The 1994 Rwandan Genocide:

The Challenges of Bringing Mass Killing to the Front

Corinne Dufka, photojournalist/reporter, Human Rights Watch (United States)

Corinne Dufka discusses the challenges, risks, and responsibilities she and other journalists faced when covering the Rwandan genocide and ensuing cholera epidemic.


I've had three different careers in my working life — hopefully this will be my last one. I started off as a psychiatric social worker in San Francisco, which probably served me well later in my next career, which was working as a photojournalist, primarily covering conflicts. I covered 17 conflicts on three continents, starting out in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama, then over to Bosnia for a few years in 1994, then in Africa where I lived for 10 years covering the Rwandan genocide, conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and others. After working for about 12 years as a photojournalist, I began to be quite frustrated, feeling as though I were reading the same chapter in the same book. I had covered the second famine in Sudan, the second war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I wanted to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of the issues that gave rise to those conflicts that I was covering on a daily basis. So, I left Reuters in 1999. I started working as a researcher with Human Rights Watch based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. My first task there was reconstructing the devastating rebel offensive against the capital of Freetown in 1999, which Reuters, with whom I had been working, did not want to cover. Now I am in charge of all of West Africa for Human Rights Watch and living in Senegal. I took one year off in order to get a better understanding of international justice, and I worked as a criminal investigator with the office of the prosecutor with the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

As a photographer, I was part of the "bang-bang club," the ones who went around from conflict to conflict, covering the big stories of our generation: at that time Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Chechnya. I was a very ambitious photographer, very competitive, and ultimately trying to obtain strong images. My goal was to obtain images that told the human story of conflict and how people's lives were being torn apart by conflict, as a way of creating some sense of empathy in the consumers of those images. Working with Human Rights Watch, of course, I started seeing things as a human rights documenter, through a legal perspective, and I started realizing that so many of the things that I had covered when I was working as a journalist were actually war crimes, but I didn't realize at that point that they were. Some of them were quite obvious, like actual executions, but others are a little bit more subtle. While working with the Special Court, I started looking at the potential for images to serve as evidence. So when I look at my work on Rwanda, I think that ultimately the efficacy of this conference on telling the human rights story is trying to understand how we can better use the power that we have as journalists, as human rights documenters, as academics, to better promote respect for human rights and to somehow better protect the lives of people who are particularly vulnerable to conflict and hatred and intolerance.

A Failure of Humanity 

From where we stand now, it's obvious that a genocide was committed in Rwanda of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. From where we stand now, we can see the genocide as a killing campaign organized by a small group of ruthless politicians who saw the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus as a strategy for holding onto power in the face of challenges from both inside and outside Rwanda. We see it from the perspective of being the political exploitation of ethnicity. We understand that genocide is the gravest of all war crimes, the crime against humanity which imposes on states the duty to intervene and protect those at risk. Certainly, last year, the 10-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, was the time of a lot of soul searching on the part of the international community, the diplomatic community, the policy makers. Despite all of the many post-World War II conventions and treaties and resolutions to make for a better world and to protect civilians, despite the prominent role of the United Nations in nation building and the claims of "never again," everyone failed Rwanda; governments, Rwandans, policy makers, journalists, and diplomats. It was a colossal failure in terms of humanity, really, and so I think the soul searching is important to understand because there are potentially genocidal situations that we have right now. Darfur is one of the more obvious ones. One of the less obvious ones that is quite close to my own work right now is Cote d'Ivoire, the Ivory Coast. It's a potentially pre-genocidal situation with many of the same parallels as Rwanda: political exploitation of ethnicity, the prominent use of hate speech, the subjugation of the national security forces, and the predominate role of militias — ill-trained, ill-disciplined, ethnically identified militias. It's a very, very dangerous situation in Cote d'Ivoire that we have right now that nobody, except for the French media, is really taking a look at.

When I covered the Rwandan genocide, I was in South Africa covering another amazing event of that year — of the decade, of the century — which was the elections in South Africa. When the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana first went down a couple weeks before — the event usually attributed with setting off the genocide — I had wanted to go because there was violence going on. But there had been a lot of episodes of violence in Rwanda. This is a place where there had been numerous episodes of massacres in which hundreds if not thousands of people had been killed. I remember being in South Africa and urging my boss to let me go up to Rwanda and cover The Story, and one picture came across the wire. It was a picture of this massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of people going into Uganda and Tanzania, and that was the image that provoked my photo editor to send me up to cover the Rwandan genocide. It wasn't the genocide itself. The story at that point was what was accessible to us as journalists, which was not the genocide. The story was the exodus, another very dramatic story indeed, as was the cholera epidemic that hit the people who left Rwanda. But when you look at what pictures are remembered now from that time, it's not the pictures of people dying of cholera, it's the images of the Rwandan genocide. There were tens of thousands of people who were killed there, but it wasn't clear to us.

