Introduction to HROC

HROC in Women's Prison

HROC workshop in Kenyan women’s prison.

The Development of Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC)

Before we [survivors and released prisoners from the Rwandan genocide] could not even talk to each other or sit next to each other, but after the workshop we could talk. The one who killed my family asked for forgiveness, explained what he did and accepted it. It was not easy for me to forgive him, but I did and little by little he became close to me. And then, the perpetrators told us where the bodies of our lost family members were, and then we could go find the remains and bury them properly. After HROC, I found out where my sisters were and buried them, and many others were found.

Origins of HROC

In January 2003 with financial support from the American Friends Service Committee, the African Great Lakes Initiative held a one-month seminar on trauma healing in Kigali, Rwanda. From this training, the twenty participants developed the initial version of the three-day Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop. Then, over the next four months, the participants conducted twenty-five experimental workshops in Rwanda and the HROC program was born.

There were still gaps in the program. The methodology to train HROC facilitators who could continue the work in their local communities needed to be developed. Soon these individuals were called “healing companions.”  To become a HROC facilitator is difficult  because the deep emotions caused by trauma are sensitive and complex. As a result the HROC training that facilitators received is two weeks long, followed by apprentice workshops, and then an additional one-week follow-up training where the new facilitators can discuss their experiences.

The Basic HROC Workshop

Theoretically, the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community workshop is built on the stages of recovery from trauma as outlined in Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1992, 1997). “Recovery unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance and mourning. The central task of the third stage is reconnection with ordinary life. Like any abstract concept, these stages of recovery are a convenient fiction, not to be taken too literally.” (page 155)

Here is a description of the three days of the workshop with quotes from the participants to show the effect of each session.

The most important aspect of the first day is to develop a secure environment where everyone feels free to talk and be respected by the others. This may be the first time since the traumatic event that the opponents in the conflict have met each other.

The agenda on the first day includes understanding psycho-social trauma – a new concept for most participants – causes and symptoms of trauma, small group discussion on “the effects of trauma on you.” The concept of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) postulates that people who experience traumatic events can have considerable psychology damage even if physically they have not been harmed. Throughout the day participants are randomly combined in small groups. Later the small groups share their insights. The day ends with a relaxation exercise to calm people before they return to their homes and families for the night.

Myself, as well as my neighbors, have lost many relatives and the situation we are in is unbearable. But I discovered that the main issue is that we have been keeping all inside us. We did not want to tell God, neither our friends about them. Grief can destroy one’s life and body. We now find new skills. God and friends can comfort me.

The second day begins with learning good listening skills, followed by learning the stages of grief and loss. The grief session is one of the most difficult sessions of the workshop. Many participants end up crying for their lost loved ones and their previous life. Constructive and destructive ways of dealing with anger are presented in the afternoon.

Having participated in this workshop, it has lifted me to another stage of understanding. I have a neighbor with whom I am in conflict. I discovered how I have been acting under my anger. Now I am ready to meet with him and tell him that I have acted wrongly. I will ask for forgiveness. Yes, I have been an evildoer.

On the third day, the trees of mistrust and trust are introduced. This is an apt analogy for the African rural setting. The participants list the roots, branches, and fruits (with fruits such as retaliation, revenge, and capital punishment) of mistrust on a drawing of a tree. They conclude by uprooting that tree. Next, they discuss the roots and fruits of trust, eventually concluding that the bad roots need to be replaced with good roots which then yield good fruits (rehabilitation, resurrection).

When we talked about the mistrust trees, participants expressed how the mistrust tree is real in their hearts and the consequences of such evil. They openly manifested their willingness to uproot that mistrust tree because it is the origin of all horrible times they passed through for generations. We have to plant the trust tree in our hearts so that every person can eat its delicious fruits.

The afternoon of the third day is a “trust walk” where each participant is blindfolded and led around by another participant and then the roles are reversed.

It was very touching, inspiring, full of love to see how survivors and ex-prisoners [perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide]  were holding each other [in the trust walk] and carefully they walked together.

By the end of these workshops, people, who only three days before would have stayed out in the pouring rain rather than seek shelter with their opponents, and who would have refused to ask for water when thirsty for fear of being poisoned, now leave talking, laughing, and inviting each other over for dinner.

