Gunilla von Hall, a Swedish journalist, was in Tanzania, reporting for her native newspaper, in April 1994 when she saw bodies floating in the Akagera River from Rwanda.
With the help of the Rwanda Patriotic Front soldiers that took care of them, she decided to travel to Rwanda, together with a colleague, where she saw the most horrible massacres, at Nyarubuye Church. With her camera, she took some exclusive photos of the massacre, images that would give her nightmares for the rest of her life.
“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 was so awful what we saw but we didn’t know the magnitude of this,” she recalls.
Gunilla, 26 at the time, was the first foreign journalist to arrive in Gitarama (during the Genocide against the Tutsi) where they travelled next, and covered the killings for weeks until they left and went back to Tanzania.
As soon as she left Rwanda she fell sick of brain malaria. By the time she recovered, the Genocide was over and the attention of the world had moved on to other places.
Years later, Gunilla went on with her career, often travelling to several countries, but the horrific scenes that she witnessed in Rwanda stuck with her and says it was her worst coverage.
A printed book of the graphich pictures from the Swedish journalist (left) being handed over to AEGIS Trust officials.
Putting the photos to use
She showed the photos to her newspaper but they were too graphic to be published. She decided to just put them away in a paper box somewhere in her wardrobe with the sticker “Rwanda 94”.
In January, a film-team from Sweden Public Educational TV came to Rwanda to shoot a film for Swedish youth about the Genocide. Coincidentally, they learned of the Swedish journalist who had been in Rwanda in 1994. They got in touch with Gunilla who agreed to the idea of coming back to Rwanda, to tell the story of what she had seen, and how things look different now. It was the first time she returned since 1994.
“The country’s reconciliation is impressive and when I look back 25 years ago, I have very horrific memories of this country and its nothing like what we see today.I witnessed Rwanda’s horrific past and its present. I visited the same church in Nyarubuye, where I took pictures of the dead bodies and I was pleased to see that bodies I saw lying there were given a decent burial that they deserve,” she says.
It was while here, in January that she talked about her photos with the Swedish Ambassador to Rwanda, Jenny Ohlsson, that it occurred to her that the 112 photos she had would be interesting and valuable for Rwanda, for archiving and memory, and to fight revisionism.
With the financial support of the Swedish embassy in Kigali, to have all the photos digitalised and brushed up, she decided to hand them over to Rwanda officially. during the screening of the documentary, which talks about her experiences during the Genocide, the role of media in conflict and the international obligation to fight impunity at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, on April 3.
“It’s an honor to hand them over to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It’s a testimony of what happened during the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, especially now that there are different stories being told. Even though the photos were not published I’m glad that they finally found their way to the right place,” she said.
The task to preserve, collect and defend memories of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi has always been a race against time and nature. James Smith the founder and CEO of Aegis Trust, believes that the pictures that were handed over this week make the effort even more imperative by proving the massacres.
The audience that turned up for the documentary screening and handover of the photos. Courtesy photos.
“We see everywhere the denial and confusion of what happened here, and there’s nothing more painful to those who survived than to die a second death when their memories are misconstrued,” he said.
Jean Ruzindaza, the director of advocacy for survivors at The National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG), said now that Gunilla handed over the photos, it is the institution’s duty to archive them, preserve them and use them for future generations and also as a tool against Genocide denial.
Gunill said: “I have mixed feelings because I know ethically we should not, but on the other hand, maybe we should have published them to show the face of the Genocide, the magnitude and brutality.
“For me, leaving the pictures at the memorial also shows the importance of journalists being in the field, documenting and sharing what we see. Journalists make a difference because we have deniers and at the same time a generation that is young and growing, so who will they listen to matters.”
“The pictures are evidence, and pictures don’t lie and I hope that they will also contribute to more justice, reconciliation, a solid future and I hope that they can be used for research, education to prevent genocides and war crimes in the future,” Gunilla said.