Journalistic Limitations

Part of it is that, in Africa, there's such a dearth of resources that go into journalists covering stories on the continent. I was the photographer, as I said, for East, West, and Central Africa. It would be like in Europe, where you say, "I have to decide whether I cover the GA Summit or whether I cover floods in Switzerland," because there was only one photographer internationally based to be able to do that.

When I covered the U.S. invasion of Panama, when President Noriega was held up in the Vatican, there was absolutely zero to take pictures of. The guy was in there for probably 10 days, and photographers and journalists were on "Noriega watch." He was invisible, but because it was considered to be an important enough story, Reuters had two photographers watching that. We were sending pictures of nuns taking out garbage, and they were getting published.

Because it was considered an important story, there was a commitment on the part of the editors of major news organizations to commit resources to that story. With the genocide, that didn't happen on the part of editors. I think journalists had even been taken off the continent. The Washington Post, if I'm not mistaken, only has one correspondent in South Africa now, perhaps in Cairo as well. They cover the entire continent. So I think the responsibility on editors to have a wider sense and appreciation of a story is even more important, because the journalists on the ground are not aware of all of those dynamics of the story.

Because of that, there was a very small group of journalists who really knew what was going on in Rwanda and were privy to information about the planning of this genocide. There's been a post-mortem of the lack of information as well coming from sources like the diplomatic community and United Nations, but at the time we didn't know. All we knew was there was killing going on, but we didn't actually think of it in our own minds as being a genocide that was happening. When you analyze the numbers of images, the play that they got, the prominence that they got within newspapers and television, it was the pictures of the exodus and the cholera epidemic at that time that got the majority of coverage in terms of space on the fronts and inside pages of newspapers. It wasn't the killing of the genocide. When it was the early days of the genocide, before the exodus happened, what was it? It was pictures of Belgians, of white people and others being evacuated, terrified, missionaries being evacuated out of Rwanda.

I remember going into Rwanda in late April, right after the South African elections, and I remember specifically going with the reporter to the ICRC headquarters and there was this man — he was French, I can't remember his name — who was based in Kigali at that time and he came up with a figure of 500,000 people being killed. They had kept quite meticulous records of the numbers of people who were being killed, so he extrapolated, looking at the relative percentage of Tutsis living within other areas of Rwanda. It was at that point that we started realizing what was going on.

The "Invisible Protagonist"

It was very difficult moving around in Rwanda. I traveled by myself from Burundi up to Rwanda in April when the killing was quite heavy at that point in Butare, in the south of Rwanda. You had to get up in the early morning, before they started drinking, and moving through those checkpoints with those people was very, very dangerous. They would come up to the car with nail-studded clubs with bits of human flesh on them and guns and put them straight to your head, and you had to really chit-chat with killers and kind of woo and try to get these people to like you. I had heard on the BBC that the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had shelled a hospital in Kigali, so I said I was going up to cover this horrific incident and Rwandan soldiers in the hospital, and they said, "Oh that's very good."

Once in Kigali, it was difficult finding victims of the genocide. On the other side, the RPF didn't make it any easier because they were very bureaucratic and they did not have an appreciation of the power of images. It was a major military offensive. So, it was difficult to photograph the victims and difficult to photograph the perpetrators. As an artist, as a photographer, of course none of the elements that go into producing a compelling image — humanity, action, composition — none of them were there, and then what do you have? This exodus, which is incredibly dramatic, where you have this massive humanity going across both borders. You have it unfolding all in front of your eyes. The moment of life and death in the cholera camps, where you'd walk in and people would be failing and by the time you finish doing your turn around they would be dead. Incredibly dramatic images. I think pictures of human beings always make for more compelling pictures — and from a consumer point of view, it's difficult to sell pictures of bodies. When I was covering the war in Liberia in 1996, I took a series of pictures of an execution, very powerful pictures. It was published on the front pages of a number of newspapers, and Reuters lost subscriptions because of that. People didn't want to have their breakfast, their toast and eggs, and sit there and watch somebody being executed. So from an editorial point of view, there's a sense of self-censorship as well.

What we got at that point was what were the accessible images, the accessible photographs, and it was very difficult finding pictures. We would go out with the RPF, go to some of the churches where there had been massacres, and of course there wasn't anyone alive in these villages. They were all dead; when I look back on it, I really wish that I had taken more pictures of the bodies in the churches. Even my office had to ask me for more pictures of bodies. Part of it was just not wanting to take them, from a very human point of view. When I started working as an investigator with the Special Court and saw how important documentation and pictures are to substantiate the crime base, my memory went back to a number of places where there had been bodies, and there was clearly evidence of rape. They were in an advanced state of decomposition, but you could tell by the positioning of their bodies. There was lots of evidence there that I could have actually photographed that would have been useful.