I am very happy to see that the person who had the courage to hide my husband and myself when the killers were looking and following us is now with me in this room. We need to accept that there are trustworthy persons within each ethnic group although we passed through horrible periods.

At the end of a workshop, a number of things should happen. Participants should have a good understanding of psycho-social trauma, ability in identifying it in themselves and others, and some basic skills to work with traumatized individuals. The participants should have reconnected with members of the “enemy” side and re-asserted their common humanity. This should then bring about changes in their behavior as they reconnect with family, neighbors, and “the other” with a positive, empathetic, loving attitude.

After the Basic Workshop

One three-day workshop is not sufficient for the healing of a person, let alone a society. The facilitators can not conduct an emotional, liberating workshop and then just walk away never to be heard from again. The first strategy is to have a follow-up day one or more months after the original workshop. During the follow up, people share how the original workshop affected their everyday existence.

A female participant commented on how there was a mother in her community who was continually beating her ten year old daughter because she was acting “strange.” The participants worked with this mother and made her realize that the daughter was showing the signs of trauma and that beating her would only make her worse. As she counseled this woman, the mother changed her behavior towards her daughter.

In order to have a discernible effect on a community it is necessary to offer around five workshops to include about one hundred or more people. This would create a large enough group of trained persons in the community so that they could provide on-going support for each other. It is useful to focus on the initial communities where HROC was introduced and then expand to neighboring communities.

After completing the workshops and follow-up days, a public presentation, a community celebration, can be effective. The participants from all the workshops plus invited guests such as the local administrators, religious leaders, and other notables gather for a day of celebration. This would include singing and dancing, poetry reading, testimonies from participants, role playing and the usual speech making by the notables. The events end with a simple lunch together. The common meal is an important aspect of the HROC program. Some people have a great fear of being poisoned. Consequently people are unwilling to eat with those they consider their “enemy.” Therefore the sharing of a meal together becomes a visible sign of reconciliation.

The next step is to encourage the trainees to form a group, which frequently are called an “association.” These groups usually select a chairperson and vice chairperson. Their purpose is to continue the healing that has occurred in the workshop, follow-up day, and community celebration and become a force for reconciliation in the community. Some of the “graduates” of the workshops use their newfound insights to help others recover from trauma. This is usually their children, spouse, close family members, and neighbors.

As the years passed, HROC did not want to neglect those with whom we began the program. As a result, an advanced HROC workshop has been developed and can be offered a year or more after the first cycle of basic workshop, follow-up, and community celebration has been completed.

Special HROC workshops have been developed for

  • HIV+ women
  • Rape and gender based violence survivors
  • Prisoners
  • “Second generation” youth who have trauma passed down to them by their parents
  • School teachers and administrators
  • Secondary school and college students
  • Former rebels
  • Refugees in camps and internally displaced persons
  • Soldiers and wives of soldiers
  • Handicapped people
  • Illiterate people

How can the HROC program succeed when it can affect only a small group of participants and is not the “magic bullet” that will solve the problems in the region. Most “magic bullets” are top-down answers where people think that some possible resolution to the problems can come from the government, the United Nations, NGOs, or the international community.

HROC, on the contrary, is a grassroots program. What is important is what happens between two individuals or small groups of people. If a man attends a HROC workshop and stops beating his wife and children, that is huge! If two neighbors who are at loggerheads can solve the issues between them, that is important. If “enemies” can stop avoiding each other because of mutual suspicion and can learn to re-engage, that also is of utmost significance.

It is difficult to quantify the results of HROC workshops. If you ask, “Have you stopped beating your wife or child?” how does one validate the answer? This leads to a more basic question, “How do you change people’s attitudes?” Our response in the HROC workshops is to tap that inner good within everyone, to have confidence that people can, on their own volition, change for the better, and to expect divergent results from the workshop.

There is one exercise we did of remembering someone who did something good to you and give thanks to that person. Through others’ sharing I realized how many times I have been ungrateful, how many times I take things for granted, thinking they are minor, therefore no need to say, “Thank you.” From now on, I have decided to be grateful.