by Pieter Hugo – Essay by Linda Melvern
In 2004 South African photographer Pieter Hugo was astonished by a photograph used to illustrate an article on the Rwandan genocide. The picture showed a human skull on an altar inside the Catholic church at Ntarama, south of Kigali.
Ten years previously an estimated 5,000 Tutsis were massacred there by government soldiers, civilians and the feared Interahamwe; across Rwanda many victims had believed, mistakenly, that churches would provide secure refuge. But what most arrested Hugo was the fact that a decade after the killings (the photograph was made in 2004) the evidence, remains and detritus of genocide were still to be seen. He resolved to visit, ‘photographing and contemplating’ the sites of Rwanda’s carnage. The results of that journey are now published as Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide offering, he writes, “a glimpse of what I saw there before the reburials took place.”
Kigali International Airport. Over a period of four days, some 3,900 people of 22 nationalities left Rwanda with the help of European troops flown in for that purpose. © Pieter Hugo
On the face of it, many of his pictures are unremarkably placid – a scrubby track through a plantation; empty goalposts on a football pitch; a featureless view over Lake Kivu on a day without weather. “At many of the places,” Hugo writes, “there is nothing happening and historical knowledge is needed to support the images.” The goalposts, it turns out, were in Kibuye’s Gatwaro Stadium where grenades, machine gun fire, machetes and nail-studded clubs were used to slaughter around 2,500 families; banana plantations were cleared in the hunts for survivors; Rwanda’s rivers and lakes were the sites of countless drownings, and further used as dumping grounds for bodies.
Mass grave at the Centre de Sante, Kimironko. © Pieter Hugo
Elsewhere Hugo’s photographs address their subject more directly. He pictures the openings to mass graves in Murambi, Nyamata, and Kimironko – where Tutsi hospital patients were taken from their beds to be murdered, often with the complicity of doctors and nurses. He photographed Emmanuel Mugangira, caretaker of one of the countries six memorial sites, standing between rows of neatly sorted skulls and carefully piled bones. Presumbably, somewhere amongst them will be the remains of Mugangira’s wife, his five children and his eight brothers and sisters.
Emmanuel Mugangira, Murambi Technical College. © Pieter Hugo
The altar skull at Ntarama was still there when Hugo arrived; and he photographed too what lay underfoot: the bones and scraps of clothing, some teeth, a broken comb, jewelry and a shoe, some spoons and a fork, an umbrella and more bones. And – not without irony – a discarded crucifix.
The most graphic of his images were taken at Murambi where a – literally – countless number died. At the local technical college, bodies were found in the buildings and in huge pits, in drainage trenches (over 700 were recovered from just one trench), and throughout the school grounds. Hugo photographed a series of contorted, lime-covered, exhumed corpses, laid out in dormitories, horifically damaged.
Bodies covered in lime, Murambi. © Pieter Hugo
What is at stake in such images? Might they dally with the touristic and the macabre? Might their subject-matter exhaust photography’s possibilities? Here, for example, is Alfredo Jaar on the perceived shortcomings of the medium in the face of such a tragedy: “I have always been concerned with the disjunction between experience and what can be recorded photographically. In the case of Rwanda, the disjunction was enormous and the tragedy unrepresentable. This is why it was so important for me to speak with people, to record their words, their ideas, their feelings. I discovered that the truth of the tragedy was in the feelings, words, and ideas of those people, and not in the pictures.”
Ntarama Catholic Church. © Pieter Hugo
Yet Hugo’s pictures – presented here with words, context and the occasional testimony – arguably acknowledge, by virtue of their restraint, solemnity and frankness, the disjunction that Jaar speaks of. Maybe their function in such circumstances is akin to that of memory. And as Philippe Gaillard (head of the ICRC’s delegation in Rwanda, 1993-1994) knew, memory has its uses:
“You may kill as many people as you want or as you can. You cannot kill their memory. The memory is the most invisible and resistant material you can find on the earth. You cannot cut it like diamond, you cannot shoot at it because you cannot see it, nevertheless it is everywhere, all around you, plenty of silence, unsaid suffering, whispers, absent looks. Sometimes you can smell it and then the memory clearly speaks like the whisper of silence. Sometimes the smell is still unbearable, even when things have been forgotten for decades,” (Address to the Genocide Prevention Conference, London, January 2002).