Photographer Jean-Marc Bouju was one of the first journalists to drive into Kigali, Rwanda twenty years ago this month, upon hearing of growing ethnic unrest in the area. It was unclear what was happening at the time, and there was no way of knowing that within the next 100 days, nearly one million people would be slaughtered with machetes and farm tools in what would become known as the Rwandan genocide.
Things seemed normal along the drive at first, Bouju recalls. But soon he began to encounter road blocks leading into the city, and he saw people separated into two lines: one passing through the station, the other leading behind it where, he describes, “you could hear the hacking sounds of machetes.” From there, it only became more horrifying.
“What I saw was a vision of hell,” Bouju describes, “A particular hell where you have daily life going on, people shopping, but meanwhile other people are butchering each other right there in the same street. The nonchalance of death was astonishing. And I cannot get that out of my mind. To this day, I don’t understand it. But I left a little bit of my soul there somewhere.”
“Bouju was incomparable, relentless and courageous. And he had to work like this day after day for a very long time,” recalls Sally Stapleton, who was the Associated Press senior editor for Latin America, East and West Africa at the time. Stapleton oversaw the AP’s coverage of the genocide and established a new bureau in Kigali to continue the work of documenting the aftermath and reconciliation.
“Everybody in Rwanda had a story that was more unbelievable than the next. Rwanda got under my skin and it stayed there,” Stapleton says. She later resigned from the AP and returned to Kigali, where she joined forces with Rwandan organizations working to create the Great Lakes Media Center.
Today, the Center provides training for Rwandan journalists in the same country where local media incited and helped to organize mass killing two decades ago. “How can you wrap your head around the fact that in 1994 there were segments of the local media who used radio broadcasts and newspapers to call on people to kill, making the genocide as horrific as it was? Working with a group that is building up journalism education and credibility today makes a lot of sense to me,” she says.
Under Stapleton’s leadership, Bouju and three fellow photographers at the Associated Press were awarded the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for their coverage of the genocide. Bouju had been in the field the longest: he remained in Rwanda for six months, until he was relieved by a young freelance photographer from Iowa named David Guttenfelder.
Guttenfelder had previously lived in Africa as a student studying Swahili and anthropology at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He returned to the United States and was working at the Iowa City Press Citizen as a photographer when he saw Bouju’s images from Rwanda coming across the wire. “Refugees were streaming across the border into Tanzania into the city where my university roommate lived. I remember thinking if there was ever a time to work on something and someplace I really cared about, this was it.” He quit his job and headed back to Africa.
“I had only ever seen one dead person before I went to Rwanda. And there I saw thousands in one church alone. It was a very shocking beginning to my career, which became one of covering conflict and post-conflict societies ever since,” said Guttenfelder, who is now the chief Asia photographer for the AP.
“I became a journalist as a reason to go to Africa. I was just starting out and my work there was completely inconsequential,” Guttenfelder says. “Now I am revisiting this place 20 years later, to see for myself what it is like today. I’m essentially returning to the first day of my career to try to piece some of my memories together.”
He adds, “Back then there was no email, no mobile phones and we had to transmit twice a day, every day. I was shooting film, and one night there was no power in the hotel, so I drove my car around the mountains with the window down, holding the film developing spools out to dry them for scanning. And now I’m going back and covering this story for National Geographic on my iPhone and posting to Instagram on Rwanda’s local 3G network: it is quite a difference.”
David Guttenfelder and National Geographic staff writer Peter Gwin are returning to Kigali to document the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide for National Geographic. They will share their insights here on PROOF in the upcoming days.