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Soc Sci Med. 2019 Feb;222:171-179. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.01.005. Epub 2019 Jan 7.

Suffering of silenced people in northern Rwanda.

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Faculty of Public Health & Policy, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 15-17 Tavistock Place, London, WC1H 9SH, UK. Electronic address:


To contribute to understanding the association between silence and suffering in the context of war and political repression, this study sheds light on the meaning-making process and explores the underlying mechanisms by which silence leads to suffering and how this suffering could be alleviated. The ethnographic research was conducted in 2015-2016, with 43 participants from northern Rwanda, who survived massacres after the 1994 genocide but were prevented from speaking about the experience by political constraints. The findings first describe their suffering, through grief, social isolation and loss of meaning in life and death (expressed as existential questions). Their suffering was worsened by 'unspeakability'; that is, the political context that prevents victims from speaking freely about their war experience, including discussion of those who killed and those who were killed. Unspeakability exacerbated suffering since participants were obstructed from applying ready narratives (e.g. funerary rituals, traditional reconciliation systems) or constructing their own narratives which could ordinarily help them to process mourning and reconciliation and to make sense of the loss. They selectively employed silence for coping and protection, avoiding speaking about the past to maintain everyday life. However, at the same time, unprocessed mourning remained a serious problem, resulting in mental health problems such as hallucinations of the spirits of the dead; participants expressed a strong need for mourning rituals. Overall, this paper highlights the ways in which the suffering of the silenced population worsens when meaning-making processes are obstructed. To alleviate the suffering, it is essential to secure mourning rituals for all survivors, particularly those who, as part of the defeated group of war, are silenced and marginalized in history.


Culture; Grief; Narrative; Ritual; Rwanda; Silence; Suffering; War

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