1990s Conflict Photography – The Rwandan Genocide

WARNING: This post contains graphic content and may be upsetting to some people.

Introduction

In the early days of April 1994 the world was dealing with the shock announcement of Kurt Cobain’s untimely death. The lead singer and guitarist of rock band ‘Nirvana’ was discovered dead in the spare room of his Washington home. News channels filled prime time slots with details surrounding his death, and totally eclipsed all other global events that were happening at the same time.

In the small East African country of Rwanda, a long way from the MTV studios and constant speculation over Cobain’s suicide, tensions over power sharing had been mounting among prominent Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans. The assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6 signalled the beginning of intense violence and the mass murder of an estimated 800,000 people over a period of one hundred days. 

Although genocide was taking place, there was confusion and hesitation by western governments over the use of the term ‘genocide’ in press conferences. A contributor to this confusion was the lack of photographic evidence of acts of genocide taking place. The vast majority of photographic images related to the conflict only document the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, so the question must be asked, “Where were the documentary photographers when genocide was occurring?”

Historical Context

Rwanda’s population comprised three ethnic groups. The earliest known inhabitants of the area were the Twa, a Pygmy tribe of hunters. They now represent 1% of Rwanda’s population. The second largest tribe, representing 14% of the population are the Tutsi, and the majority (85%) of Rwandans are Hutu. During the colonial era, the Germans and Belgians gave special status to the Tutsi believing they were racially superior to the Twa and Hutu tribes due to their height and distinctive appearance. The three tribes had lived together in relative peace before colonisation, but the promotion of Tutsi led to intense hostility and a long history of civil war.

The political timeline of Rwanda is extremely complicated and has seen many changes over the last sixty years. In attempts to stabilise the violence, the UN pressed the ruling Belgian government to abolish the Tutsi monarchy, and in 1962 they granted full independence to Rwanda. The majority political party, the Parmehutu, (Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement) gained power, making Rwanda a Hutu dominated one party state. 

Some thirty years later, efforts were being made to introduce democratic politics to Rwanda. Tense negotiations were taking place between the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), and the Rwandan government following the signing of the Arusha Peace Agreement in August 1993. The RPF were a rebel movement primarily made up of Tutsi Rwandans and the government was predominately Hutu. The Arusha Peace Agreement attempted to establish a coalition government where Tutsi, Hutu and the lesser populated Twa tribes would be represented. However, after the shooting down of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994, deep rooted ethnic violence erupted to a scale never seen before. 

It is not clear who is responsible for the assassination of Habyarimana, but one theory which seems plausible suggests a number of Hutu extremists who rejected a power sharing plan recommended by the President may have been involved. The hope that Rwandans might experience peace after the signing of the Arusha Peace Agreement was completely shattered. Instead of peace, Rwanda was propelled into one hundred days of murder. Under the provocation of RTLM, a propaganda radio station, and the leadership of the Interahamwe, a 30,000 strong Hutu extremist member militia group, ordinary Hutus rampaged their densely populated country, killing 800,000 moderate Hutus and their Tutsi neighbours.(1)

Conflict Photography

The unfolding events in Rwanda began during the same month which saw South Africa mark the end of apartheid by holding a democratic general election. Years of ethnic separation was legally ended on April 27, 1994, when the African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela, won 63% of the people’s vote. April 27 has since been designated a public holiday to enable South Africans to gather in celebration of ‘Freedom Day.’

When considering the incredible breakthrough in South Africa when freedom was being celebrated, the terrifying plight of thousands of Rwandans at the same time casts a very dark shadow over the African continent. The Rwandan genocide in April 1994 initially received comparatively little international media attention, and was only given featured coverage on headline news stations towards the end of June. Even when the news finally broke, the developed world was slow to respond. Global media was focussed on the death of Kurt Cobain, the South African elections and the upcoming World Cup. Rwanda was being neglected. This sluggish reaction to the horrific events that were spreading quickly across Rwanda eventually caused outrage across the world. Some commentators believe the media silence added to the suffering of many Rwandans. In his book, ‘The Media and the Rwanda Genocide’ Allan Thompson states, “Through their absence and a failure to adequately observe and record events, journalists contributed to the behaviour of the perpetrators of the genocide who were encouraged by the world’s apathy and acted with impunity.”(2)

This strong view is held by many, including leading journalists and photographers who, with respectful regret, arrived in the landlocked country too late to record acts of genocide actually taking place in front of their cameras. A debate into how the attempted annihilation of an ethnicity failed to be covered fully by the media is ongoing, but the lack of photographic evidence tells the heartbreaking story of a forgotten people. 

