'At 8.30pm on April 6 1994, two rockets shot down the plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana back home to his country's capital, Kigali. This attack, whose perpetrators remain unknown to this moment, became the catalyst for one of the great calamities of our age. It was soon evident that a small group among the Hutu elite of Rwanda had decided to use the attack as the opportunity to launch a full-scale genocide that they had been preparing against the country's Tutsi minority.

When the genocide ended little more than 100 days later, between a half million and one million Tutsi lay dead, alongside thousands of Hutu killed for their opposition to the extremists. Virtually all were civilians, unarmed and defenceless. Women and children were specifically targeted to ensure the final elimination of all Tutsi. Tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, tortured and, if not then murdered, maimed for life. Victims were treated with sadistic cruelty and suffered unimaginable agony.'

Gerry Caplan, Eric Markusen, and Linda Melvern: The Rwandan Genocide: A Brief Overview

These photographs, taken a decade later, offer a forensic view of some of the sites of mass execution and graves that stand as lingering memorials to the many thousands of people slaughtered. For more information about the Rwanda genocide

In January 2004 I was struck by an article about the Rwandan genocide, featured on the cover of a financial magazine. The author pleaded for swift resolution to the trials of the perpetrators. He illustrated Rwanda’s development since 1994 with various statistics regarding growth and development. The photograph accompanying the story was of the altar at Ntarama church. There was a human skull on it.

I was completely stunned. The photograph was captioned 2004, 10 years after the genocide. According to the journalist there was still detritus from the genocide everywhere. This sparked a series of questions. Why had nobody cleaned it up yet? Why were there no international commemorations? How does one regard landscapes where this type of atrocity has occurred? How does one interpret the events that took place in Rwanda in 1994? How does a divided society which has gone through something as terrible as this manage to co-exist?

I remember watching news clips of the genocide in 1994. Images of refugees fleeing en masse, rivers full of corpses, streets littered with bodies, were beamed into our living rooms. Tutsi, Hutu – these terms meant nothing to me at the time. ‘Tribal’ was the word used to describe the reasons for the genocide – as if this justified it. The word also implied to me a barbaric and base mentality, the behaviour of savages, something uniquely African in Western eyes, that would never happen in Europe.

But of course, a mere 50 years previously, this did happen in Europe. How would we have reacted if the death camps and mass graves of Auschwitz had been left open for 10 years? If nobody buried those slaughtered at Normandy?

These thoughts kept coming back to me, and I had an overriding desire to go to Rwanda and see for myself the mass graves and sites of the genocide, this fraught landscape. I wanted to try and understand the history and topography of these events – still so fresh, even after 10 years.

In 2004, most of the photojournalists I knew were heading to South Africa to cover that country’s decade of democracy celebrations. Following a succession of terrible events – widespread famine, Somalia’s endless civil war, the scourge of AIDS and finally the genocide in Rwanda, which led to the war in former Zaire – people were desperate to tell positive stories from Africa. Publications and academics demanded it, claiming that it was irresponsible to continue depicting Africa as a continent tethered to war, famine and disaster. Yet, not engaging with the complexities of Rwanda seemed thoughtless to me.

As I still worked primarily as a photojournalist at the time, I tried petitioning every foreign publication I knew to send me to Rwanda. None obliged, so I decided to go on my own and stayed there for a few months photographing and contemplating these sites.

Rwanda did eventually rebury its dead ceremoniously in 2004. After President Paul Kagame stated that France ‘knowingly trained and armed the government soldiers and militias who were going to commit genocide and they knew they were going to commit genocide’, the French junior foreign minister, Renaud Muselier, cut his trip short.

These photographs offer a glimpse of what I saw there before the reburials took place, and a very limited forensic view of a few of the genocide sites. At many of the places there is nothing happening and historical knowledge is needed to support the images; through the stillness the atrocity continues to resonate. At some of the sites human remains and the personal effects of the dead are still present. I hope these images in some small way bear testament to the personal anguish of these individuals.

Linda Melvern

In the course of a few months in 1994, close to one million people were murdered in Rwanda. The killings took place in broad daylight in schools, hospitals, clinics and churches, the places where terrified people sought refuge. The incitement to murder was broadcast over a radio station. To the outside world this was an outburst of tribal violence, part of a senseless civil war. True, a civil war had been underway for some years, but preoccupation with this obscured a terrible reality: the systematic elimination of a minority people. The massacres were organised and efficient, their planning at the centre of state doctrine. Every part of society was involved; doctors murdered their patients, teachers their pupils; neighbours killed their neighbours. The militia moved systematically from house to house slaughtering anyone found to carry an identity card with the designation Tutsi. A network of roadblocks prevented escape and in the capital city of Kigali garbage trucks collected bodies from the streets.

