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Surviving genocide: a meeting, The FT Weekend

“I don’t feel hate. I don’t know why.”

Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, OBE, is giving another talk. A quietly spoken woman with a kindly face and braided hair, Mary is the Director of Survivors Fund (SURF). Her talks describe how the charity she founded in 1997 helps survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu militia), and how the genocide effected Rwanda and her family.

But today is different.  Her audience are survivors themselves: the monthly lunch at a West Hampstead Jewish centre of fifty or so members of the Kindertransport Association (KTA). The elderly, sweatered men and smartly coiffured women, were some of the 10,000 Jewish children given refuge here from Nazi Germany.

When the apple strudel is cleared away, Mary is introduced by the KTA’s dapper, goateed Chairman, Hermann Hirschberger.

“Mary was born in 1963 in a refugee camp in Burundi. Her parents had fled from Rwanda in 1959 because there was a revolution, at that time, and 20,000 Tutsis were murdered.” A murmur moves through the audience. “This was only the shape of things to come unfortunately. Because Mary’s family decided to return to Rwanda and that of course was a dreadful mistake. During the genocide, is it 50?” Hermann looks at Mary, who nods. “Fifty family members, including Mary’s parents, were just slaughtered.”  There are sighs from the aged orphans.

Mary stands, the microphone tight to her chest. She helps thousands of survivors every year, and runs London’s SURF office with only one colleague, but talking about the genocide can still be difficult.

“Pain doesn’t go away, grief doesn’t go away, but we have to work every day and look forward, and not to forget the people behind us. I thought I was very lucky because I had escaped. Now looking back I think I wasn’t so lucky. I should have remained and shared life with them. Because I didn’t know…Excuse me.”

Mary cries. She struggles not to, but cries. Bertha Leverton, MBE, a refugee from Munich in January 1939, gently passes her a napkin. Mary dries her eyes and continues, the red napkin twisted between her hands.

When the killing started Mary was in Kenya, where her husband worked for Save The Children. She tried to enter Rwanda but the borders were shut during the genocide.  When they opened, she went to her grandfather’s village, where her family had sought refuge. It had been attacked. “They chopped them up and put them into one big pit of a hole and put soil on them. When I saw them about three weeks after the genocide, I could still identify arms, hands, clothes. I got some friends and we covered everyone up but it was raining, so the rain kept coming and taking the soil.”

“I felt anger, I felt frustration. I didn’t feel hate, I don’t know why. I spent five months after the genocide, burying the dead, working with the survivors,  listening to their stories. During the genocide, they used men who were HIV positive to rape women and infect them. About 200,000 orphans lost their entire families.”

“My parents always said when we were young, ‘You should never blame anyone. You should always try and do something about the situation’. And that strengthened me, thinking, ‘Well I could blame this community, I could self-destruct. Or why don’t I try and do something with my energy.’ So I set up Survivors Fund.”

When she has finished, the questions from around the formica tables are unusually well-delivered. They suggest lifetimes of needing to be beyond reproach. What does SURF do in Rwanda, a stocky, serious-faced man asks.

“The Survivors Fund raises money for school fees, to educate orphans. We provide shelter, because most of the young people who are head of the household don’t have homes: when the genocide happened, they pulled their houses down, they killed all the animals. HIV and AIDS is a severe problem for women who were infected during the genocide. We help with that and the trauma of that.”

There is also the Humura (‘calm’) Centre that SURF is building in southern Rwanda.  (It will be a memorial, education centre and a shelter for the still-traumatised.) SURF also helps fund small farms and vocational education for survivors. And they train survivors to counsel other survivors: the victims can be very wary of non-victims, especially now some of the Hutu militia have finished their sentences. In all, SURF helps 29,000 widows, 11,000 orphans and 40,000 dependents in Rwanda. Mary spends a third of her time there, learning the survivors needs.

Hermann thanks her on behalf of the KTA. “Whether black or white, tall or small, rich or poor, in some way, you and us are brothers and sisters.”

Mary leaves to give another talk, at a Clapham school. As she had explained during questions, “When you try and legitimize injustice, you are creating Rwandan genocides. That is what I try and get young people to understand.”

25 May 2007

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