Alfred Munyentwari has been the National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Rwanda since May 1995. We asked him about caring for traumatized children after the genocide, identity in children who survive genocide, and what he is proud of after heading SOS Children’s Villages Rwanda for almost 20 years.
How did SOS Children’s Villages Rwanda respond to the trauma the surviving children had experienced?
The children who survived the genocide witnessed terrible things. One child at the age of 12 couldn’t leave his room at night because he thought he would be killed. He was traumatized. We called in psychologists and child care specialists to help this boy and all the affected children understand that the danger was gone.
The same fear came up when kids were supposed to go to school. “Why go to school? When I go to school, I will be killed. My mother was a teacher. She went to school and was killed. I will never go to school.” This is how the children interpreted what had happened.
How is identity being taught to children now?
For us, children are children. To be a Hutu is not a value. To be a Tutsi is not a value. The value is what you bring to the society. You will not be favored or disadvantaged because you are one or the other. To be Rwandan is more valuable than to be Hutu or Tutsi.
The adults need to understand this first. That’s why I think the current campaign by the government, the ‘I am Rwandan’ campaign, targets adults. We have to reconcile and build a new Rwanda.
When people see that they are judged by their talents, skills, and abilities and not according to whether they are Hutu or Tutsi – and when water, electricity, education, and training are provided to all Rwandans, that will mean a reconciliation that goes far beyond political speeches. In fact, achieving those things is the only path to reconciliation. This is the message adults need to pass on to children.
What in particular are you proud of relating to the care of SOS Children’s Villages Rwanda for genocide survivors?
Some children were severely injured, many were traumatized. We did our best to support their healing and to help them overcome the trauma. We were also able to send those who needed it to receive intensive care in Kenya, South Africa, and Germany. There were a few very complicated cases. For example, a few children were not able to follow instructions in school due to trauma. Whatever we tried, we failed. My heart is broken when I think about them. In general though, we have done quite a lot.
Are you still in touch with some of the children who were brought to SOS Children’s Villages Rwanda immediately after the genocide and who are now adults?
Yes, we are. In Rwandan culture, giving someone a cow is the most respected way of showing gratitude. David, a former SOS child, brought a cow for his younger brothers and sisters in the Village so that they would have milk every day. We have received many such gifts. Our alumni are still very close to us.
Twenty years from now, what kind of adults will today’s SOS children become?
Whether immediately after the genocide or today, we have the same message for the children: to grow up in the SOS Children’s Village is an opportunity for you, do not miss it. Get the most from this. Go to school. Be self-reliant and hard working. Become an independent person. Gain and let others gain as well. Learn from history.