It was ascertained afterwards that most of the victims were killed in large-scale and organised massacres. To economise on ammunition, the children and the elderly were killed mainly by machete while most young adults were killed by firearms. An estimated 300 000 children were killed. The majority of the victims were under 24 years old. Whole families and communities disappeared. At least 100 000 children were separated from their families, orphaned, lost, abducted or abandoned. Most of Rwanda’s children witnessed extreme forms of brutality and 90 per cent of them at some point thought they would die. More than 300 children, some less than 10 years old, were accused of murder.

Here was the direst of all human situations. The crime of genocide – the intent to destroy a human group – is regarded as the first, last and most serious crime against humanity and its prevention is the single most important commitment of the countries that join together as the United Nations (UN). But in April 1994 politicians were unwilling to acknowledge what was happening and to intervene, and the Tutsi were abandoned to their fate.

The evidence of genocide was everywhere. There were ditches full of rotting bodies. Corpses were strewn about courtyards and alleys and piled on top of each other in classrooms and churches. An eyewitness account at the time came from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which maintained a presence throughout: ‘Whole families are exterminated, babies, children, old people, women are massacred in the most atrocious conditions, often cut with a machete or a knife, or blown apart by grenades, or burned or buried alive. The cruelty knows no limits.’ In the most strongly worded statement in its history the ICRC pleaded with the UN Security Council for something to be done to end the ‘terrifying mechanism’ of the massacres.

But the Security Council avoided any meaningful discussion of civilian slaughter; the ambassadors were debating the possibility of a ceasefire in the resumed civil war. On the day of the ICRC statement, the Council held an eight-hour debate about the use of the word ‘genocide’ in relation to Rwanda. Strong resistance came from the United Kingdom and the United States, France, Russia and China. If the Council recognised that genocide was taking place, under the 1948 Genocide Convention there was a legal and a moral obligation to try to prevent it. But Rwanda was low on everyone’s agenda and there was reluctance to take even the slightest action, such as jamming the radio which was broadcasting the addresses of where victims were hiding and encouraging the Rwandan people to kill them.

Maybe the politicians failed to act because they were afraid of being called to do more than they felt they could or wanted to do. Afterwards they claimed not to have known the true nature of the terror which engulfed the Rwandan people, nor to have properly understood the military options available to them. Yet for months the Council’s diplomats and officials had been deeply involved in the affairs of Rwanda, having provided UN peacekeepers to oversee an end to the civil war. They had become convinced that Rwanda’s internationally sponsored peace agreement would work but their optimism led to false political assumptions and unsound military decisions. They came to see Rwanda not as the smouldering volcano that it was, but rather as a small civil war.

On the face of it, the assignment of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda had been unambiguous. It was classic peacekeeping, the provision of a neutral buffer between two enemies. A three-year civil war had ended in peace with the signing of the Arusha Accords in August 1993 and the UN was to monitor the transition. The cause of the civil war had seemed a familiar story about aggrieved and stateless refugees who were refused a return to their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees had been expelled from the country in purges that began in 1959 with the ouster of the Tutsi monarchy. To enforce their return home a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), had been created and in 1990 the RPF invaded Rwanda, provoking further division in society and devastating the country which was also in the grip of an economic collapse. The RPF invasion had come from the north, from Uganda, and many soldiers in its ranks had been trained and supplied by the Ugandan military. The government in Kigali, whose legitimacy depended on what was called rule by ‘the majority people’, the Hutu, feared a return of Tutsi domination and had immediately sought help from its one great ally, the government of France. During the next three years of bitter civil war the government of Rwanda would never have survived without the help of France which provided military help, training and supplies. France, ignoring the refugee problem, considered that the RPF invasion was part of an ‘Anglophone’ plot hatched in Uganda in order to encroach on this ‘Francophone’ part of Africa.

