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Bringing Reality to Life Through Imaging Genocide (Final)

by on April 23, 2012

The series of photographs, taken by Mariella Furrer, depicts the events of the genocide in Rwanda that took place over the course of 100 devastating days. Also in this collection are pictures of the aftermath to illustrate the state the Tutsis and moderate Hutus were left to cope with, commemorate those who had deceaced, and move forward with their lives. I have chosen to focus on a single photographer, Mariella Furrer, more specifically, her collection of photos that she had taken during the genocide in Rwanda from May of 1994, concluding with the last photo of her collection in April of 1995. Each photo contains different people, with different circumstances, yet are all brought together through genocide. Each photo brings the Rwandan genocide to life. Each photo taken was taken for a specific reason by the photographer and depicts a reality that portrays one of the world’s most extensive crimes against humanity.


The genocide in Rwanda was a result of over a century of ethnic divisions between the shorter, more darker-skinned Hutus (84 percent of the population) and the taller, lighter-skinned Tutsis (15 percent of the population (Cohen 10-11). Through German and Belgium influence favoritism unanimously leaned toward Tutsi rulers and the Tutsi ethnicity which led to discrimination and mistreatment of the Hutu population by the Tutsi and Belgium (Cohen 11). After World War Two the Hutu wanted to gain independence from the Tutsi and Belgium, Belgium decided to offer support to the Hutu majority and forced the Tutsi rulers to create less discriminatory economic and political policies (Cohen 12). A Hutu Revolution began after a Tutsi attack on a Hutu sub-chief- in November of 1959 which intensified into a violent outbreak between the two groups. (Cohen 12). Through Belgium’s cooperation by removing Tutsis from positions of power gave the Hutu majority certainty, determination, and support they needed to transfer the power from the Tutsi to the Hutu (Cohen 12). Violent problems continued between the Hutu and the Tutsi until General Juvenal Habyarimana took control of Rwanda in 1973. He was viewed very highly among the international community and as a result drew in foreign investment for Rwanda (Cohen 12). However, a drop in tin and coffee prices led to an economic crisis in Rwanda (Cohen 12). Simultaneously, moderate Hutus and Tutsi refugees who had been living in Uganda (Rwanda Patriotic Front- RPF) saw this as an opportunity to rise up and this just drove Rwanda deeper into civil war (Cohen 12-13). These series of events are just a few examples that took place before the genocide in Rwanda and eventually resulted in the genocide that began.

On April 6th, 1994 at 8:30 p.m. President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. As stated in the previous paragraph, President Habyarimana was vital to Rwanda and the loss of the president ensued crisis and a genocidal frenzy. The following day, militias began massacring Tutsis and Hutu moderates (Jones 352). From the very beginning the extremist government were able to carry out the genocide with these three methods: First, the extreme government played up the stereotypes that the world holds against African nations, that they are uncivilized, savage tribal peoples, which is what the extremist government called the killings nothing more than, “tribal conflict” (Jones 352). Calling the genocide “tribal conflict” caused many nations and people to turn the other cheek. Second, they realized that killing foreign troops would scare away hopeful peacemakers. Third, the “blind commitment” and support of the French, as stated in the previous paragraph, greatly benefited the extremist government (Jones 352).


This photograph is photo of evacuation; the themes of this photograph include fear and confusion. This photograph depicts and illustrates such emotion from the young boy and  captured the somber trip they embarked on. What first comes to mind when viewing this picture is, why is this boy crying? Did he just see his mother killed? Brother? Sister? This photograph alludes to the fact that it is just the father and the son, so the absence of the mother and/or siblings could be interpreted that they had not made it thus far on the families search for safety. Fear is also evident in the man’s face as he looks into the lens of Mariella Furrer. None of the evacuees knew for certain where the fate of their livelihood rested though over a million people fled to Goma, now the Democratic Republic of Congo ( Confusion is also evident in this picture by the six people in this picture who are walking in the same direction with a clear destination in mind and in contrast, the confused man sitting down in the back of the picture alludes to the fact the is not going with everyone else, he looks into Mariella Furrer’s lens hopelessly.