In South Africa, documentary photographers were putting themselves in positions of great risk, some even to the point of death(3), capturing images of the violence in South African townships that led up to and continued after the election of April 1994. The bravery of the photographers was rewarded by the global response to the images they took. Documentary photography played a significant role in ending apartheid by educating the international community about the racist regime that oppressed a population. When the graphic images of violence and racist cruelty came out of South Africa and were shown to the world in newspapers and at exhibitions, people were empowered to act. Sadly, the majority of images that documented the genocide in Rwanda were taken only after hundreds of thousands of lives had already been lost. Rwandan genocide images are documents of an aftermath, not an actual event, and they were recorded much too late to empower the world to act. No one will ever know if the killings could have been stopped had photographs of machete yielding militia been taken and shown to the world. It would undoubtedly have been difficult for newspaper editors to publish such graphic images, but not telling the story of Rwanda while history was being made was a censorship of the truth, denying the world of information regarding an attack on humanity.

While people were being murdered at a horrific rate in Rwanda, American government officials were debating over terminology. They hesitated to use the term ‘genocide’ in press conferences, preferring to use the phrase ‘acts of genocide’ because of their legal and moral obligation to respond to genocide. On 10 June 1994 at a State Department briefing, spokesperson Christine Shelley was asked by reporters to define the difference between ‘acts of genocide’ and ‘genocide.’ Shelley responded, “As to the distinctions between the words, we’re trying to call what we have seen so far as best we can; and based again on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.”(4)

Reuters reporter Alan Elsner pressed Christine Shelley further asking, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”(5) Shelly replied, “Alan, that’s just not a question I’m prepared to answer.”(6)

It could be argued that reportage and documentary photographs revealing the true nature of events in Rwanda would have given the western world conclusive evidence, ensuring an immediate response, which could have saved many innocent lives. Although it was too late to end the killings, the number of documentary photographers arriving in Rwanda to cover a story that had been ongoing for months was a positive step forward. Some of the images taken in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide have provided necessary accounts leading to the imprisonment of some of the perpetrators, whilst all of the images serve as a reminder of both the importance of recording events as they happen and the power of documentary photography. 

Gilles Peress

Gilles Peress was among the first influx of international documentary photographers arriving in Rwanda post genocide. It is no surprise that Peress travelled to Rwanda to see the results of conflict for himself; he studied political science and philosophy in Paris, where he grew up, and was passionate about finding the truth in complicated situations. Peress strongly disliked making quick conclusions and had a natural desire to question simple explanations. In his attempt to understand the connection between language and reality, he became frustrated and disillusioned by the huge gap he saw between the two. Speaking in an interview with Harry Kreisler from the University of California, Berkeley, Peress commented, “I needed a tool and a vehicle to understand and formalise what was out there in the world.”(7) He didn’t set out to become a documentary photographer, but photography became his unique relationship with reality.

Peress grew incredibly frustrated by the ongoing debate surrounding the terminology of genocide and lack of evidence. He used his camera to try to make sense of the situation facing him. He is known for trusting pictures over words, which explains his determination to seek out the truth through photographic imagery. In an interview with writer Pete Hossli, Peress described his experiences of working in a country that had been ravaged by evil, hinting at the eerie peacefulness of his surroundings; “When I was travelling through Rwanda there was not a single sound. Not only were all the people dead, but all the animals too, everything.”(8) This statement also confirms the fact that the majority of international photographers had arrived in the country after the killers had fled, leaving their victims and weapons behind. 

In a place where evil reigned for one hundred days, the lifeless bodies were now at rest. It was now the job of Gilles Peress, and others like him, to photograph the crime scenes, gathering photographic evidence for the world. Commenting on his images at a later stage of his career, Peress stated, “I work much more like a forensic photographer in a certain way, collecting evidence. I’ve started to take more still lifes, like a police photographer, collecting evidence as a witness.”(9)

One of the iconic images used to depict the genocide is that of the machete. It was the weapon of choice for many of the killers who were familiar with the blade as a farming tool in a country known as the Land of a Thousand Hills for its lush green landscape. In an evidence style image taken near the Rwandan border at Goma, Zaire, (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Peress displays a pile of machetes dumped by fleeing genocidaires. The sun casts harsh shadows on the weapons used to kill thousands of innocent people, partially obscuring the machetes from view. The layers of machetes and primitive looking clubs are a graphic reminder of the intensity suffered by the victims, and this small section of a scene which was repeated along the border of Rwanda demonstrates the huge scale of the conflict. 