The Security Council’s decision, in October 1993, to send a small and ill-equipped mission of peacekeepers to Rwanda was a tragic error. The readiness level of the force bore no relationship at all to what was needed. In order to save money the council provided for minimal capacity in a mission that was suitable for only the most benign environment. It is likely that this feeble international effort with its weak mandate even encouraged the ‘Hutu Power’ conspirators, signalling they could continue with their plans to end any possibility of power-sharing. Documents discovered afterwards in government ministries revealed how the bureaucratic apparatus of genocide had been systematically put in place with the exclusion of Tutsi from all aspects of society

No tragedy was heralded to less effect. In March 1994, Tutsi families, threatened by Hutu Power militia, took to sleeping in churches at night. The UN peacekeepers opened reception centres in order to protect Rwandan citizens. And a local newspaper reported that a ‘final solution’ was being planned for the ‘Tutsi problem’. Human rights groups warned that Rwanda’s minority was being targeted for massacre and that the government had begun to kill its own citizens; most victims were of Tutsi ethnic origin and were being killed in organised massacres under local leadership, with administrative officials playing a leading role in encouraging the peasants to kill their neighbours. There was a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign fuelling ethnic hatred. A recommendation to the Belgian government that attempts be made to disband the militia was ignored; an estimated 30 000 strong, it was a weapon of mass destruction. The distribution of arms nationwide should cease. Rwanda did not need peacekeepers, a UN Commission on Human Rights report argued, it needed communal policing and immediate and effective measures to protect civilians at risk. ‘It would be unacceptable if troops were to find themselves witness to a genocide about which the UN would do nothing,’ one diplomatic cable advised.

All warnings were ignored. On 5 April 1994, as Rwanda’s peace agreement was unravelling and violence increasing, at a meeting of the Security Council in New York it was decided to issue an ultimatum: unless the peace process was firmly back on track in a matter of six weeks, the peacekeepers would pull out. The UK and the US were irritated with Rwanda. The US wanted the mission closed immediately.

It may be that this tactic played straight in to the hands of the extremists, for within a matter of hours the President of Rwanda was assassinated, his plane shot out of the sky as it came into land at Kigali International Airport. The rebel army was immediately blamed for this attack in radio announcements and a rumour was spread that the RPF had been in league with UN peacekeepers from Belgium. The following day, on the morning of 7 April, 10 Belgian soldiers, detailed to protect the transitional Prime Minister, were murdered, and the Prime Minister was shot. Rwanda’s catastrophe had begun. The French-trained Presidential Guard had left their barracks, carrying lists of their targets drawn from Rwanda’s emerging pro-democracy movement. Those who had believed a new Rwanda was possible, encouraged by outsiders that democracy would work – the journalists, politicians, lawyers, and teachers – were hunted down and killed. Their role in the peace process had been critical and only a combination of international and internal pressure, applied largely by civic and human rights groups in Kigali, had managed to pry open the Rwandan regime. But now, anyone who had worked towards a new democratic future, Hutu or Tutsi, was targeted. Then the genocide of the Tutsi began.

That the genocide was allowed to proceed unhindered accompanied by near universal indifference, will remain one of the great scandals of the 20th century. An untold number of victims had thought that, with the peacekeepers in their country, they would be safe. But in the end the barbarians were allowed to triumph. The failure to intervene even amid revelations about the speed, scale and brutality of the killing, and the suppression of information about what was happening as it took place, present a shocking indictment of those governments and individuals who could have made a difference and yet chose not to do so.  

The Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide of 9 December 1948 was the world’s first human rights treaty, the first truly universal, comprehensive and codified protection of human rights. Compliance with the convention was intended not as a choice but an obligation. The promise of ‘never again’ is enshrined in this convention, the world’s response to the Holocaust and the systematic policy to exterminate the Jews; but exactly 50 years after the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe in April 1944, the world looked aside as genocide was allowed to happen again.  

Since 1994, there has been an almost continuous series of debates, studies and resolutions on the role of outsiders in Rwanda’s genocide. All of them have widely condemned bureaucracies and systems while somehow the blame has slipped away from officials and politicians whose decisions could have made a decisive difference. Not one government called on the perpetrators, the génocidaires, to stop the genocide. Not one UN member state severed diplomatic ties with Rwanda and expelled Rwandan ambassadors. Not one government called for the representative of Rwanda’s Interim Government, with a non-permanent seat in the council, to be suspended from the chamber. For three months the génocidaires remained safe in the knowledge that there would be no outside interference. No one gave them reason to pause.

