Relief Efforts Remain Crucial For Healing From Genocide
Discrimination, Equality, Justice / 25 Jan 2022

Relief Efforts Remain Crucial For Healing From Genocide

By Hannah Shewan Stevens, Freelance Journalist
Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

“Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for communities, as well as the population as a whole, not only to commemorate genocides but also to learn about them,” said David Russell, UK Coordinator for Survivors Fund, a charity helping to rebuild the lives of survivors of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. “Ensuring that the history is preserved and the memory is extended for future generations.”

Founded in 1995 by Mary Kayitesi Blewitt OBE, a British citizen of Rwandan origin, Survivors Fund (SURF) focuses its efforts on supporting survivors of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Blewitt lost over 50 members of her family in the genocide and helped found the first survivors’ organisations in Rwanda while working for the Rwandan Ministry of Rehabilitation from July 1994. 

The Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda took place between 7 April and 15 July 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War. Members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa, were killed by armed militias. In a period of around 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Tutsi people were slaughtered and an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 women were raped. The total death toll is estimated to be as high as 1.1 million. 

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

SURF focuses on rebuilding the lives of those who survived the genocide. The charity develops and delivers holistic programmes of support alongside survivor-led organisations in Rwanda, primarily the Association of Widows of the Genocide (AVEGA) and the Students’ Association of Survivors (AERG). Support is all-encompassing to ensure that survivors are assisted with everything from healthcare and house building to education and entrepreneurship. 

“All our programmes are delivered in partnership with local survivor organisations,” said Russell. “We’re not competing at all against our local partner organisations. We’re there essentially as a means of complementing their work and providing additional capacity, resources, experience and expertise.”

All SURF’s efforts are determined by local organisations to ensure that their work has the most impact, where it is most needed. However, one of the biggest challenges the organisation faces is raising public awareness of the genocide and maintaining interest and support.

“I think the biggest challenge is actually time,” explained Russell. “In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, there was obviously a huge amount of media and public interest in the cause because the atrocities were so recent in the mind, with very stark, graphic visual images broadcast around the world.”

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

While awareness-raising is a key component of preventing future genocides and healing from past atrocities, maintaining relief efforts is also crucial.  

“Generating interest in Rwanda becomes more challenging as the events become more distant,” continued Russell. “Even though genocide happened some time ago and the country has largely rebuilt itself, there is still a real pressing need for support for the most vulnerable, marginalised survivors that don’t have access to assistance.”

Survivors of the genocide are still in need of support as the country continues to heal. One of SURF’s primary focuses has been on mental health care provision. 

“There’s still very little provision or access to mental healthcare in Rwanda,” said Russell. “Those that experienced genocide live with the trauma that they experienced at that time. It’s not something that you just solve – it arises at different points of different stages in the lives of survivors, so there’s a need for constant access to that support, which is a real principal focus.”

We are definitely seeing the intergenerational inheritance of trauma

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

We are definitely seeing the intergenerational inheritance of trauma

Alongside its efforts to improve the mental wellbeing of survivors, SURF helps to create opportunities for survivors to earn an income, develop business skills, access education and secure housing to increase their standard of living.  

“If you can successfully address the mental health component and the income generation component, many of the other parts of support that are required can be fulfilled by the survivor, or by the individual beneficiaries themselves,” said Russell. “If you help them generate an income, they can buy a new house or restore their dilapidated house, they can afford better food and more nutritious food. They have better access to utilities, they can afford healthcare, or they can pay for school fees and educational support for their children.”

SURF’s work does not exclusively focus on survivors of the genocide: it also supports children born to women raped during the genocide and other vulnerable groups, including dependents of women widowed in the genocide. The charity is also seeing the impact of generational trauma among Rwandan communities, which they are combatting through the provision of mental health support for children of survivors. 

“We are definitely seeing the intergenerational inheritance of trauma and obviously there are a lot of parallel learnings from second-generation Holocaust survivors,’ said Russell. “We certainly recognise that the need for help, particularly for mental health support, does not end with the survivors themselves.”

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

Relief efforts must continue to go hand-in-hand with increased consciousness of genocide to ensure the memory of past events is never left behind, so that future atrocities can be prevented. 

“There are continuing threats that genocides can and are perpetrated to this day,” said Russell. “Genocide does not emerge out of nothing. It has its seeds in political propaganda and ideology, in exclusion and prejudice, discrimination, racism and antisemitism. It’s important that one is mindful of the need to address all of those factors, which, if left unaddressed, can lead to genocide.”

For a week of content in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day about the ways the world is affected by genocides, EachOther interviewed Russell about the importance of educational and relief efforts in supporting survivors of genocide and raising awareness of the continuing impact of such events on vulnerable communities.

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

What does Survivors Fund do?

We were set up in 1995 by Mary Kayitesi Blewitt OBE, a British citizen of Rwandan origin, who lost many of her family in the genocide. She set up SURF as an international organisation to raise awareness of the plight of survivors of the genocide, and ultimately to raise funding to enable them to rebuild their lives. 

Projects currently range from livelihood development to employment and entrepreneurship. A big focus is on helping survivors to generate their own income to be self-sufficient and independent. We do a lot of work in counselling, both one-on-one counselling and counselling groups, and we support vocational training to enable people to find a pathway into employment.

What systems are in place to ensure the services you provide are the most impactful for survivors of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda?

The projects and areas in which we work are entirely determined by the local survivor-led organisations through which all of the programmes are delivered. Essentially, we take our lead from them. Our two principal partner organisations are AVEGA and AERG. 

All our programmes are delivered in partnership with local survivor organisations. We’re not competing at all against our local partner organisations. We’re there essentially as a means of complementing their work and providing additional capacity, resources, experience and expertise.

