Photography by Brian Moody
In 1994, in just one hundred days, a million people were killed in Rwanda as the world stood by and did nothing. Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, a Rwandan, had left the country some years prior to the genocide. On hearing of the killings, she tried to return home, but all the borders were closed. When the killing was finally over, she journeyed straight to her home village to discover that more than 50 of her family had been slaughtered. Mary, who now lives in England, founded The Survivor’s Fund (SURF) to aid, assist and support survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Mary has also written a book: You Alone May Live.
I was born in 1963 in a refugee camp in Burundi. My parents had fled Rwanda in 1959, during the revolution in which over 200,000 Tutsis were murdered – foreshadowing the genocide that was to come. Over the years some members of my family, including my brother John, grew tired of living in exile and returned to live in Rwanda.
Ironically, in the months before the 1994 genocide, there was a great deal of optimism among Rwandans as a new peace agreement was about to be signed. Little did we know that all the while the government was planning the killing lists.
I got wind that something was going to happen and rushed to the border with Kenya. I managed to contact my brother and told him to get out, but like so many Rwandans he thought nothing would happen. He died in the second week of the genocide.
When, three months later, it was safe to go back, I walked around the streets of Kigali asking for names. No one knew where anyone was. Then, slowly, the whole terrible story started to unfold. In my village 50 family members had been slaughtered, then thrown into a mass grave. They’d come from all over the country to get protection from my grandfather, a much loved and respected Tutsi Chief. But this time he couldn’t help them.
Of my family, only my niece survived. Miraculously, she escaped death and managed to clamber out of the mass grave. She ran to some Hutu friends for help. Two of the boys went to the grave, finished off any survivors, then came back to rape her. Later, when I went to the village to put up a memorial for the 200 killed there, their mother denied they had been involved. She said she felt sorry for me and hugged me, but I didn’t think she was genuine. If you’re really sorry you say, “Yes, my sons did this”.
I stayed eight months in Rwanda and began to despair. There was so much money for aid, but the agencies spent it all on supporting refugees – many of whom were killers. No one was supporting the widows or the orphans. I couldn’t sit around and wait for something to happen, so I started my own organisation – SURF – to make sure that survivors had support and that their voices would be heard.
What happened in Rwanda was not a tribal issue, but a humanitarian one. Any country in the world is capable of genocide. Survivors say they’ve forgiven, but many don’t understand the word. The world is obsessed with moving on, but there’s no closure for a victim of an atrocity. Without dialogue, accountability or apology you can’t move on. It’s exhausting. Genocide is beyond forgiveness.
I met a woman who, after watching her husband and son being killed, was raped alongside one of her daughters. Her other daughters were killed at roadblocks. She was on the run for 100 days, meeting different people on the way, and was repeatedly raped. Finally she went mad and ended up in a mental hospital where she discovered she had AIDS. Now, if there was one person who had done all this and that person was found and apologised, perhaps you could forgive. But if there are hundreds who have hurt you, how can you forgive?
You can’t heal without feeling justice has been done. The perpetrators languish in prison and see themselves as innocent because they haven’t been tried. They get three meals a day and have access to good lawyers. Why have the architects of the genocide not been held to account and brought to justice? It’s a dangerous situation, because if nothing is done for the first generation of survivors, then the second generation will shoulder the burdens and become more extremist.
As for me, I’m not a victim. I have no right to grieve when so many lost their lives in cold blood. But only now, after so many years, can I close my eyes and feel the pain.