“Pain, pain, grief, pain”

Mary Kayitesi Blewitt OBE, founder of Survivors Fund (SURF)

When Mary Kayitesi Blewitt OBE returned to Rwanda in 1994, weeks after the end of the genocide, she found out that fifty of her family members were dead. “How did it feel?” we asked her. “You can’t explain to anyone. You just survive. You live. You exist. You’re there but there’s no words for it”, was her reply. Despite the enormity of her loss, Mary was able to look beyond her own tragedy and devoted herself to supporting the survivors of genocide. 

The Rwandan genocide broke out in April 1994. The target was the ethnic group known as Tutsis and the perpetrators were the Hutus. The tensions between  Tutsis and Hutus were not new; they had been raging since European colonisers created divisions between the two groups. But this time the Hutu militia and army set about bringing a final solution to the ‘Tutsi problem’ by raping, battering and butchering. Despite being warned about the pending atrocities, the international community looked on and the genocide only ended when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) managed to gain control of the capital, Kigali. Over the course of 100 days, an estimated one million men, women and children had been brutally murdered.[i]

Living in Kenya at the time, Mary Kayitesi Blewitt could only listen to the radio for information about what was happening to her homeland.  When she finally managed to get into Rwanda on a Chinook Helicopter carrying NGO workers, she describes what she found as “pain, pain, grief, pain”. Mary’s family had been forced to leave Rwanda in 1959 during an earlier period of Tutsi persecution but most of her family members had stayed. When Mary first arrived in Rwanda it was very difficult to find anyone she knew so she tended to the dead and listened to the survivors. As a way of managing her own loss, she threw herself into volunteer work to register those who had died and those who had survived. “There was no point in thinking about my own people because one million is bigger than fifty”, she explained

Whilst working as a volunteer Mary saw that there was a gaping hole in the management of the mass influx of aid organisations coming into the country. In response she volunteered to manage and help establish an NGO Co-ordination Unit at the Ministry of Rehabilitation, despite the fact that, coming from an NGO background herself, she had developed a deep cynicism about relief work.  She found most organisations arrogant, self-interested and uncontrollable. What’s more, Mary was angered at their ignorance towards the issues surrounding survivors. To give you a sense of the types of survivors, reports estimate that during the genocide one third of children saw their families murdered. The genocide left 34% of homes headed by women or orphans[ii] and tens of thousands of women infected by HIV, victims of ‘rape brigades’ who deliberately spread the disease during the genocide attacks[iii].

Every day Mary would come face to face with the challenges facing survivors.  Far from feeling fortunate for having lived, most felt survival was its own kind of torture. Widows and orphans were struggling to provide shelter and education for their dependants. Women who’d been raped were living with HIV. Trauma left many suicidal. Yet despite these wounds, Mary began to see survivor-led organisations forming. One group in particular stood out – a small set of widows who regularly gathered to provide one another with peer support. Recognising their potential, Mary took them under her wing. She encouraged them to organise, form a constitution and register as an NGO.  Today the Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA) has well over 25,000 members across the country.

After two years of hands-on work to support the genocide survivors, through AVEGA in particular, Mary returned to the UK where her husband and family were based. . Compelled by an unrelenting sense of anger, she put her outspoken nature to good use by raising awareness about Rwanda at any opportunity. At one NGO conference in Dublin she was invited to the platform to say her piece but, when her fifteen minutes was up, she refused to leave the stage. Startled by her own indignation, she knew from that point onwards that she had to do more. Increasingly resentful of the way that international aid was being managed in Rwanda she decided: “I will set up a charity and I will show them that I can do it better. I am going to reach every single person who needs to be reached. And that’s exactly what I did.”

Working from her own front room with a donated computer, Mary set up Survivors Fund (SURF) in 1997. Its mission: to rebuild a sense of self and trust in humanity among the survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Since SURF started, Mary has supported 14 out of the 16 grass roots organisations working in Rwanda to support survivors. With SURF’s support – both financial and non-financial – these organisations have responded to all the core needs of the estimated 300,000 vulnerable survivors of genocide. [iv] From counselling to combat trauma to HIV treatment for rape victims; from new housing for those lacking shelter to scholastic support for orphans; from business loans for those seeking employment to… well, the list could go on and on.

SURF has also delivered a number of initiatives directly, the most memorable being 40 burial sites that provide a respectful place of rest for over 500,000 genocide victims. We were shocked to learn that, even now, bodies are still being discovered. Owing to the nature of the attacks, many of the dead were thrown into pits or buried where the militia saw fit. Slowly, as more and more perpetrators have come to justice, these locations have been revealed and SURF has made it its goal to ensure that surviving relatives have the chance to bury their loved ones with dignity.