There was that long period between the Nuremburg trials and the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda, where journalists didn't have an outlet for their work to actually substantiate the work of international justice and fight some of these perpetrators. So, some of those opportunities were lost. What you have is this real dearth of images of the actual genocide itself, again because of the difficulty of the images and then because of, to a certain extent, the lack of understanding of what kind of animal it was that we were actually seeing. What's interesting is seeing how pictures — not necessarily mine, but other people's — of the cholera epidemic are used to illustrate the genocide. Just the other day, this couple putting together a book for high school students on genocide and war crimes sent me these pictures and said, "We'd like to use a couple of your pictures for our book." It was a picture from the cholera epidemic. It's happened a number of times.

Lessons for the Future

There were some images at the very beginning. Colleagues of mine from Reuters and other agencies went in and from the hotel were able to get some of those long distance images, so it's not to say that there weren't any images at all. But relative to the exodus and the cholera epidemic, the commitment of resources on behalf of the news organizations to the genocide was minimal. The people in the know definitely did know about it happening, and they had a moral obligation and they clearly chose not to pick up on it.

I was based in Bosnia for two years prior to going to Rwanda, and there was a tremendous commitment of resources. At any given time, you would have one to two photographers and certainly as many journalists from a wire service dedicated and stationed in Sarajevo and then others in Central Bosnia and elsewhere. Every little development within Bosnia was being covered, political developments as well as others, and very well covered compared to the Rwandan genocide. I think part of it is an issue of racism. I heard it from my own wire service agency; the threshold for human suffering would have to be much higher in Africa than it would be in Bosnia, and clearly because of the cultural links with Europe and so on. There was much closer affinity and therefore a much larger dedication of resources to Bosnia, definitely.

What's so important is the building up to the genocide, and for that editors and news agencies have to commit more resources. There were lots of warning signs about the genocide happening. It was known by the international community. The famous letters from General Romeo Dallaire [commander of the U.N. mission in Rwanda] warned of the imminent genocide, and yet it received very little coverage. Instead, the coverage that came out was depicting Rwanda as a failed state, depicting the killings as tribal warfare, and none of that really reflected the true dynamics of what was going on.

When you have journalists who really do understand what the story is, they portray the story in a much more accurate way for the consumers. Instead, we had words like "confusing, anarchy, chaos, tribal warfare, failed state," to describe the dynamic in Rwanda. The genocide was very preplanned, very organized, so it was often laughable to see Rwanda referred to as a failed state, because it was anything but a failed state. It was terribly, dangerously organized in terms of the systematic plan for extermination. The political manipulation of ethnicity and hate speech and all of those things were dynamics that came out later, and the journalists who actually knew and were dedicated to covering Rwanda understood that. But those who were based in Nairobi, for example, covered maybe 15 countries. They covered Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda... There was some degree of armed conflict in nearly every single one of those places, and then tribal clashes in Kenya. So when you look at the amount of time that they had, given all of the responsibilities, the understanding of those dynamics in Rwanda was limited. One of the key issues is the lack of resources that could have combated the indifference on the part of the policy makers. If you had people slamming them about what is actually happening, how they knew about it, how they should have been prepared, then that would serve as some kind of a balance to the indifference on the part of the policymakers who didn't want to do anything.

There certainly has been a lot written about the warning signs. There was ample knowledge of the planning of the genocide from intelligence sources, from the U.N., from the French, from the Belgians, from the U.S. There were memos written from these people to their respective governments and bodies. The memos from, as I mentioned, the force commander, General Dallaire, he relying on high level informants who gave him very detailed descriptions about the plan. There's a sense of preciousness on the part of those kinds of public officials to hold onto that information instead of making it more public, because it's not easy to get access to intelligence memos about those kinds of things. I think that journalists who have the time and are dedicated to a country like that, who know it well, who can get some of those contacts themselves, can then provide an alternative source of information, perhaps not to the level of an internal intelligence memo but at least to be able to provide more warning signals about those kinds of things. To then create a sense of balance so that the public can have it because there are countries within in the security council who were asking for more information, including Nigeria, Venezuela, a couple others who were asking for more information about what was going on and were ready to push for some kind of more aggressive intervention, which of course was stopped by the United States. So I think those kinds of things are very important for informing. I think journalists and human rights activists have a very key role to play in exposing those kinds of plans and the run-up to a genocide.