What are the barriers to raising awareness of lesser-known genocides like the one that happened in Rwanda? 

I think the biggest challenge is actually time. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, there was obviously a huge amount of media and public interest in the cause because the atrocities were so recent in the mind, with very stark, graphic visual images broadcast around the world. The coverage resulted in a huge amount of outpouring of support funding.

Generating interest in Rwanda becomes more challenging as the events become more distant. A younger generation, if they’re under the age of 30, the genocide didn’t happen in their living memory. So, in that respect, they may have more difficulty understanding and engaging. That’s where our role is, to raise awareness. Even though genocide happened some time ago and the country has largely rebuilt itself, there is still a real pressing need for support for the most vulnerable, marginalised survivors that don’t have access to assistance.

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

What issues are SURF and your partner organisations focused on now?

One is around counselling, so mental health because there’s still very little provision or access to mental healthcare in Rwanda. The country has made great strides in delivering primary healthcare and has an amazing health system to do so. But there is only one national specialised psychiatric hospital in the entire country serving over 13 million people. At last count, there are less than 20 psychiatrists in the entire country, serving that population. 

We’ve done a lot of work on building the capacity of local partners to be trained to deliver Mental Health First Aid or basic counselling. Those that experienced genocide live with the trauma that they experienced at that time. It’s not something that you just solve, it arises at different points of different stages in their lives, so there’s a need for constant access to that support, which is a real principal focus. Over the last couple of years, we have had to transition much of our counselling from in-person to phone-based, because of COVID through the support of donors such as Clifford Chance. 

Then alongside that, there is the livelihood development and income generation, which for older survivors is giving them access to training to understand how to set up small businesses, providing access to capital through loans, and to ensure they can continue to access support so those businesses are sustainable. For the younger population, vocational training, employment programmes and internships enable them to secure jobs. 

If you can successfully address the mental health component and the income generation component, many of the other parts of support that are required can be fulfilled by the survivor, or by the individual beneficiaries themselves. If you can help people to generate an income, they can buy a new house or restore their dilapidated house, they can afford better food and more nutritious food. They have better access to utilities, they can afford healthcare, or they can pay for school fees and educational support for their children. 

The public has a role in ensuring that there is a public commemoration

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

The public has a role in ensuring that there is a public commemoration

How do you address intergenerational trauma among genocide survivors and their families?

There are certain populations that we work specifically with, so one population is children that were born to women survivors raped during the genocide. We support almost 1,000 of those women and their children who are now young adults themselves. Initially, through access to school, and more recently, through access to vocational training. Alongside that, we developed this model of peer support counselling groups facilitated by a professional counsellor: a safe and secure space for those women and separate counselling groups for the young adults to share their experiences and provide mutual support for each other. This is in partnership with our international partner, Foundation Rwanda

We definitely are seeing the intergenerational inheritance of trauma and, obviously, there are a lot of parallels and learnings from second-generation Holocaust survivors. We certainly recognise that the need for help, particularly for mental health support, does not end with the survivors themselves. It is required to provide support for their children to deal with what can be difficult and challenging relationships that they have with their parents because of the trauma that they themselves experienced. Essentially secondary trauma, which is definitely an occurrence and one that we’re looking to continue working on, in particular with the support of one of our other international partners, Network for Africa, which is an expert in addressing trauma in communities impacted by conflict. 

How can people in the UK help raise awareness of genocides like the one that happened in Rwanda?

At the basic level, they can provide funding through making donations to support the work of those charities. Parents have a particular responsibility to educate their children. Education systems have a role in ensuring that it’s on the curriculum and formally taught. The public has a role in ensuring that there is a public commemoration. Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for communities, as well as the population as a whole, not only to commemorate genocides but also to learn about them. Ensuring that the history is preserved and the memory is extended for future generations.”

Credit: Survivors Fund / Flickr

What do you think everyone should understand about genocide?

Ultimately, it isn’t a distant phenomenon in time or place. There is an ever-present threat of genocide, wherever you are and at whatever time you are living. It’s not just a historical phenomenon. There are continuing threats that genocides can and are perpetrated to this day. Genocide does not emerge out of nothing, it has its seeds in political propaganda and ideology, in exclusion and prejudice, discrimination, racism and antisemitism It’s important that one is mindful of the need to address all of those factors, which, if left unaddressed, can lead to genocide. This has been proven, not just once in history with the Holocaust, but subsequently in Rwanda and in other places.

What is SURF’s key message for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022?

Being a survivor-focused organisation, it is the aftermath of genocide. There are very particular needs of support for the survivors of that event or events. The key message is that there is both a concurrent need to focus on preventing genocide; but, in those instances where genocide has been perpetrated, there is a corresponding, equally important need to ensure that the survivors of that genocide have access to the support necessary to rebuild their lives.

What role does raising awareness and improving education play in preventing genocide from happening again?

We’re one of a number of voices that are amplifying the messages of the importance of preventing genocide and demonstrating the consequences that result from not doing so. We’re part of that chorus of a number of organisations that are focused on supporting survivors of genocide, working on ensuring that the message is conveyed. Working in alliance and alongside those organisations we will benefit from a world where there isn’t a need for survivor organisations because there won’t be more genocide. We’re trying to work ourselves out of a job.

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Stories of Genocide: Lessons for Today – EachOther’s forthcoming documentary

On 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day, EachOther will release ‘Stories of Genocide: Lessons for Today’, a documentary that tells the powerful stories of genocide survivors, and explores some of the ways their messages are being preserved and passed on to future generations.

About The Author

Hannah Shewan Stevens Freelance Journalist

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She acted as EachOther's Interim Editor from Summer 2021 to January 2022. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She acted as EachOther's Interim Editor from Summer 2021 to January 2022. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.