This photograph clearly depicts the evacuation people were in search for during the beginning phase of the Rwandan Genocide.Confusion and fear are illustrated in this photograph; it is evident from all six of the facial expressions that can be seen in this photograph. Similarly, the man walking the opposite way as everyone else in the photograph also represents confusion. He is walking in the opposite direction because near the bottom of the picture he has his left leg in front of his right, alluding to him moving forward. It is obvious at first glance all of these people are moving forward, together, to the same destination, however, the man walking in the opposite direction is not. It is interesting to think about where this man is headed and why he is not walking in the same direction as literally every single other person. Fear is also evident in this picture by the way the father is holding onto the two boys so tightly. It is also interesting to contrast the expressions on each of the boy’s faces, the younger one with more of a confused, relaxed expression- probably due to his age and not fully understanding the events that are taking place. In contrast, the older boy holding onto his father so tightly and the look of fear in his eyes is quite chilling. From looking at him it is evident he is aware what is taking place in his hometown and the fear that must have taken over him that day must have been the most numbing- which may be why he is riding on the bicycle and not walking. The cross necklace is also noteworthy in this photograph. Over sixty percent of the Rwandans were Catholic before the genocide and when the genocide began many Tutsis relied on their religion as a crutch and retreated to churches for safety; however as the genocide continued churches became places where mass slaughters took place (Keane).

 This is a picture of a floor of a church with a church bulletin stepped on, dirty,   and at one time held by a Rwandan that found hope and faith in the message written on the bulletin, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” and “I can do all things through Christ which Strengthens me Philippians 4:13.” Mariella Furrer included a rock in the photograph, which is very interesting. Was the rock used as a weapon against the inhabitants of the church? If so, she captured the extreme contrast of good and evil impeccably in this photograph. The rock representing death, pain, and destruction of a race and the bulletin with the encouraging words representing hope, faith, and peace. The symbolism of the dirty bulletin on the floor is powerful and important to keep in mind for the next picture. The church, their Catholic faith, and these encouraging words of faith and hope rendered useless to mass killings that took place in the churches.

This is a photograph of a site of a massacre that took place at a church in Rwanda. Jones comments on the Rwandans taking refuge in churches, “Tens of thousands of Tutsis sought sanctuary in schools, stadiums, and especially places of worship. But there was no sanctuary to be had. In fact, those encouraging them to seek it were usually genocidaires working to concentrate their victims for mass killings” (Jones 355). The picture shows the gruesomeness of the killings as hundreds rot on the floor of this church.  Resting on the churches’ alter, four human skulls. The rotting bodies lay mixed on the floor with clothes and garbage, alluding to the bodies being viewed as garbage as well by their perpetrators. Similarly, the bodies lay mixed with what appears to be the handle of hoes; it was common for the Tutsis to be killed by common farming tools (Jones 352). It is evident from the picture either during the massacre or prior someone placed the four skulls atop the alter, which the alter being one of the most sacred areas to the church. The sheer ruthlessness and disregard of respect for the Catholic religion and their victims is clear by the Hutus carrying out mass killings in churches and placing four skulls on the most sacred place of a church. In fact, many church figures played a major role in the mass killings in churches by legitimizing and partaking in the massacres (Jones 355). The Tutsis before the genocide used to go to this church to learn about, praise, and worship God, the extreme contrast of the current state of this photo and the state of the church before the genocide is painful and heart wrenching to ponder. Once a place so pure and peaceful, now the reality of churches are the polar opposite of what they used to be before the genocide.


