, but the persons who profited from it politically– wore it like a medal. You know what I mean?
It’s just like if you look at the Balkans, like ex-Yugoslavia. You still have huge conflict because this is the way trauma has found its way into national history and it gets cherished there. You know? It’s just like the story, the narrative that is told, is that the other side took something from us, and this is why we are miserable. And there is no way out of this except if we do this– if we right the wrongs.
If you look at how crazy the situation is in Israel and Palestine– this is vastly oversimplifying things. I’m absolutely aware of that. But, it does also have a lot to do with the trauma, and how it got handed down from situation to situation.
And I mean, there is something to say for what Melissa said about Burundians, that they just live. And that they have too much occupied with their day-to-day, to actually think too much about who wronged whom in the past.
On the other side, there is always the fear and the danger that things are just pushed down—
PR: –from immediate problems and will boil up again at some point, when the day-to-day might be easier. Who knows?
KLM: Yeah, that’s that was one of my bigger questions before, that I’ve already mentioned a little, is: some cultures really seem to move on, and other ones, things fester.
And again, going back to– the word is like “wound”, right? So why are some people so caught in a cycle of grievance that it leads to huge levels of mental health problems in the population, and violence in the population? And other countries seem to bounce back in a different way. There’s something cultural there, for sure.
But, I’m happy to hear that it’s a more cheerful story than we might expect to get from both of you. Really.
PR: I don’t know, it’s– perhaps it’s just also I still believe that I still have a little bit of a guilty conscience at kind of abandoning the job, at some point. I mean, I finished my PhD. There is no obligation for me to work in this environment.
But yeah, I do respect people a lot who take this work on. And sometimes I feel, you know, perhaps I was just not strong enough for that kind of work. And to dedicate my life to it. Because as you said in the beginning, it is difficult to deal with conflict on a very, very brutal level every day. So, yeah, that’s that.
KLM: Right. Melissa, any last word from you? I think we’ve kind of covered everything I wanted to ask both of you. Anything else?
MC: I tried to say how Burundi has been dealing with civil war, and Rwanda is still in civil war. It’s really hard to find the best thing to do with civil war. As with trauma, to deal with trauma.
As we said, in Burundi, we are living every day. Maybe, as Philippe said, I don’t know if one day life would be easier for everybody. But we are living every day worried about the future.
Where in Rwanda, from what I see– that’s the reason why I left Rwanda. I told them: you know, you guys are not happy. I can’t live here. People are not happy.
Because there were like– every two weeks of April [in the annual genocide commemoration weeks] the country was so dark. The H people would be that time, during those two weeks, the H people, thinking about why they did this, why their families did this. Whereas, the Tutsi people were saying: you did this to us. You killed us.
And a kid, a kid who is not aware of anything because the kid was not there. But now he is being taught the other person’s really a victim. So, I don’t know if this is a good thing.
Because up to now in Rwanda– the T people are like: we are ruling the country, and like they are the only people in it. And the H people are somehow left to the side.
Whereas in Burundi now, we know there are H people, there are T people. But even if those two are there, it’s the time for H people. I don’t know if there will be again time for T people because– I don’t see if they will get one day power, to go back into power, to be the ruling party.
But another big difference. Today, in all political parties, in all things here in Burundi, in all families, we are all mixed up. We have H people, we have T people. We are mixed up at a point that if– you know, if sometimes maybe they say genocide is happening again, they want to kill the other person. You would have to kill your sister or your brother, because we are all mixed up. So, I don’t know if that has been the best way to deal with this. Or the Rwandan way, to nourish that genocide, that memory and history, is the best way to do it.
But trauma is still trauma.
KLM: Yeah. Thank you. That’s a really nice way to end, I think. And– Phil, that was a big part of your thesis, right? Comparing the two societies and how they dealt with the– how they went in two different directions in dealing with this. But Melissa is living it. And so, it’s not just academic.
PR: No, it’s not.
KLM: You’re actually, Melissa, you’re seeing it, and you’re saying I prefer to live in this country because it feels different than in this country, just across the border. So I think that’s super interesting.
Thank you both. I think it’s a really nice perspective and a mix of living there, working there, researching there, still living there, going home. I think the two of you really complement each other. I think you’re the only interview I’m doing that I have two people. And I really wanted that. So I think it was a good idea.
PR: I think that’s– I also liked it very much that I got to talk with Melissa again after all these years.
MC: Yeah. Me too.