Radio was used to incite hatred in the build up to the genocide in Rwanda. But today the medium promotes messages of reconciliation and peace to those still traumatized by the violence.
The radio station Radio Mille Collines (RTLM) played a significant role in instigating and organizing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Its broadcasts followed the methods seen in almost every other genocide. It is a process of spreading hatred that usually begins by telling people that they are afraid, that their problems are caused by one single factor, by one single enemy, and that all these problems can be solved by going against this one enemy. In Rwanda, such messages led to the deaths of nearly one million people over the course of a few short months.
More than a decade later, the country is still recovering from those brutal days and radio is now playing a role in the healing. But, as George Weiss, director of La Benevolencija, a Dutch NGO, points out, the process is very different: ‘It is much easier to incite hatred than to promote peace, and doesn’t take anywhere near as long. To promote peace we have to tell people that there is not only one single factor causing their problems. The situation is complicated, but those who wish to incite hatred tell people that the answer is simple. That is the main difference.’
Radio La Benevolencija designs and produces radio programmes to help Rwandans come to terms with the trauma of the genocide. As well as factual news and documentary programmes dealing with crises around the world, the organization also produces a popular radio soap opera, called Musekeweya (New Dawn), that combines entertainment with information. There are many programmes like this all over the world promoting, for example, HIV/AIDS awareness, but Radio La Benevolencija has adopted a unique approach.
‘Our methodology involves delivering psychological knowledge to people with very little education,’ says George Weiss. ‘We explain the process of genocide from both historical and psychological perspectives. All genocides throughout history have followed the same pattern. It doesn’t matter if we talk about Armenia, Cambodia, Nazi Germany or Rwanda, society goes through certain stages to reach the point of genocide. We teach people how the violence evolves and how to counteract it. We also explain what trauma is, what it does, and how to heal it.’
All of this information has to be packaged into an entertaining storyline. Musekeweya, now in its fourth year, deals with two villages at odds with one another. Within each village the same societal processes that occur in every genocide take place, with the result that the villages end up attacking each other.
‘We show people that what went on in Rwanda has also happened in other parts of the world,’ explains Weiss. ‘We’re giving the people an answer to something that has been bothering them for a long time. It wasn’t some evil entity that turned the Rwandans into monsters. They were not devils who committed these monstrous deeds, but people who had been manipulated by psychological conditioning. For the survivors who witnessed the violence, this knowledge gives them a sense of control. Once they know how this conditioning works then they can learn to resist it. The people gain a sense of control and can start to feel safer.’
The storylines for Musekeweya are put together by a team of local scriptwriters. They then send the scripts to psychologists who make sure each episode contains the right information for dealing with trauma and promoting reconciliation. Although the process of counteracting hatred inevitably takes longer than it does to incite violence, Weiss is convinced that radio messages can help Rwandans recover from the genocide.
‘Radio is the most important medium for distributing information in Rwanda, since literacy levels are generally rather low. Radio also gives people access to the outside world. Almost everyone can understand it, even if they don’t know how to read. And radio is much less intrusive than television. It works almost subliminally.’
La Benevolencija’s project in Rwanda has been so successful that the organization has been asked to extend it to cover the neighbouring countries of Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. The organization will also start a similar project in Bosnia. Even though the war in the Balkans has been over for more than a decade, as in Rwanda, there is still a lot of work to be done, says Weiss. ‘People underestimate how long it takes a country, and its population, to recover after a war. The best example is in Western Europe, where reconciliation after World War II took about 50 or 60 years. But even today there are some people who still associate Germany with Nazism. As we saw in Rwanda, it can take only a few months to destroy a country with hatred, but it often takes at least two generations before a population and a nation can completely recover from conflict.’
George Weiss is founder and director of Radio La Benevolencija/Humanitarian Tools Foundation.