Remains of a woman and a young girl lay in the dirt, as a weapon rests on the woman’s left leg, the skull of the remains of the young girl turned to the side. This photo depicts a gruesome reality worth a million priceless words, no amount of words can justify the beating, torturing, raping, and killing of a woman and a young girl. During the genocide Tutsis were dragged out of their home, tortured, and raped (Jones 352). Rape not only causes mental and physical injury to the victim, but also destroys the morale of her ethnic community and family (Sharlach). Sharlach continues, “Hutu leaders ordered the militia known as the Interahamwe not to spare Tutsi women and children in the genocide. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Rwanda estimates that in this tiny country there were between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes. In some areas, almost all women who survived had been raped.” (Sharlach 90). Rape and death was an imminent reality for women and young girls during the genocide and Mariella Furrer captured the reality in this photograph. Looking more closely at the image, the woman’s skirt hitched up high (alluding to the fact that she was probably raped before her life was taken) and the farm tool, most likely the weapon that took this woman and the young girl’s life lay between her legs. That weapon was probably also used the hack off the young girls left arm and leg that are missing from her body. A rape survivor recalls, “One of them told us that they were going to chop the Tutsi women into pieces over days- one leg today, another arm tomorrow- until we die slowly.” (Sharlach 99). The gruesome account of this rape survivor is evident in this photograph that Mariella Furrer captured, the missing limbs and the hitched skirt of the woman represents a reality far too incomprehensibly horrible to fathom.

This photo was taken in May of 1994 of a young boy whose shoulder was chopped off during a massacre. The boy had survived the massacre yes, but the pain, torment, and agonies remain. Many killers would severely injure their victims, let them suffer in agony for quite some time, and then return to finish them off (Jones 352). This photo is of a young boy depicting the fact that no matter the age, the killers had no mercy on their victims. Looking more closely at the image, it is evident the expression on the young boys face. The look of shock is evident and he seems aloof/distant from the photographer and the present. It is impossible to fathom the pain he must have been in while the nurse tended to his severed shoulder. The boy is also extremely skinny; his bones in his chest, arm, and legs are evident in this photo. The state of his thinness and severed shoulder represent helplessness than many young children experienced during the gruesome reality during the genocide in Rwanda. The antithesis of those representations is the representations of the fact that boy did survive the massacre, his shoulder is being taken care of, and the light shining through the window represents a new found hope for those who survived the genocide. The nurse represents healing, while the light represents life.


April of 1995, one full year after the genoicde in Rwanda the healing process beings. This photograph was taken to illustrate coping and healing of the Rwandan people as they dig up mass graves and give the victims proper burials. This photo was one of the last photos Mariella Furrer took regarding the Rwandan genocide and I believe she took this photo on a sunny day in April maybe in hopes Rwandan people will see this photo and realize that the grieving process can being now that victims are receiving a proper burial. The upper right corner is a picture from evacuation of Rwanda in the beginning of the genocide and it is interesting to contrast the skies of each photo. The sky during the evacuation is cloudy, hazy, and unclear. While, the sky in the burial photo is clear, sunny, and inspiring in a way. I think she took this photo not only for her own personal reasons, but for her fellow African citizens to see the photo and realize that hope and life are not all that distant.

Mariella Furrer is a photojournalist who was born  in Beirut and has lived in Africa her whole life. It is no wonder why she took these various pictures of the genocide in Rwanda since these victims were near and dear to her heart since Africa is not only the place she grew up, but it is her home.  I think she captured these gruesome photos to document the genocide. Each photo gives the victim a voice that they would not have otherwise. Mariella was a victim of sexual abuse when she was a child and she is currently writing a book on various women and children who have been victims as well; her book will be a compilation of the interviews and photographs of the victims who have been affected by sexual abuse. She is giving the victims a voice and because of her desire to give people a voice, I believe this is why she took these gruesome pictures. Mariella Furrer was giving the victims of genocide a voice since they had none, just like the victims she interviews for her book- they have no voice, but she is bringing each victim’s reality to life. Simply going through her photographs she has taken from the Rwandan genocide it is clear that the photographs speak for themselves and tell a story better than any reporter or news article could communicate.


Cohen, Jared. One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,2007. Print.

Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Sharlach, Lisa. Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. New Political Science, 22:1, 89-102.

Photo Credit: Mariella Furrer (

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