In 1994, one of Rwanda’s darkest moments in history took place – a genocide that saw the death of 1,100,000 people – of which 800,000 people were Tutsi, an ethnic group that were minorities in comparison to the majority Hutus.
At the time, Alice Musabende was 13-years-old. Her parent, grandparents, and siblings all died during the war. The now mum-of-two had only a few surviving members of her family; her aunt, uncle, and their kids. In 2005, as part of her studies, Musabende left Rwanda for Canada, building a life for herself; she married (but has since separated), and had two precious boys.
She began working as a journalist and academic, later moving to the UK to work at the University of Cambridge. But despite her writing and hours of research into what happened, Musabende found it almost impossible to articulate the reality of the violence which was unleashed on her people.
“I have spent so many hours, countless of times, writing and reading and trying really to capture the magnitude of the horror. And I still haven’t,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Now, her two children, aged five and eight, have questions about their grandparents, their home in Rwanda, and how their mother feels about it all.
So, in an attempt not to “run away from her demons”, Musabende had to find a way to voice the unspeakable horror she endured at such a young age. Which is how she began making a radio show with the BBC to start the story.
In Unspeakable, Musabende asks for help and guidance from other genocide survivors, second-generation holocaust survivors, a therapist who works with AIDS orphans in South Africa, and a publisher of stories in Rwanda.
She explores identity, generational trauma, and the place of storytelling and with the help of these other voices, she tries to piece together the answer to one fundamental question: how do I tell my kids about my trauma?
Firstly, says Musabende, she has had to come to terms with her own past.
“For the last 20 years, I’ve focused so much on me,” she explains. “I’ve done therapy, I tried to figure out how to live with PTSD, to understand how I will actually live a life without family, without anyone. I thought I was really getting a good handle on it. Then I moved here and in the middle of trying to reconfigure being a single parent and my work, I remember just one day thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to tell the boys about the genocide.’
“That bit was way more complicated than anything else I have done, mainly because the story of the genocide, for me, is extremely painful, but I think it’s painful for all the other survivors as well. Because I’ve spent so many years trying to run away from it, it was so hard.”
Growing up, Musabende was aware of the ethnic persecution of her Tutsi people – her family members had been arrested on suspicion of being part of rebel forces, and her granddad’s land had been seized.
After travelling to Ottawa for her graduate studies, Musabende recognised signs of PTSD in herself. She explains: “In school I couldn’t really function. I had a really difficult transition, I did so many things that we now associate with post traumatic stress disorder but at the time no one told me what it was.
“It wasn’t until I started different forms of therapy to make sense of what I was going through. Through those sessions, I wanted to find the essence of who I was, I wanted to be okay. I wanted to have joy, and I wanted to be able to use my brain to serve, to study and perhaps maybe even teach.”
In 2017, Musabende went back to Rwanda for the first time. Two years later, she took her two sons to show them where their family came from – so they could understand the great beauty, as much as the trauma, of her birthplace.
“I remember arriving in Rwanda and looking at these tiny humans and thinking, ‘This is their home, but I don’t know if they know that this is their home as well.’ That’s when things just started percolating in my head, I was like: ‘How do I do this, what do I say?’ She took her eldest boy, six at the time, to where her house used to be – now just a plot of land since it was destroyed in the genocide.
“I told him that’s where my home used to be and that’s where my brother and sister used to live. We were walking on this plot, he looked down, saw a piece of cloth, picked it up and said, ‘Do you think this was your sister’s dress?’ And I hadn’t seen that one coming. It was a bit of a struggle but I couldn’t cry.
“My words just left me. That’s when I realised he has questions. He has real questions where he’s trying to figure out where he fits into a story that’s so obscure and mysterious to him.”
And Musabende had questions of her own, which is how the documentary came about. “I couldn’t write about it,” she says. “I don’t know how to write about it, so I thought to just ask people what they think.”
She was terrified. “I thought, ‘Oh, am I traumatising my children by telling them these horrible things?’ Previously I’d thought it’s best not to say anything as you don’t upset them. But I know that they want to know. They’re not asking tough questions. Their questions are like ‘Do you miss your mum?’ or ’Do you think your mum would have loved me?’Those things are so difficult because they send you right back to that place where you wish you didn’t have to go.
Unspeakable is Musabende’s attempt to bridge the gap between that place she has avoided for the past 27 years “and the place I am in now, as a parent hoping to raise healthy, well-grounded, empathetic children.”
It’s not just genocide she has to talk to her children about. By virtue of being a mother to two young Black boys, Musabende knows that she will become accustomed to difficult conversations.
“Raising Black boys in a western culture that’s always telling them so many things about them that are false, it’s an even bigger responsibility to tell them about where they come from, what happened to them and tell them exactly who they are, so that when they get out there, they know in their hearts that they’re valued, that they are loved, that they are cared for.
“It is my job to tell my kids who they are. I haven’t quite figured out how to tell them the full story of my history so you’ll see in the documentary, I’m still learning, it’s a long journey.”
Unspeakable airs on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays and is available on BBC Sounds.
Approaching conversations about trauma
Alice Musabende wants to share the following advice for fellow parents.
First of all, accept you don’t know how to say it all
“That realisation that I don’t know how to talk to my children was the beginning of my quest because for a very long time, I just pretended that it wasn’t there. Once I sat down and I thought, ‘I know I have to, and I don’t know how,’ that was the beginning.”
Find a safe space to make sense of the trauma yourself
“I wouldn’t have been able to have this conversation five years ago. I had to do so much of my own work in self-healing, therapy, in figuring out how to listen. It took me so much time to get here.”
Seek guidance, talk to others who might understand
“You’ll be surprised about how many people are struggling to address these serious issues with their children. There are parents everywhere trying to figure out how to say things.”
Know that the conversation is hard but important
“You can’t just focus on the fact that you are transmitting trauma. You also have to know that by processing things, by seeking to figure out what the appropriate language is, you’re also ensuring that your kids will be more resilient, because you are being more resilient.”
Celebrate yourself for all that you’ve overcome
“We often forget to celebrate our resilience but ultimately, we should really look at ourselves and think, ‘We are here. We made it. We have children and they seem somewhat okay.’ That’s a win for me.”
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).