But, as one woman working from the UK, how has Mary achieved all this? When quizzing her on her recipe for success, she listed the following three attributes: commitment, hard work and never taking ‘no’ for an answer. Mary brands herself as “a fighter” and her feisty ways certainly lend truth to that trait. Through sheer determination she has managed to bend the ears of many influential people, including Clare Short, Cherie Blair and David Cameron, and her efforts never fail to pay off. In 2004 she was invited to Downing Street for an evening with Cherie. Out of that was born a celebrity-studded campaign (bagging among others, Beverly Knight and Helen Baxendale) that led to DFID donating over £4m for anti-retroviral drugs for rape victims infected with HIV.

SURF’s operating model is also a key contributor to their success. Probably best described as a catalytic investor, SURF identify and invest in grass roots leaders who need funds and support to start up and grow their own ideas.  Their core strategy is focused around capacity-building and their golden goal is to help every organisation become self-sufficient. And when it comes to dishing out the cash, they take an approach that most other foundations could learn a lot from. They’re not rigid – they respond to any request from any survivor organisation; they’re not precious – they broker relationships between those they work with and new funders; they’re not remote – they have exceptionally close relationships with everyone they support.

SURF and AVEGA have worked so closely together that the two organisations’ work is almost inseparable.  Under SURF’s strategic guidance they have de-centralised their operations and vastly expanded the services they offer to widows. The centre piece of AVEGA is their eastern division which has developed under the leadership of Odette Kayirere, with Mary as a mentor and supporter. AVEGA East has built an incredible support centre that is staffed by 40 widows and orphans. To pay for the support services available, Odette has set up a number of profit-making business initiatives at the centre: a conference centre, guesthouse and restaurant. When we visited their site we were incredibly impressed by what we saw. Rwanda’s largest bank was paying to use their facilities for a meeting, the regional group of widows were gathered in the courtyard for business training and the health centre was bustling with patients waiting to be seen.

Another pearl in SURF’s portfolio of partners is Solace Ministries. John Gakwandi, the founder of Solace Ministries, survived the genocide by hiding with his family in a cupboard for 80 days. Afterwards he felt a calling to provide comfort and support to fellow survivors. Starting out as a small organisation, Mary guided their expansion and today they work in 59 communities. “Mary helped us to know more”, John explained warmly. Among many things, SURF has provided Solace Ministries with the funds to provide new housing for hundreds of survivors. We took a trip out to visit one site where 60 homes were funded by SURF. Sandrine Mukayitesi welcomed us into her front room to share her story.

Sweet-natured and softly-spoken, Sandrine bears the physical scars of a brutal attack. At aged nine she witnessed the murder of her parents and was taken by the militia to the Congo as a human shield. Separated from her siblings, she explained that the men “mistreated” her. After a brave escape, she made her way to Kigali and lived in a derelict building with fellow orphans. Discovered by Solace Ministries, she was provided with vocational training and counselling, both of which helped to cure the persistent headaches she’d never been able to get rid of. Then in 2006 she was provided with a home, funded by SURF. “Since I got the house, I can struggle and survive better”, she told us.

When you hear stories like these, you can understand why organisations like SURF have lobbied hard to try and raise financial compensation for survivors. But to date, this campaign has proven a lost cause. Keeping the genocide on the agenda of international governments and donors is a key challenge for SURF. As the years pass by, new priorities have arisen and the Rwandan government are keen to put the genocide in the past. They have even threatened to cut the small amount of funding they currently donate to survivor support. But Mary, who confesses herself that she has no interest in diplomacy, is very frank about the deep scars which are still tearing Rwanda apart. Mistrust and pain still run through the underbelly of society: “The survivors don’t want to say it because the government will crack down on anybody who says there is not forgiveness and love between ourselves. We don’t really have love.”

It was saddening to hear Mary speak so openly about the ongoing struggles which face so many people but this did not belittle her achievements.  Though Rwanda is far from healed, Mary has seen a change in the survivors she set out to help. “When I first met the survivors, they just wanted to die… I said to myself, I want to see them fighting. When they start fighting for themselves, for their rights, it will be time for me to go.”

Confident that she could see a change in survivors’ attitudes, Mary decided to step down from SURF in 2009.  Though she was left exhausted by her emotional journey, she has since written a book and retrained as a complimentary therapist. If you’re in need of some TLC and you’ve got a social conscience, we’d recommend you look up Mary Kayitesi Blewitt OBE. Her spirited personality is sure to mean your muscles will get a good pounding and more importantly, this is her latest social enterprise and profits from the session will be donated to survivors of genocide.

For more info visit:

SURF: www.survivors-fund.org.uk

AVEGA: www.avega.org.rw/English.html

Solace Ministries: www.solacem.org

Mary Blewitt: www.marykblewitt.com

[i] Africa Recovery, Vol. 12 (August 1998) p. 4, and www.survivors-fund.org.uk/resources/rwandan-history/statistics

[ii] Catharine Newbury and Hannah Baldwin, U.S. Agency for International Development, Aftermath: Women in Postgenocide Rwanda (2000)

[iv] Rwandan Ministry of Social Affairs, Census in 2007

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011