Burundian women heal psychological wounds after years of armed conflict

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Henriette Uwimana, 30 years old, spent eight years in the bush with a Burundian rebel group after being kidnapped from her school.

She was forced by the rebels to stay with them under the threat that they would otherwise kill her parents. She was trained in many ways of torturing and killing people, both with guns and with her bare hands. During a recent trauma healing session, she recounted, “After some time, I was not afraid of killing people or making them suffer. I even killed my own uncle with a hoe.”

Today, the war is over, Henriette is married, and she has three children. But what she experienced and saw during the war has stayed with her.

“Sometimes, in my dreams when I am sleeping, I see myself killing people or torturing them. Sometimes I treat my own children severely due to the effects of war,” she says.

The violent conflict in Burundi ended years ago, but many Burundians are still haunted by their past experiences—as combatants, victims of violence, or refugees. To fully recover, Burundian communities need both trauma healing and support for social reconciliation.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has been working to meet these needs, but the demand for services continually outpaces our capacity and resources. In an effort to expand the areas of impact, the Burundi program has been identifying new partners to add to existing ones.

Henriette took part in a project facilitated by a new partner, the Association of Women Returnees in Burundi (AFRABU) in the province of Bubanza. The project focuses primarily on helping women to heal psychological wounds through sharing their memories and experiences. It will also promote socio-economic empowerment of women and young girls.

By sharing—many for the very first time—what they went through during the conflict and listening to the stories of others, participants begin to move toward self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, and forgiveness of one another.

Henriette says, “I have learned that war is useless, and I will NEVER again do what I did.”

This two-year project of trauma healing and socio-economic reintegration in Bubanza province was launched with support of AFSC.

At the inaugural ceremony in January, the director general of the Ministry of National Solidarity praised the work, saying, “The project comes at the right moment to meet the priorities of Burundi’s government to support people in difficulties, fight against gender-based violence, to promote gender equality and the reintegration of war affected persons.”