Zaire, 1994. Goma, near the border of Rwanda © Gilles Peress

There are no lifeless bodies in the image of discarded weapons, and no obvious blood stains on the metal, but it is an image full of death. The perpetrators are long gone having fled to refugee camps and neighbouring countries, but the chaos they caused is close by. The machetes have been thrown down by the extremists who, in efforts to avoid capture, pretended to be Tutsi survivors and refugees. The stillness in this photograph stirs emotions of anger as it so clearly points to the active violence that had hurriedly taken place, followed by the fear and cowardice of the killers. 

Although a lot of his images were of the objects of war, Peress didn’t shy away from the graphic humanistic scenes in front of him. Everywhere he looked were the horrendous sights of decaying bodies, and he captured what he saw in revealing detail. He photographed men, women and children in varying states of decomposition, putting them in the context of their surroundings. The most devastating image Peress took, in my opinion, shows the decaying body of a man laying out in front of a church. The Nyarubuye Roman Catholic Church in Kibungo Province was a place of refuge for an estimated 20,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians on 15 April 1994. By the following day they had all been indiscriminately slaughtered.

The Silence, Chapter 1: The Sin; Nyarubuye, Rwanda (April 1994) © Gilles Peress

The identity of the man photographed by Peress is unknown. We don’t know if he was a Tutsi or a moderate Hutu, but we do know he was a man who was seeking refuge in a church, but ultimately all he found was suffering. The fact this man was murdered along with 20,000 others in the same location shows just how calculated and violent the genocide was.

For Peress, this was not an exercise in creating visually pleasing images, it was about documenting history. The brutality is not hidden in the composition of the images but screams out for attention. Peress comments, “I don’t care that much anymore about “good photography.” I’m gathering evidence for history, so that we remember.”(10)

The photographs taken by Peress in Rwanda are so graphic and disturbing that we become drawn in to the horror of the victims’ experiences. We are confronted with what they must have gone through in their last hours, and then we are faced with our own failings, that we in the West were so slow to respond in their hour of need.

Gilles Peress’ stark monochrome photographs taken during 1994 were published in his book, The Silence. This is a book full of brutal imagery and a powerful concept. The Silence begins with these words;

“Rwanda, Kabuga 27 May 1994, 16h:15.

A prisoner, a killer is presented to us,

It is a moment of confusion, of fear,

Of prepared stories.

He has a moment to himself.”(11)

The first image contained in the book is of a man, presumably the killer mentioned in the opening words. He stares blankly ahead avoiding the camera. The following pages in the book represent the memories of the man as he reflects on his participation in the genocide. The three chapters each tackle a different theme, Chapter one, The Sin reveals the weaponry used and the locations of some of the fiercest massacres. Chapter two, Purgatory, is a documentation of the fleeing of Rwanda into neighbouring countries by survivors and killers alike, and chapter three reveals the struggle of life in the refugee camps affected by a cholera epidemic.

On the last page of the book we see the prisoner again, and the text shows the passage of time;

“Rwanda, Kabuga, 27 May 1994, 16h:18.

As I look at him he looks at me.”(12)

It is this haunting last comment that cuts through the disturbing imagery and gets to the core issue; this is a tragic story about real people who affected humanity in a devastating way. The title of Peress book points to his deep understanding of the situation faced by Rwandans. The world was silent. We didn’t speak up for the people in Rwanda who had no voice. I believe The Silence is intended to speak for them now by giving voice to their terrible suffering. 

James Nachtwey

Gilles Peress wasn’t the only documentary photographer working in Rwanda after the genocide; One of the worlds most respected conflict photographers was present, carefully and respectfully capturing the dreadful scenes of death. American war photographer James Nachtwey had been covering the South African elections in 1994 and was no stranger to witnessing extreme violence having photographed township clashes alongside members of the infamous Bang Bang Club. Nachtwey approaches his work in conflict areas as a negotiator for peace. Many of the places he has worked, including Rwanda, are locations few people from the Western world would travel to during such volatile times, yet Nachtwey accepts his responsibility to take those people there through his images. 

