The stories behind the National Geographic photographs: Healing Our Communities

updated June 2021

We were excited to collaborate with National Geographic on an article within their April 2018 special issue—“The Race Issue.” The article, Why Do We See So Many Things as ‘Us vs. Them’?, features two photographs of participants in our Healing Our Communities program in Rwanda.

Healing Our Communities was a collaborative 2016-2019 effort among Karuna Center and three Rwandan organizations: Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), Institute for Research and Dialogue for Peace (IRDP), and the Rwandan office of Aegis Trust. The project successfully worked within 16 to create strong, ongoing social infrastructures for peace & reconciliation. By the time the project drew to a formal close in late 2019, there were dialogue clubs with facilitators trained from within each community, energetic clubs of youth volunteers, and peer-to-peer support networks for healing from psychological trauma.

​When Marie and Boniface became involved in the Healing Our Communities program, they shared an unspeakably painful story. Following the genocide, Boniface had confessed to assisting with the killing of Marie’s children during the massacres. Boniface served nine years in prison for genocide crimes and, after his release, returned to being Marie’s neighbor. The two lived side by side by necessity, but in silence and fear.

After long-term trauma healing work with facilitators from HROC (one of four organizations collaborating in the Healing Our Communities program), Marie and Boniface became a team of “Healing Companions” who guide others in their community through the process of healing from genocide trauma. Their joint leadership has provided a living example of reconciliation that is helping others find healing and peace.​

After the first three days of a basic trauma healing training led by HROC in December 2016, Boniface confessed his past feelings of hatred toward Marie and explained he did not feel well when he was next to her. He was ready to fully acknowledge his role in the death of Marie’s children and how his actions continued to harm her and his community. He asked her for forgiveness. Marie, who had been reflecting on her own process of healing, chose to forgive him.

​Months after the workshops, Marie became ill, and Boniface, as the nearest person to her, brought her meals and made sure she got well. Marie said that Boniface had never brought her food before, and that if he had, she would have been afraid it was poisoned. Boniface agreed that, in the past, he would not have accepted anything prepared by Marie either.

Within the Healing Our Communities program, HROC’s unique approach to trauma healing is combined with dialogue clubs created by IRDP, which help community members—perpetrators, survivors, bystanders, and rescuers—discuss and acknowledge the lasting effects of the genocide. Within the same communities, Aegis Trust trains and mentors clubs of “Youth Champions” who are trained to document community members’ stories, stimulate community discussions, and lead volunteer projects to help the most vulnerable community members. Karuna Center’s program staff coordinates and supports these interlocking layers within 16 communities throughout Rwanda.

PHOTO ABOVE: A photo in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic depicts an exercise during a workshop led by the Rwandan organization HROC, a partner in our Healing Our Communities program. HROC workshops help people recognize the effects of psychological trauma in their lives and communities, supporting participants as they examine their own feelings and experiences. Survivors, former perpetrators, and bystanders all may experience psychological trauma from the violence—though in different ways. HROC’s unique model fosters reconciliation by bringing these groups together to learn about trauma in a structured and supportive environment.

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PHOTO ABOVE: Boniface Twagiramungu and Marie Uwambaje, featured in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic. Marie chose to forgive Boniface after he asked for forgiveness “from his heart.” Though many people have asked for or given some kind of forgiveness (for example, as part of trials for genocide crimes), the act of truly asking for and receiving forgiveness “from the heart” is a deeper, ongoing need within Rwanda. Many participants say the Healing Our Communities program has provided that opportunity.

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