No government has ever explained its failure to abide by either the moral or the legal obligations enshrined in the 1948 Genocide Convention. No government has held an inquiry into why Rwanda was so rapidly abandoned to its fate. From the beginning of the genocide until its end, all UN governments and official bodies continued to recognise as legitimate a government that had been hastily sworn into office, intended to replace transitional government members who were part of Rwanda’s pro-democracy movement and who had been murdered in the first hours of the crisis. For the duration of the genocide the Rwandan embassies abroad – in Paris, Washington and Brussels – waged a campaign of spin to convince the world that large numbers of people were dying in the renewed civil war and managed to fool the Western press long enough to get away with their crimes unchallenged. The governments of France, the UK, the US and Canada, and the Catholic Church have consistently failed to question their own roles in enabling the genocide. The Security Council Commission of Experts would finally conclude in December 1994 that there was overwhelming evidence that the extermination of the Tutsi had been premeditated and it had been concerted, systematic and methodical. The Genocide Convention had been massively violated.

Genocide is not some abominable aberration that is defined by the number of victims it creates; it is a co-ordinated plan of action, a conspiracy against people chosen as victims purely, simply and exclusively because they are members of a target group. It is a deliberate attempt to reconstruct the world. A key element is the creation of propaganda to spread a racist ideology in order to define the victim as outside human existence – vermin and subhuman. This serves to legitimise any act, no matter how horrendous. A further requirement is a dependence on military security and a certainty that outside interference will be at a minimum. And so exactly it was in Rwanda. The conspiracy to murder had involved politicians, military officers, lawyers, journalists and business figures. Through intimidation and threats, lies and subterfuge, fear and coercion, these extremists had moulded the unemployed youth of Rwanda into an army of brutes and killers. They had stoked the fires of ethnic hatred. They had wanted to destroy Tutsi, chasing them from their homes, stealing their property and corralling them into public spaces where they could be killed more efficiently.

They had used terror as a political tactic and their circles of influence had gradually widened until every part of society became enmeshed in their plans, including clergy, the civil service, school teachers and university professors. Their notion of creating a Rwanda free of Tutsi was nothing new but the full consequence of the idea was not to be experienced until April 1994. The killing was not the act of some fanatical minority but was widely supported locally. There were individuals who committed monstrous crimes. Many Rwandans approved of the idea that Tutsi should be killed and when they got a chance they killed with enthusiasm. They killed as members of gangs of thugs in the militia and found they could loot, steal and rape with impunity. Many others killed because they were coerced to do so and afterwards adequate justice seemed impossible. There were many Hutu who helped to save the lives of Tutsi and large numbers of them suffered in consequence.

The most ignominious decision in Security Council history came two weeks after the genocide began, on 21 April 1994, when the council thought of one action only – to pull out the majority of UN peacekeepers and leave behind a token force to try to negotiate a ceasefire in the renewed civil war. ‘We will condemn thousands of men, women and children to certain death,’ a UN commander warned. It was true. Within hours the killing spread south.  

The argument that nothing could be done was a policy endorsed by the Security Council in the first few crucial days; it was agreed on by the UK and US and outlined at a meeting of the council on 14 April 1994. Any idea of humanitarian intervention was dismissed. Only afterwards did military estimates determine that all that had been required was a reasonably sized international military force with a strong mandate to enforce the peace agreement; nothing of the kind was authorised by the Security Council either before or during the genocide.

Nor was there public pressure for action. In a harsh rebuke after the genocide was over, an international inquiry concluded in March 1996 that although the news coverage of the genocide had been handicapped by danger on the ground, the Western press had been fundamentally irresponsible in characterising genocide as tribal anarchy. The media’s failure to report that genocide was taking place had contributed to international indifference and inaction, and possibly to the crime itself. There was speculation that a lack of media attention had encouraged the extremists who came to the view that, whatever they did, outside interference would be at a minimum. ‘Of course we didn’t do anything” a senior UK diplomat said later, “Neither the press nor the public was interested.’

Not everyone abandoned Rwanda. A small garrison of UN peacekeepers remained and the steadfastness of the government of Ghana in providing most of the troops for this 470-strong mission has never been properly recognised. All who stayed, including peacekeepers and UN military observers, who did so much to save lives, and all those who alleviated suffering from the ICRC, Médecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), had understood the deterrent effect of their continued presence. To these people, the failure of the Council even to resupply their UN volunteer force was incomprehensible. These efforts had been a drop of humanity in an ocean of blood.