James Nachtwey’s Reflections on the Rwandan Genocide

The massacre at Nyarabuye took place in the grounds of a Catholic Church and school. Hundreds of Tutsis, including many children, were slaughtered at close range, Rwanda, 1994.  Photo by James Nachtwey

The massacre at Nyarabuye took place in the grounds of a Catholic Church and school. Hundreds of Tutsis, including many children, were slaughtered at close range, Rwanda, 1994. Photo by James Nachtwey

In 1994 TIME photographer James Nachtwey witnessed the devastating effects of the Rwandan genocide. On the 17-year anniversary, the photographer looks back on the tragedy.

Humans make war, and we make peace. We make love, and we make hatred – hatred and fear. Those two are the killers. Orchestrate hatred and fear, and humans make genocide. European colonialists used fear and hatred to cut an incision deep into Rwanda to divide and conquer. It was never allowed to heal and became the subtext for society long after the white rulers made their exit. In 1994, tribal enmity between Hutus and Tutsis was politically manipulated to a state of critical mass. Between 500,000 and 1 million people were slaughtered in the span of three months using farm implements as weapons. The killing by the Hutu interahamwe was committed face-to-face, neighbor-against-neighbor, and sometimes even brother-against-brother.

The number most often heard is 800,000. It’s a big number no matter what it’s applied to. Trying to imagine 800,000 people with their heads bashed in by rocks and clubs, impaled on spears, hacked to death with hoes and machetes – in just three months – stuns the mind, and we struggle to wring meaning out of words like “biblical” or “apocalyptic.”

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