Journalist recounts her horrible experience in the Rwandan Genocide

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A Swedish journalist who covered the 1994 Genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda has recently given unpublished photos to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum for archiving to preserve memory and educate future generations.

Gunilla Von Hall, one of the foreign journalists who witnessed the genocide take place returned to Rwanda to mark 25 years anniversary of the atrocity that killed 800,000 ethnic Tutsis over the course of 100 days.

Upon her return, the journalist handed over 112 unpublished photos she took of the genocide that have remained in her possession for a quarter of a century.

Besides the photos themselves, Ms Hall has also carried mental images of the massacre that will stay with her forever.

Journalist recounts Rwandan genocide

Gunilla Von Hall, who works for Swedish international newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, was covering a story in 1994 on Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. Her investigations led her to Rwanda in April the same year, as Hutu extremists began slaughtering ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates, in what would later be called the Rwandan genocide.

Despite the horror taking place in front of her eyes, journalistic instinct kept her finger on her camera’s shutter button, capturing the atrocity as it unfolded.

“We saw bodies everywhere; men, and women, children, killed and mutilated in the most horrific way. I had a camera with me so I was taking photos and reporting. I just took the pictures but I didn’t know what it was. My colleague and I had no idea we were witnessing the genocide.”

It all started in Tanzania where Ms Hall was covering refugee story in Benaco camp for Tutsis who had fled when the Genocide started. The photographer and her American colleague then saw bodies floating down in Akagera / Kagera River between Tanzania and Rwanda side.

“I don’t know how we saw [the bodies] but I remember that is how it started,” said Gunilla in an interview.  “That’s when we realized that there was something really horrible going on in that country, we have to get in.”

Ms Gunilla informed an American journalist who had a contact in Rwanda Patriotic Army (former rebels who were fighting the Rwandan government in 1994 responsible for the Genocide).

The soldier from the rebel movement took them into Rwanda. “We had a driver from Tanzania and he took us to Nyarubuye church,” recounted Hall.  Nyarubuye church is in Kirehe district, Eastern Rwanda.

According to the photojournalist, it was in April, but she can’t remember the exact time. “It was hard to say when the massacres were perpetrated from the bodies,” she said.

On arrival in Nyarubuye, the journalists were shocked after witnessing the massacres that had happened in the area.

According to official data, around 59,000 people were killed in Kirehe district where the church the journalists visited is located.

“We stepped out the car and there were just piles of dead people around us.” The Swedish journalist narrated.

The journalists did not know what was going on.

“We thought it was some kind of civil war that was going on but did not know who was killing who.”

“We just took pictures and I am also a writer, took notes as much as I could and I tried to register everything as much as I could.”

According to the Swedish journalist, there were many women, children and men killed with machetes, others shot. “It was really like a ritual killing almost,” She recalled

“It was killing an ethnic group but we did not understand what was going on.” The photojournalist added.

They then went to Nyamata, in Eastern Province; they were travelling with the RPA Army member. That was the time the RPA rebels had taken Nyarubuye and Nyamata.

“We went to a church where the massacres had taken place, bodies were everywhere then we went to Gitarama (Southern province) the time it had just fallen.”

 Photos were never published

Gunilla von Hall soon wrote a story covering the events she witnessed, including the photos she had taken, and sent them to her newspaper. However, the publication said the images were too graphic to be featured alongside the story and Ms Hall has kept them in her possession ever since.

“Ethically it is wrong to do that because people have to have dignity in death,” Ms Hall explained.

“We discussed it a lot in a way I said we had to show what happened,” she said, adding that the time they were in Nyarubuye they did not know that it was the genocide.

“I had no idea this is what genocide looks like,” said the journalist.

Opposing arguments

Upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the Swedish publication Svenska Dagbladet ran a story to mark the occasion and, once again, Ms Hall’s photos were unused.

The omission of the images has sparked a debate with many arguing the victims and their families should continue to be protected. While some insist the images should be published to highlight the horrific nature of the killings that took place during the genocide.

Ms Hall’s response has been to hand the images over to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum.

“The pictures are now where they belong,” she said. “I am proud to give them to [Rwanda].”

About Jean-Pierre Afadhali

Jean Pierre is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Twitter: @jpafadhali