Rwanda: Capturing a vision of hell

The journey photojournalist Jack Picone took across a Rwanda in the grips of genocide still haunts him to this day.

A mass exodus of civilians from Kigali during the genocide [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]
A mass exodus of civilians from Kigali during the genocide [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Some of the images below are graphic and show victims of massacres. 

I was in London when I first heard that Rwandans were cutting each other to pieces with machetes. Even though I was an experienced conflict photographer, that report on BBC World Service radio sent chills down my spine.

En route to Entebbe on a Ugandan Airlines flight, it was still hard to believe – mass murder with machetes? Rwanda had closed its airport and all other official entry points into the country, so I would have to make my way in illegally from neighbouring Uganda.

As I crossed the border, I experienced that mixture of emotions so familiar to photojournalists entering a country from which others are fleeing en masse: disbelief, curiosity and an undeniable dose of trepidation. What was I doing running towards and not from a country where people were frenetically murdering one another by lopping off heads and limbs?

On a minor unpoliced road, I crossed into Rwanda.

On the other side of the border, I was immediately questioned by Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) officers. They were the “liberating” forces taking the country back from their genocidal opponents.

For a while, I thought they would turn me back and make me leave the country in the same way that I had entered it. But negotiations ensued and, eventually, they agreed not only to let me stay but to travel with them, traversing the country to its capital, Kigali.

From there began my dark journey into a country rapidly descending into a vision of hell.

As we walked on, a constant mass of people streamed past us, heading in the opposite direction. Others peppered the roads, their bodies in various states of decomposition, rotting in the heat, unclaimed and anonymous. They appeared like still photographs – frozen in time.

In the near distance, we could hear the sound of machine gun fire. The huge black clouds of heavy artillery rose eerily in the sky. The landscape appeared gouged, broken, scarred.

Naively, I had no idea that worse was to come.

Before the genocide, Rukara was a small, bustling rural town. Once full of life, it was now full of the dead. Hundreds of bodies filled the streets, expressions of terror etched on to their decaying faces. Wherever I looked, death stared straight back at me.

But it was the parish church that conveyed the full incomprehensible horror. Amid overturned pews, a discarded crucifix and an alter caked in blood, were the bodies – some limbless, others headless – piled on top of one another.

The stench of death was unbearable. I vomited.

There were so many bodies that it was almost impossible to walk between them as I documented the aftermath of the carnage. I inadvertently stepped on one and felt the decomposing flesh fall away beneath my feet. It is something I regret and which continues to haunt and disturb me to this day.

Another image that I have never been able to erase from my memory is that of a young couple amid the mass of bodies in one corner of the vestibule. The man is sitting on a wooden chair, the woman is on her knees, her head placed serenely on his lap and her arms clasped tightly around his waist. He was handsome. She was beautiful. She, no doubt, hoped he would be able to protect her. Perhaps they both believed their God would do so. They were, after all, in what many Rwandans thought would be a haven. It wasn’t.

In the nearby woods, mounds of bodies rose from the soil.

Nobody was spared in Rukara – not the pregnant, not the young, not the old. The killing was wholesale, indiscriminate and monumental in scale. The methods were horrifying. Machetes, spears and guns were the tools of this murder.

I had spent a decade covering different wars all over the world, documenting diverse horrific scenes, but what made Rwanda unique and particularly disturbing to me was the sheer scale of it.

As I headed on towards Kigali with the RPF soldiers, I witnessed and documented the same scenes of horror over and over again.

I eventually left Rwanda, returning to London to file my photographs. But the nightmare of Rwanda has never left me. It haunts me to this day: one of so many dragons I cannot slay.

The RPF I had travelled with went on to “take” Kigali and, subsequently, control of the country. That was 20 years ago. But fast-forward to today and, depressingly, the region remains deeply unstable, divided by political, ethnic and cultural differences.

What have we learned? I wonder how many more visions of hell will there be for photojournalists like me to capture. 


An RPF soldier makes his way north towards Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera] 

A slaughtered Tutsi woman on the road outside Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

An armed civilian group south of Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Those that did not manage to escape the slaughter in Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Shell cases frame a family photograph [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

The corpses of Tutsis massacred at the church in Rukara [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Tutsis took refuge at the church in Rukara, hoping it would be a haven from the slaughter sweeping the country. It wasn’t [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera] 

The bloated corpses of those killed in the church at Rukara. Hand grenades were first thrown into the church to kill, maim and stun. Then those inside were strafed with machine gun fire [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Rwanda’s killing fields: one of a multitude of murder sites just north of Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

An RPF officer surveys a murder site [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Deeply traumatised Tutsi casualties at the Red Cross hospital in Byumba, north of Kigali, take stock of the enormity of what they have experienced [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Two young boys who had limbs cut off with machetes comfort each other in a hospital in Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

A woman hangs her washing to dry in a football stadium in Kigali as the shelling and killing continues outside [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

The woman clasping her neck had just confessed to the RPF officer in the doorway to murdering seven Tutsis. She was held with others responsible for mass killings [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Hutus being held prisoner in the vestibule of a Catholic church. They were part of a government-sponsored armed group responsible for mass killings in Gikoro district [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

Civilians flee Kigali with what little they have [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

A mass exodus of civilians from Kigali during the genocide [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

A deeply traumatised old man sits alone in the yard of his home in Rukara [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

A grief-stricken and traumatised Tutsi woman outside a Red Cross hospital in Byumba, north of Kigali [Jack Picone/Al Jazeera]

This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera Magazine. 

Source: Al Jazeera


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