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Power of an Image: The Rwandan Genocide (1994)

"Patrice." Photo credit: Shannon Scully (2009). See

Written by Emma Bider (Bachelor of Journalism student).
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee.

In March 1997, Nick Hughes, a BBC journalist, testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the trial of George Rutaganda.   Rutaganda had been a host on Radio RTLM, a hate radio station, inciting the killing of Tutsis and giving instructions to listeners on how to do it.

Hughes was one of two journalists to capture video footage of the killings that took place during the genocide The scene was far away, the people blurry; Hughes himself even mistakes a man and a woman for two women, yet the acts of killing are unmistakable. This was evidence. This was proof of what had been going on in Rwanda.

“There are pictures of rotting bodies around churches, but few images of the killing itself,” said Hughes. Through good luck or bad, Nick Hughes was in the right place at the right time, on top of a schoolhouse in Kigali, to witness and document one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Holocaust. His video footage is part of a too small contingent of images that depict actual killing during the Rwanda genocide.

On April 6th 1994, despite the many warning signs, the pleas from Roméo Dallaire for more troops, the international community was totally unprepared for the atrocities that would begin and continue for the next 100 days. There are barely any images of those three months of killing.

Nothing to document the killing of moderate Hutus and Tutsis, of extremists Hutus deliberately going door to door, a piece of paper in hand, looking for Tutsi households.  The initial reports out of the country focused on ex-pat European and American citizens evacuating. Reports of the events that took place for the next three months described ‘ethnic tensions’ and ‘violence on both sides’. Journalists didn’t even begin to understand what was going on in Rwanda until they saw the bodies lining the streets. By then the killing had largely ended in Kigali and was spreading out into the more rural areas. At that point, there may have been journalists in Rwanda, but they weren’t straying from Kigali.

Photos are crucial to society’s collective memory. Marianne Hirsch, a professor of English and Comparative literature at Colombia University, coined the term ‘postmemory’ to describe second-hand remembering. She describes it as the “relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents; experiences that they ‘remember’ only as the narrative and images with which they grew up”.

We are all children of the Rwanda genocide. All second-hand sufferers. But without that narrative of images, of evidence to show the killing that took place in Rwanda in 1994, we cannot properly maintain the memory of the genocide.  It’s time to re-evaluate our understanding of the genocide. Start looking for more pictures from 1994 and bringing them into the public consciousness. If not for our own desire to fully understand the inhumanity of the genocide, then for the sake of an accurate historical record. Without photographic evidence of the Rwanda genocide, our history is incomplete.


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The Prosecutor v. Georges Anderson Nderubumwe Rutaganda (Judgement and Sentence), ICTR-96-3-T, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), 6 December 1999, available at: %5Baccessed 10 December 2013]

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