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Open Access Research

Rwanda – lasting imprints of a genocide: trauma, mental health and psychosocial conditions in survivors, former prisoners and their children

Heide Rieder* and Thomas Elbert

Author Affiliations

Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany

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Conflict and Health 2013, 7:6  doi:10.1186/1752-1505-7-6

Published: 26 March 2013

Abstract

Background

The 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda left about one million people dead in a period of only three months. The present study aimed to examine the level of trauma exposure, psychopathology, and risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in survivors and former prisoners accused of participation in the genocide as well as in their respective descendants.

Methods

A community-based survey was conducted in four sectors of the Muhanga district in the Southern Province of Rwanda from May to July 2010. Genocide survivors (n = 90), former prisoners (n = 83) and their respective descendants were interviewed by trained local psychologists. The PTSD Symptom Scale Interview (PSS-I) was used to assess PTSD, the Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL-25) to assess symptoms of depression and anxiety and the relevant section of the M.I.N.I. to assess the risk for suicidality.

Results

Survivors reported that they had experienced on average twelve different traumatic event types in comparison to ten different types of traumatic stressors in the group of former prisoners. According to the PSS-I, the worst events reported by survivors were mainly linked to witnessing violence throughout the period of the genocide, whereas former prisoners emphasized being physically attacked, referring to their time spent in refugee camps or to their imprisonment. In the parent generation, when compared to former prisoners, survivors indicated being more affected by depressive symptoms (M = 20.7 (SD = 7.8) versus M = 19.0 (SD = 6.4), U = 2993, p < .05) and anxiety symptoms (M = 17.2 (SD = 7.6) versus M = 15.4 (SD = 7.8), U = 2951, p < .05) but not with regard to the PTSD diagnosis (25% versus 22%, χ2(1,171) = .182, p = .669).

A regression analysis of the data of the parent generation revealed that the exposure to traumatic stressors, the level of physical illness and the level of social integration were predictors for the symptom severity of PTSD, whereas economic status, age and gender were not. Descendants of genocide survivors presented with more symptoms than descendants of former prisoners with regard to all assessed mental disorders.

Conclusions

Our study demonstrated particular long-term consequences of massive organized violence, such as war and genocide, on mental health and psychosocial conditions. Differences between families of survivors and families of former prisoners accused for participation in the Rwandan genocide are reflected in the mental health of the next generation.

Keywords:
Rwanda; PTSD; Anxiety; Depression; Risk factors; Genocide survivors; Former prisoners; Descendants