Rwanda: Eight Years Later

In these articles Liisa Hyvarinen describes her meetings with Rwandese journalists and her impressions of that country.

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that left an estimated one million people dead and some 250,000 women raped and mutilated as part of the systematic effort to destroy Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsi minority, I was a TV news producer in transition switching from one job to the next between Tennessee and South Carolina.

What led my newscasts and dominated the American general consciousness was the O.J. Simpson case and while I remember reading about the atrocities in Rwanda on the Associated Press newswire I, like so many others, didn’t pay much attention to the horror.

My first warning of the emotional toll this trip would take came from a friend I had met online preparing for Rwanda. Dart Fellow Gina Barton, who had traveled to Rwanda in 2001, put me in touch with Steven Pasternack, a journalism professor at University of New Mexico and a Fulbright Scholar who had spent months in Rwanda.

It was Steve who first warned me about the genocide memorials everywhere in Rwanda and the impact they could have on my psyche once I got on the ground. Always the TV journalist looking for visual elements, I had asked Steve how much of the evidence of the genocide I would still be able to photograph now eight years after the massacres. In one of his most helpful e-mails directing my preparation for the trip Steve wrote: “There are several genocide sites sprinkled across the landscape. A genocide museum is in the planning stages in Kigali, but not under construction yet. Easy to get to genocide sites, but really gruesome, I'll alert you. Much worse than Dachau or Auschwitz.”

Almost delighted to know there would still be images to photograph, I ignored the larger meaning of Steve’s message.

Needless to say my attitude changed quickly once I arrived in Kigali in early June. Ethiopian Airlines lost my luggage and I was left to go shopping for everything from toothpaste to hiking boots at the local market square. The locals were very helpful and curious about my presence in Kigali and as I shopped for my items they freely shared their experiences of the genocide.

And I quickly came to the conclusion that everyone in Rwanda was a victim. Everyone had seen death. Everyone had seen bloodshed, murder and massacres. Everyone had lost a loved one. And everyone was looking for a way to reclaim their lives or whatever was left of them.

Part 2

The day after our arrival I went to a Gacaca trial to observe the process that was going to attempt to grant justice to the genocide victims and the 110,000 suspects awaiting trial on genocide charges. Only the ring leaders of the mass violence are being tried in the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania – the rest will go through the Gacaca process where specially elected local judges will decide the fate of the accused in a system closely mirroring the ancient way of dispensing justice in Rwanda.

More than 200 people packed the little tented area that served as the Gacaca court that day. After the judges for that district were sworn in a ceremony long on messages of reconciliation, forgiveness and unity, the tension was palpable as the audience got its first opportunity to ask questions.

One woman asked: “there are lots of people who just disappeared – we don’t know if they were killed or what their fate was? What will happen to their cases? The courts answer: “This court does not address those issues.” Another woman then rose up to speak. “I wasn’t here during the killing,” she said. “But I was told how my family was killed when I returned. Will I be allowed to testify against the people who killed my family?”

The court’s answer: “No, you can’t testify because it would be hearsay. The original witnesses will be contacted for their first hand accounts.”

And so the questions continued only to be punctuated by the occasional ringing of cell phones. Each person who rose to address the court had his or her family’s personal tragedy to share in this sea of mass tragedy where many in the audience carried the visible scars of the violence. There were scars everywhere both visible on skin as well as audible in some of the descriptions of the violence the people seeking justice shared with the court.

A few days later I attended another Gacaca hearing in another district. There after the testimony I met with Thomas (Tom) Kamilindi, a leading radio reporter in Rwanda. Sitting in our rented Land Rover, Tom shared his story as a member of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority as well as a working journalist trying to survive the killing and report on it (full story in November 2002 Quill magazine – on the web at

“Every time I go to the memorial sites and see the skulls I can’t help myself,” Kamilindi said in a hushed voice. “Every time I look at them, I cry. Because I remember my daughter, who was killed during the genocide. So maybe her skull is somewhere but I don’t know where.”

Igihozo Kamilindi was only five in the spring of 1994 when she left for a vacation with her grandparents. Like thousands of others in Rwanda, her father Tom seeks closure for her death as Igihozo’s body was never found.

“By the time I got to the place where she had gone for the holiday with her grandparents, there was nothing left,” Kamilindi said. “I couldn’t even find the place where the relatives’ home had once stood. All the bodies had already been collected and dumped into a mass grave. The grass had already grown over everything. There were no signs of the life that once existed there before.”

