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Rwanda's Open Wounds

Tens of thousands of amputees serve as living reminders of the 1994 genocide

Tomaso Clavarino

This month, Rwanda marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed by the Hutu majority in the span of just three months. Since then, the economy has made huge gains, political tensions have diffused, and a relatively advanced political system has empowered women. Despite this progress, Rwanda is still synonymous with the genocide—reminders of which are everywhere today, in the form of tens of thousands who survived the mass slaughter but were left permanently maimed. While few in Rwanda talk about its horrific past, amputees remain living records of it. In January and February, with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I travelled around the country interviewing and photographing those survivors. 

Dassan, 34, was 14 when he lost his entire family, and his forearm. “A group of Interhamwe arrived in our village one evening, here at the northern border of Kigali,” he said, seated in an armchair in the house he built by himself. “They rounded up all the Tutsi in the sports field, in a circle, one against another. Then they started beating them and hacking at them with machetes, sticks and stones. One after another they all died. I tried to protect myself with my left arm. They struck and struck, until I fainted. They must have thought I was dead and they left me there. When I woke up I realized I no longer had a forearm. I dragged myself to the church. The priest, from Burundi, opened the door, he disinfected my wounds and took me to the nearest medical post. So I was saved.”

Eugenie, then 13, fled her home after seeing her family slaughtered, and hid for a week among papyrus reeds in a pond, the water up to her groin. By the time someone found her, she was unable to walk. Her legs had necrotized and all they could do was amputate them. “In these last twenty years I have lived alone, with the help of the few friends that remained but in the silence of the government which has done very little for people like me who have survived but with enormous problems,” said Eugenie, now 33 and living alone in a house near Rwamagana. “There is no chance for us to find work, no opportunity to try and start a decent life. I  am condemned to not moving from this mud house. The wounds of the Genocide are many—clearly, not for everybody—they have not yet healed, they are open, deep.”

Fils was four years old when group of Hutu threw a grenade at him while he was escaping from his house in Nyamirambo.

"I remember it was early morning, they arrived like madmen, they bashed in the door of our house, took my parents, my elder sister, they took them to the Shyorongi church,” Prisca said, describing the day in March 1994 when she lost her legs, “and they killed them, with machetes, like beasts. Then they threw them into the Nyabarongo River.” Prisca, only four years old, escaped with her little sister. As they running through a field, Prisca stepped on a mine that had been buried, almost certainly, by the Hutu Interahamwe militia. “It was a miracle I survived, but my life was ruined," said Prisca, who uses artificial limbs of cloth and wood. People ask me whether I am able to forgive them. I always say no. No, I can’t forgive them. I even had to leave my family’s house because our neighbors, the ones who killed my family, came back to live next door.”

“The government is doing a lot to reconcile the country, but it’ll be long, painful work, and it’s by no means sure that it’ll succeed," said Ngaboy, a Tutsi ex-soldier of the Rwanda Patriotic Front who lost an eye and both arms during the clashes in 1994. "They’re forcing a process that has to be natural, spontaneous, with the risk of smothering latent tensions which, sooner or later, could flare up again. Rwanda is like a pressure cooker, just one spark too many can blow it up.”

“Forgive? Before I forgive anyone it is necessary for that person to come and ask for forgiveness," said Angelique, who lost all her family, and an arm, in 1994. "None of those who killed my father and my mother, who cut my arm with a machete, have ever asked for my forgiveness.”