It is Nachtwey’s view that, “If everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.”(13)

Nachtwey uses photography to document and reveal the truth, presenting it to the world with integrity. He has said, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”(14)

Both Peress and Nachtwey used the ambiguity of identity within their images to portray the complexity of the issue. ‘Who is Tutsi within this image? Is that person Hutu?’ The photographers often left those questions unanswered in their publications, but they still invited the viewer to wonder about the guilt or innocence of the people being photographed. 

Rwanda, 1994 – Survivor of Hutu death camp © James Nachtwey

It would be understandable to assume the man photographed by Nachtwey was a Tutsi survivor, but he was in fact a moderate Hutu who sympathised with the plight of his Tutsi neighbours. To some extent, the ethnicity and innocence of the man was not Nachtwey’s concern. He uses the universal language of imagery to convey a message, and in this case I believe he intended to reveal the sheer brutality and unnecessary suffering of the Rwandan people in 1994. It was not a simple African tribal war. The complexities running through the conflict meant, although Hutu extremists were attempting to eliminate the Tutsi, Hutus were also killed and wounded by fellow Hutus during the one hundred days of violence.
Nachtwey speaks into the deeper issues surrounding photographing conflicts, “For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.”(15)

Robert Lyons

In a rare image from Rwanda where the subject is named, Robert Lyons reveals the deeper truth behind the identity of this man by naming the location where the photograph was taken. On first appearances Anastase Ntabareshya could be a survivor, a husband, the father of a child murdered in front of his own eyes. However, the fact this image was taken at Remera Prison would suggest this man was not a survivor but someone who participated in the genocide and is now imprisoned for his crimes against humanity. 

Anastase Ntabareshya, Remera Prison, 1998 © Robert Lyons.

Lyons’ image sits the viewer opposite a man who has potentially committed some of the worst crimes imaginable, yet the way in which he has been photographed almost stirs a compassion to rise within us. There is brokenness in the man’s eyes. We come face to face with the reality that human beings, not invisible monsters, were responsible for carrying out deliberate actions which caused the deaths of 800,000 people. 

Summary

There are many unanswered questions about the role of documentary photography concerning the Rwandan genocide. The fact that so few images were taken during the early days of the conflict is part of the bigger debate into why the Western world wasn’t interested in the lives of Rwandans until it was too late. 

The aftermath images of decaying bodies, piles of discarded weapons and portraits of perpertrators all serve as evidential documents that between April and June 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were systematically murdered in an attempt to annihilate an ethnicity. These images must be used to educate future generations as they aim to avoid such devastating conflicts from happening again. 

The sad reality of course is that genocide has happened since Rwanda, just like it happened again after the Holocaust. The challenge facing documentary photographers is to be present during all stages of conflicts to ensure the world is never again denied the oportunity to know what crimes are being committed against humanity. 

“James Nachtwey acknowledges that recording grief, injury, death, and distress is potentially a form of exploitation, but he makes it clear that the alternative – allowing man-made misery to remain invisible beyond the reach of those whose consciences should be shocked by it – is worse.”(16)

References

1 Dallaire, Roméo., 2004. Shake Hands With the Devil. Arrow Books.

2 Thompson, Allan., 2007. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Fountain Publishers.

3 Marinovich, Greg. & Silva, Joao., 2001. The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. Basic Books

4 Christine Shelly, State Department spokesperson, 10 June 1994

5 Alan Elsner, Reuters reporter, 10 June 1994

6 Christine Shelly, State Department spokesperson, 10 June 1994

7 Kreisler, Harry., 10 April 1997. Interview with Gilles Peress: Images, Reality and the Curse of History. UC Berkeley. [Online] Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-interview-with-gilles-peress.html [Accessed 1 October 2009].

8 Hossli, Peter., 1 September 2007. Capturing the Heat of the Moment. Suisse Bulletin. [Online] Available at: http://www.hossli.com/articles/2007/09/01/capturing-the-heat-of-the-moment/ [Accessed 1 October 2009].

9 Peress, Gilles., 6 October 1997. U.S. News. [Online] Available at: http://www.artsmia.org/get-the-picture/peress/index.html [Accessed 20 October 2009].