Maybe hearing this heart-wrenching story from a fellow journalist hit me harder than the other stories I had already heard from so many others. Everywhere I turned I had met people who wanted to tell me their story. I had spent a day at a special center for victims of mass rapes – I had seen evidence pictures of women whose sexual organs had been mutilated - I had interviewed these women most of whom had contracted HIV or AIDS from the gang rapes and were now dying from the disease.

I had photographed girls as young as nine years old whose parents didn’t know if they too were HIV positive and didn’t have the money get the children tested or to buy them medicine if they tested positive for the killer virus. I had witnessed a woman desperate to have me believe her story rip open her business suit to show me where the bayonet pierced her skin scaring her for life.

At the end of that day I was exhausted and sought comfort in a glass of white wine at the hotel bar only to have my roommate Deirdre introduce me to a new friend she had made. After the obligatory pleasantries during the formal introductions this young man asked me to run my hand through his thick hair. Confused I looked at Deirdre and she nodded her head encouraging me to reach my hand out. And I understood her point instantaneously when the tips of my fingers sensed the bulging scars left all over this young man’s head.

As if bitten by a snake I yanked my hand back horrified by the pain he must have endured. Not knowing the appropriate thing to say I simply asked: How? And in a tone as matter of fact as discussing the weather, the young man answered: “By machete.”

Part 3

I had done pre-trip research on a total of six subjects ranging from issues affecting orphan children in Rwanda to the Gacaca legal process thinking I would have the energy and the time to easily complete six stories in about three weeks. But I came back with four pieces and a realization that I simply couldn’t listen to another victim’s story right then and there. I would be no good to anyone a journalist, a writer and a human being. I simply couldn’t process the massive pain anymore. I was getting victims confused in my mind; their stories were bleeding into each other.

I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until two days before my scheduled departure when Deirdre, Ervin and I drove about an hour outside of Kigali to Nyamata to see a special genocide memorial. I had seen a few memorials already but nothing prepared me for the scenes in Nyamata.

The Catholic church in Nyamata was used as a slaughtering center. The villager who cares for the church building now told us the killing there went on for two months resulting in about 20,000 deaths.

On the outside the church didn’t look like much – a simple building rising from the gray dusty ground - but once inside the evidence was everywhere even though the bodies had long since been removed. The clay floor made of the same gray clay as the ground outside was tarnished in permanent red color from all the blood that had been soaked into it. And the pulpit had been left the way it had been found after the last murders were committed – the cloth covering it still drenched in blood.

Quietly we walked through the church looking at memorial wreaths left behind by surviving family members. The church’s caretaker then took us downstairs to see an exhibit of skulls that bore the marks of massive machete blows to the heads of the victims. In the middle of the glass cabinet was one intact skeleton. We were told it was that of a young woman who had been found alive but who died of her massive wounds later.

As we walked up the stairs from the basement I happened to look up and at first thought I was seeing stars in the ceiling. But it was the sun shining through thousands of little holes. “They stood on the roof and shot through it into the crowd in the beginning of the massacres when they still had bullets,” explained the man who was showing us around.

Once outside the old man took us behind the church. The back yard was covered by large cement blocks with two small openings leading underground. And in there in carefully arranged rows were the remains of most of Nyamata’s victims. The row of skulls and bones continued room after room. All sizes were there from babies to grownups.

There was little conversation in the car on the way back to the hotel. But then I remember what Thomas Kamilindi, the Rwandan radio journalist had shared with me. Unlike many other victims of traumatic events, Kamilindi had found a way to deal with his grief. “I don’t have nightmares mostly because I talk about it a lot,” he said.

“They (the mental health experts) say that it’s good to talk about what happened, not to hide those experiences.” And with the best mental health expert possible – Ervin – in the car with us, I started bombarding him with questions seeking solace in his advice and kind listening ear.

“Tom” Kamilindi also told me that witnessing the violence and being a victim of it has changed the way he now conducts interviews. He says he is willing to give survivors more time; if they break down during an interview, he’s prepared to make another appointment for a later time thus putting the interview subject’s needs before his own. “I can always come back when the victim feels more up to it.”

I think of that last statement of Kamilindi’s now every time I sit down to conduct another interview with a crime victim. It’s probably the most enduring lesson I learned from my trip to Rwanda. And never again will I prepare for a reporting trip only making preparations for my physical wellbeing. My mental wellbeing will also get its fair share of attention so that the events I witness and the stories I hear don’t overwhelm me the way my experience in Rwanda did.