For those who survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, memories of the horrors of the massacres are still fresh.
These are memories of Hutu militia and extremists killing their neighbours, friends, relatives, children, workmates, schoolmates and all those they perceived to be the “others.”
Yet, despite these enduring memories, over the past 21 years, the Hutu-Tutsi story has been dramatically changing from ethnic violence and extreme anger and guilt to reconciliation. This is the story that South African photographer Pieter Hugo and Lana Mesic, a Croatian-Dutch photographer, set out to document when in March last year, they went to Huye district in the Southern Province and took photographs of survivors and perpetrators of the genocide who are now living peacefully together despite coming from opposite sides of an atrocious past.
The photographs, which present reflections on forgiveness after the 1994 killings were shown in Kigali on March 30-April 3, at an exhibition dubbed “Portraits of Reconciliation,” which took place at the Goethe-Institut in Kiyovu. April in Rwanda marks the beginning of the genocide commemoration.
The project was courtesy of Creative Court – a Hague-based arts organisation that reflects on peace and justice – and its main objective is to “further develop conversations on the meaning of forgiveness.”
Creative Court worked closely with the Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI), a Huye-based non-profit organisation that ensures that Hutus and Tutsis are counselled to help perpetrators make formal requests for forgiveness – and are subsequently forgiven.
One nugget of wisdom came from Christophe Karorero, a survivor of the 1994 massacres who features in one of the photographs. He is quoted in interviews conducted by AMI and Creative Court for the project as saying: “Sometimes justice does not give someone a satisfactory answer – cases are subject to corruption. But when it comes to forgiveness willingly granted, one is satisfied once and for all. When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest.”
Karorero is pictured with Francois Sinzikiramuka, a Hutu perpetrator who said he watched, as the former’s brother was massacred by extremists he was well acquainted with.
“I asked him for forgiveness because his brother was killed in my presence. He asked me why I pleaded guilty, and I replied that I did it as someone who witnessed this crime but who was unable to save anybody. It was the order from authorities. I let him know who the killers were, and the killers also asked him for pardon,” Sinzikiramuka said.
Reality or illusion?
Hugo and Mesic undertook the project in search of the boundaries between reality and illusion and their contemplative pictures tell the story of forgiveness as a process through time. In the photographs, the two photographers capture what they describe as the “raw and complex nature of forgiveness.”
In some pictures, reconciliation looks real while in others, it looks like an illusion. For instance, the photograph that features Jean Pierre Karenzi as the perpetrator and Viviane Nyiramana as the survivor, portrays the former as a man who is only willing to be photographed – nothing more – if the grimace on his face is anything to go by.
However, in the interview, Karenzi, who killed Nyiramana’s father and three brothers during the genocide, is quoted as saying: “My conscience was not quiet, and when I would see her I was very ashamed. After being trained about unity and reconciliation, I went to her house and asked for forgiveness. Then I shook her hand. So far, we are on good terms.”
Nyiramana’s story: “He did these killings with other people, but he came alone to me and asked for pardon. He and a group of other offenders who had been in prison helped me build a house with a covered roof. I was afraid of him – now I have granted him pardon, things have become normal, and my mind is calm.”
The photographs are a representation of the long and complex process of overcoming anger and guilt caused by interpersonal violence that led to the death of an estimated one million people when the tide of death swept through Rwanda in 1994.
“It gets you thinking, how long does a perpetrator remain a perpetrator, and a victim a victim? And to what extent is forgiveness a decision? These are questions that interest us,” said Rabiaa Benlahbib, director of Creative Court.