La Benevolencija in Rwanda

n 2002, La Benevolencija followed its academic team leader Ervin Staub in the wake of his invitation by the Rwandan Government, with the idea of implementing an experimental prototype media campaign in Rwanda aimed at inoculating populations from hate speech and other incitement to violence. The Rwandan government was concerned about possible recurrence of violence and trauma, during the implementation of the Gacaca village tribunals and La Benevolencija’s soap opera was seen as an ideal project to tackle these challenges. It was especially designed to teach populations to recognize and resist Staub’s universal “continuum of destruction” (see methodology). The results exceeded expectations.

After only one year of broadcast, La Benevolencija’s radio soap opera Musekeweya had become one of the most popular soaps in the country. Independent impact evaluations showed that it had succeeded in changing some of its audience norms and it resulted in increased trust within audience communities. It also induced a measure of criticism into the natural respect the country’s citizens pay their authorities. Moreover, it had taught a population, undergoing massive re-traumatisation due to the Gacaca, how to recognize trauma and how to apply basic healing techniques. Musekeweya remains well-liked till today, and still attracts new and young listeners, as the soap is very popular among school children.

Since the initial invitation, La Benevolencija continuously has had has had a good working relationship with the Rwandan government, based on mutual respect and transparency. At the same time La Benevolencija carefully safeguards the independence from outside interference, and its position as a non-political NGO that firmly supports human rights conventions.

The country is entering a post-Gacaca period and though theoretically this process should have had reconciled the country, much mistrust remains. The troubling political situation of limited space to express opinions, and a government whose actions are at times highly influenced by its survivor trauma, challenge citizens’ ability to engage in active bystander ship as taught by La Benevolencija. Our soap opera will work (carefully) to enhance active bystander citizenship, through its exemplary role models combined with grassroots activities. We expect that this prevent people from following their peers in engaging in disproportionate action to either suppress dissent or fight past enemies.

In Rwanda, La Benevolencija’s objective is ‘deepening reconciliation and trust in a post-Gacaca Rwanda’. Our activities for these two years target the following main themes.

• Sensitizing the population on the importance of equal justice in a post-genocide society

The Gacaca-Courts have brought a sense of reconciliation and closure to the 1994 genocide. It provided the population with answers to what had happened to family members, to neighbours and to themselves. The swift and community-based style of the Gacaca-courts expedited the trials of perpetrators, allowed victims to share their stories and hold those responsible accountable. However, the Gacaca-courts also brought to the forefront questions regarding the achievement of equal justice and true reconciliation or forgiveness. For example, the courts did not provide a proper lawyer or representation to the accused, which some view as unfair. In some cases the Gacaca-Courts have been used by individuals to seek revenge against members of their communities, causing damage to possibly innocent people.

Some question the usefulness of Gacaca. Have the courts indeed served as a mechanism of reconciliation: a sense of healing for the victim allowing forgiveness and acceptance that justice has been served; and re-establishing a sense of trust in community members that are perpetrators? Do the perpetrators also feel that they have been heard? As they have repented and served their time in prison and within their community, are they now able to reintegrate successfully? These are complex issues faced by Rwandans. La Benevolencija will assist in looking for answers.

• Sensitizing the population on the role of free speech and danger of hate speech

The human rights situation in Rwanda can at times be regarded as fragile, particularly in terms of freedom of expression. Around the presidential elections in 2010, human rights organizations and media reported about a toughening climate. Rwandans are very careful in how they express their opinions, as they do not want to be labelled as encouraging divisionism. At the same time the government feels a need to suppress negative opinions as it fears they might lead to acts of violence or create a stronghold for divisionism. Consequently, open venues for discussions are highly limited. La Benevolencija addresses this problem by sensitizing the population on the importance of freedom of expression, and on the importance of not engaging in hate speech.

• Sensitizing the population on the importance of empathy for others

The history of Rwanda is full of events that are potentially unforgivable. However, to reach true reconciliation it’s important to encourage empathy between people. You don’t necessarily need to forgive a person’s actions, but you can aim for understanding and in certain cases also feel empathy for their situation. Rwandan youth grow up highly shaped by stories of families and relatives, and they often copy existing negative opinions about people in their surroundings. Therefore La Benevolencija works on the importance of empathy, especially by targeting youth, and by emphasizing this aspect in the factual programme *Kuki*, its soap *Musekeweya* and supporting *grassroots activities*.

• Sensitizing leaders to beware of the possible influence of survivor trauma on their decision making processes

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda has been accused of serious crimes against humanity for its army actions against remnants of Interahamwe, the genocide militias who took refuge in neighbouring Congo, and for its heavy–handed suppression of opposition candidates during election times. It shows that fear and trauma still highly influence those in power, and the decisions they take. Similar patterns can currently be observed in the Middle East, other locations in Africa and Asia, and during different periods of world history elsewhere. In all cases, the experience of trauma induced by genocide has prompted survivors to disregard possible suffering of others as a necessary price for survival. This has often led to disrespect for territorial boundaries, to disproportionate violence, and to labelling civilian suffering as “collateral damage”. This gives rise to basic questions that society and its leaders need to address. Leadership sensitization is a necessary prerequisite for that. La Benevolencija’s factual programmes and debates are attractive to political and grassroots leaders and incorporate a format in which these issues can easily be represented.