Overcoming Ethnic Distrust on the Path to Healing | Center for Victims of Torture

Overcoming Ethnic Distrust on the Path to Healing

“When I fled to Kenya I never imagined there were refugees from Rwanda or Burundi, and mixing with them for whatever reason was unthinkable.”
A Congolese survivor

Catherine Wangechi is a psychosocial counselor with the Center for Victims of Torture in Nairobi. Catherine is part of a team of counselors and physical therapists who  provide care to refugees who fled wars in their home countries.

CVT Nairobi provides care to refugees from different parts of Africa, including the Great Lakes Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Those three countries have political hostilities, with each perceiving the other as being used by their governments to perpetrate crime. Even among fellow countrymen there exists some degree of mistrust between different ethnic groups. As psychosocial counselors, we found ourselves in a unique situation when we started group therapy with all three nationalities represented and different ethnic groups within those nationalities. This integration was an ambitious undertaking given the mistrust already existing. However, it was also the beginning of liberation to set each individual free of a pre-existing mind set about different nationalities and ethnic groups.

The first two sessions were not easy; the tension was palpable from the seating arrangements to the guarded sharing. Each person perceived the other as a perpetrator or as a spy just because of their ethnicity, without any proof. As we laid the ground rules, we provided an atmosphere of respect where every individual was to be treated with dignity, empathy and support. This validation made the group realize that every person mattered as an individual and they were not in group therapy to represent any group. As the sharing progressed, the realization that all of them were victims of war and planned violence brought a sense of catharsis.

As we got into the fourth and fifth sessions discussing painful memories, the loss of loved ones, the pain of leaving ones country and the tribulations of being a refugee, group members realized they share similar stories despite different ethnicities. The realization that all of them were victims and that they had suffered the same atrocities brought a sense of cohesion in the group. Bringing hostilities that existed back home to the host countries only added to the burden of stress.

By sharing their painful memories, group members learned that these memories are still locked up inside them, blaming certain ethnic groups who in turn were blaming them. During the turmoil, the mind is not able to elaborate what is happening, who is responsible and why. These bad memories keep coming back and won’t leave them in peace. In therapy, they learned that the brain wants a completion of what lies in the original memory, including a clear picture of the perceived perpetrators as opposed to a blurred picture of blaming a whole ethnic group. This completion can only come in the full awareness of the survivor and a willingness to open up their memory, however painful.

The process was very emotional with serious outbursts. The full realization that this cannot be done under anaesthesia gave the survivors no option but to share and listen to very painful narrations. Every survivor represented themselves in the group and even if a crime was committed by a fellow tribesman, it was not representative of any group member.

“To hear what my fellow group members went through in their own countries is shocking. Some went through worse things than me and I cannot afford to hate them by being prejudiced against their ethnicity. I do not want to see all Rwandese as my enemies anymore. Yes, it’s a group of Rwandese who killed my family as I watched, but they are not here neither are they represented by any of these group members.”   Another Congolese survivor.

This group challenged us intensely but it was also very fulfilling. We kept reassuring them that all personal feelings were valid and their opinions well listened to. However, we also let them know that CVT is not looking for answers or solutions, rather working towards psychological healing and closure that will ultimately bring relief.

After ten sessions, the group decided to form their own group which they also registered with the chief. They meet once a week. They have a merry go round where they contribute some little money and do table banking. The chair is from Congo, the secretary is from Rwanda and the treasurer is from Burundi. As we prepare to carry out the twelve month assessment and discharge the group from CVT we are very proud to be associated with TUMAINI support group (Tumaini is Swahili word for hope).

It is a small achievement that speaks much about the motto of CVT:  Restoring the dignity of the human spirit.



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