Trauma and PTSD Symptoms in Rwanda: Implications for Attitudes Toward Justice and Reconciliation



The 1994 genocide in Rwanda led to the loss of at least 10% of the country's 7.7 million inhabitants, the destruction of much of the country's infrastructure, and the displacement of nearly 4 million people. In seeking to rebuild societies such as Rwanda, it is important to understand how traumatic experience may shape the ability of individuals and groups to respond to judicial and other reconciliation initiatives.


To assess the level of trauma exposure and the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and their predictors among Rwandans and to determine how trauma exposure and PTSD symptoms are associated with Rwandans' attitudes toward justice and reconciliation.

Design, Setting, and Participants:

Multistage, stratified cluster random survey of 2091 eligible adults in selected households in 4 communes in Rwanda in February 2002.

Main Outcome Measures:

Rates of exposure to trauma and symptom criteria for PTSD using the PTSD Checklist-Civilian Version; attitudes toward judicial responses (Rwandan national and gacaca local trials and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda [ICTR]) and reconciliation (belief in community, nonviolence, social justice, and interdependence with other ethnic groups).


Of 2074 respondents with data on exposure to trauma, 1563 (75.4%) were forced to flee their homes, 1526 (73.0%) had a close member of their family killed, and 1472 (70.9%) had property destroyed or lost. Among the 2091 total participants, 518 (24.8%) met symptom criteria for PTSD. The adjusted odds ratio (OR) of meeting PTSD symptom criteria for each additional traumatic event was 1.43 (95% CI, 1.33-1.55). More respondents supported the local judicial responses (90.8% supported gacaca trials and 67.8% the Rwanda national trials) than the ICTR (42.1% in support). Respondents who met PTSD symptom criteria were less likely to have positive attitudes toward the Rwandan national trials (OR, 0.77; 95% CI, 0.61-0.98), belief in community (OR, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.60-0.97), and interdependence with other ethnic groups (OR, 0.71; 95% CI, 0.56-0.90). Respondents with exposure to multiple trauma events were more likely to have positive attitudes toward the ICTR (OR, 1.10; 95% CI, 1.04-1.17) and less likely to support the Rwandan national trials (OR, 0.90; 95% CI, 0.84-0.96), the local gacaca trials (OR, 0.80; 95% CI, 0.72-0.89), and 3 factors of openness to reconciliation: belief in nonviolence (OR, 0.92; 95% CI, 0.87-0.97), belief in community (OR, 0.92; 95% CI, 0.87-0.98), and interdependence with other ethnic groups (OR, 0.86; 95% CI, 0.81-0.92). Other variables that were associated with attitudes toward judicial processes and openness to reconciliation were educational level, ethnicity, perception of change in poverty level and access to security compared with 1994, and ethnic distance.


This study demonstrates that traumatic exposure, PTSD symptoms, and other factors are associated with attitudes toward justice and reconciliation. Societal interventions following mass violence should consider the effects of trauma if reconciliation is to be realized.

Phuong Pham
Harvey Weinstein
Timothy Longman
Publication date: 
August 4, 2004
Publication type: 
Journal Article