Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a GenocidePieter Hugo

(Oodee, 2011)

“You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches. All those who are listening, rise so we can fight for our Rwanda. We must all fight the Tutsis. We must finish with them, exterminate them, sweep them from the whole country. There must be no refuge for them. They must be exterminated. There is no other way” – Rwanda Radio, April 1994

This chilling genocidal call to arms was broadcast throughout Rwanda only days after the assassination of the country’s Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana. The slaughter of the minority Tutsis began immediately, and while the UN stated “it did not have a mandate to intervene”, western governments deliberated over the subtle nuances of what defined the term ‘genocide’.  This inaction perpetuated the scale and speed of the genocide, and in only 100 days over 800,000 Rwandans were systematically murdered.

South African photographer Pieter Hugo visited Rwanda ten years after the genocide.  In Vestiges of a Genocide he documents a place defined by the consequences of unimaginable savagery and a landscape still littered by its tangible scars. Hugo notes in the books forward, “How does one regard landscapes where this type of atrocity has occurred? How does one interpret the events that took place in Rwanda in 1994? How does a divided society which has gone through something as terrible as this, manage to co-exist?”  These questions vividly resonate from each spread, but the weight of their historical context is overwhelming.

Hugo’s career has been characterized by documenting those on the marginalized fringes of African society. His work always provocatively confronts the viewer, challenging issues of race and poverty. Compared to Hugo’s later work, Vestiges of Genocide is stylistically restrained. Juxtaposed with Linda Melvern’s compelling essay, it results in a testament that is a damming indictment to those who had the power to intervene, and whose inactions ultimately sanctioned a people to an apocalyptic fate.

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