The Genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Burundi and a series of brutal and protracted wars in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have scarred Africa’s Great Lakes Region and its people. Millions have been killed, subjected to human rights violations and displaced because of these events. However, over the last four years six rehabilitation centres across the three countries worked together to empower victims of torture to overcome the trauma of their past and become actively involved in their communities once more.
Rehabilitating victims of torture so they can rebuild their lives and their sense of community is not an easy task. Yet six centres in the Great Lakes Region have empowered thousands of torture victims by taking a holistic and community-based rehabilitation approach.
The centres were all part of a four-year project funded by the EU aiming to empower victims of torture through different rehabilitation approaches. Reigniting a sense of community was at the core of all of the centres’ activities, with a special focus on reaching out to rural areas and to the secondary victims of torture who are often forgotten – husbands, wives, children, friends and neighbours.
An important aspect of the project was social counselling. The six centres helped set up more than 100 community-based social counselling groups, which enabled up to 15 members to meet once a week and share their experiences with their friends and neighbours.
For one torture victim in the DRC, the counselling groups were a life changing experience. “My life has become normal again, little by little, as the social counselling sessions advanced. My mental problems which disturbed me so much have become fewer and fewer. With the social counselling group, I started to win my life back. I started to earn a little bit of money and can provide for my family again. I am again invited to community meetings and when I make suggestions they are considered.”
As well as improving the physical and mental health of participants, social counselling groups can also empower victims of torture financially. financial benefits. Of the 100 groups set up by the six centres, some of them had a specific focus onincome generating activity groups (IGAs).
Over 2,982 people participated or continue to participate in income generating activity groups; rearing goats, growing vegetables, manufacturing soap and much more. They can now provide for their families and escape the cycle of poverty and social exclusion which once defined them.
Many of the groups have also gone on to become co-operatives where the entire community gets involved. Some have taken up watermelon farming, which is an ideal cash crop for the region. Taking just three months to harvest, one watermelon has the same value as 3kg of maize and can be exported around the world.
One victim in particular who started growing watermelon in 2014, harvested two million Rwandan Francs worth in his second season. He is now working full time, has bought his own motor cycle and his business continues to grow.
J.I. from Rwanda is part of one of the IGAs. “In my village there were 15 families like mine, where children were the head of household. We got together and started a bee-keeping project.
“With our profits, we bought a piece of land with trees. My brothers and sisters could all go to school and we had enough food every day.”
To read more about the activities undertaken in the region, download the Great Lakes Project Report here.