In 1994, more than 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan Genocide, a period of massive violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis that lasted 100 days. Recently, photographer Pieter Hugo visited southern Rwanda to capture an incredible series of photographs – portraits of the oppressed and their oppressors 20 years after the brutal conflict that left some two million Hutu refugees without a home as they fled their country for what was then called Zaire. The photographs are poignant reminders that humanity’s capacity for violence is often trumped by our capacity for compassion.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” - Mahatma Gandhi
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the people Hugo photographed are “part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation.” The government worked with the nonprofit AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent) over months in order to facilitate counseling between the Hutus and the Tutsis. “If forgiveness is granted by the survivor,” writes Susan Dominus, “the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.” While the photographs are not what one would call warm or congenial, given what both sides have endured for the past 20 years, the fact that they were able to exhibit even a modicum of respect towards one another, let alone affection, is astounding. The stories of forgiveness offered in the series is both humbling and inspiring.
To read the full article and see more of these incredibly moving photographs, head over to the New York Times.
MUDAHERANWA: “I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. Then AMI started to provide us with trainings. I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds — we thank God.”
MUKANYANDWI: “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.”
HABYARIMANA: “When I was still in jail, President Kagame stated that the prisoners who would plead guilty and ask pardon would be released. I was among the first ones to do this. Once I was outside, it was also necessary to ask pardon to the victim. Mother Mukabutera Caesarea could not have known I was involved in the killings of her children, but I told her what happened. When she granted me pardon, all the things in my heart that had made her look at me like a wicked man faded away.”
MUKABUTERA: “Many among us had experienced the evils of war many times, and I was asking myself what I was created for. The internal voice used to tell me, ‘‘It is not fair to avenge your beloved one.’’ It took time, but in the end we realized that we are all Rwandans. The genocide was due to bad governance that set neighbors, brothers and sisters against one another. Now you accept and you forgive. The person you have forgiven becomes a good neighbor. One feels peaceful and thinks well of the future.”
NSABIMANA: “I participated in destroying her house because we took the owner for dead. The houses that remained without owners — we thought it was better to destroy them in order to get firewood. Her forgiveness proved to me that she is a person with a pure heart.”
MUKARWAMBARI: “If I am not stubborn, life moves forward. When someone comes close to you without hatred, although horrible things happened, you welcome him and grant what he is looking for from you. Forgiveness equals mercy.”