10 Peress, Gilles., date unknown. Luminous Lint. [Online] Available at: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Gilles__Peress/ABCDEF/ [Accessed 12 November 2009]

11 Peress, Gilles., 1995. The Silence. Illustrated Edition. Scalo Publishers.

12 Peress, Gilles., 1995. The Silence. Illustrated Edition. Scalo Publishers.

13, 14 & 15 Nachtwey, James., 1 October 2002. The Fahey/Klein Gallery Press Release. [Online]
Available at: http://www.faheykleingallery.com/featured_artists/nachtwey/nachtwey_e1_frames.htm [Accessed 10 December 2009]

16 Scott, A. O., 19 June 2002. War Photographer (2001) Film Review; Witnessing the Witness: Looking Over a Shoulder at War’s Deprivation. [Online] Available at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9905EEDA113BF93AA25755C0A9649C8B63 [Accessed 12 December 2009]

Bibliography

Books

Thompson, Allan., 2007. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Fountain Publishers. 

Keane, Fergal., 1996. Season of Blood a Rwandan Journey. The Penguin Group.

Gourevitch, Philip., 2000. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Picador.

Dallaire, Roméo., 2004. Shake Hands With the Devil. Arrow Books.

Peress, Gilles., 1995. The Silence. Illustrated Edition. Scalo Publishers.

Marinovich, Greg. & Silva, Joao., 2001. The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. Basic Books

Films

Hotel Rwanda, 2004. [Film] Directed by Terry George. United Artists.

Shooting Dogs, 2005. [Film] Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Cross Day Productions Ltd.

Sometimes in April, 2005. [Film] Directed by Raoul Peck. Cinefacto.
War Photographer, 2001. [Film] Directed by Christian Frei. Christian Frei Film Productions.

Websites

Kreisler, Harry., 10 April 1997. Interview with Gilles Peress: Images, Reality and the Curse of History. UC Berkeley. [Online] Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-interview-with-gilles-peress.html [Accessed 1 October 2009].

Hossli, Peter., 1 September 2007. Capturing the Heat of the Moment. Suisse Bulletin. [Online] Available at: http://www.hossli.com/articles/2007/09/01/capturing-the-heat-of-the-moment/ [Accessed 1 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 6 October 1997. U.S. News. [Online] Available at: http://www.artsmia.org/get-the-picture/peress/index.html [Accessed 20 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., date unknown. Luminous Lint. [Online] Available at: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Gilles__Peress/ABCDEF/ [Accessed 12 November 2009]

Nachtwey, James., 1 October 2002. The Fahey/Klein Gallery Press Release. [Online] Available at: http://www.faheykleingallery.com/featured_artists/nachtwey/nachtwey_e1_frames.htm [Accessed 10 December 2009]

Scott, A. O., 19 June 2002. War Photographer (2001) Film Review; Witnessing the Witness: Looking Over a Shoulder at War’s Deprivation. [Online] Available at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9905EEDA113BF93AA25755C0A9649C8B63 [Accessed 12 December 2009]

Photographs
Nachtwey, James., 1994. Rwanda, 1994 – Survivor of Hutu Death Camp. [Photograph] Available at: http://www.ascmag.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/nachtwey-photo-one3.jpg [Accessed 4 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 1994. Zaire, 1994. Goma, near the border of Rwanda. [Photograph] Available at: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_MuWNJtJ8XS4/Sdy1v3DN0PI/AAAAAAAAEZc/n6-EC9S4hNU/s1600-h/Peress.Machetes.Rwanda.94.jpg [Accessed 4 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 1994. The Silence, Chapter 1: The Sin; Nyarubuye, Rwanda (April 1994). [Photograph]
Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-interview-with-gilles-peress.html [Accessed 1 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 1994. Nyarubuye, Rwanda (April 1994). [Photograph]
Available at: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/clyne003/1601fall2008/copyrightGilles%20Peress.jpg [Accessed 5 October 2009]

Lyons, Robert., 1998. Anastase Ntabareshya, Remera Prison. [Photograph]Available at: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_MuWNJtJ8XS4/Sdy3HVe9Q0I/AAAAAAAAEZk/Nf_vwwEAGdY/s400/robert_ruanda_01.jpg [Accessed 4 October 2009]

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