BY LEORA KAHN
The dirt road is almost empty as we drive up to the small village in rural western Rwanda. When we get out of our car, almost immediately, we are barraged with children and staring adults, questioning what these white people are doing here.
“We are looking for Leonard,” says our interpreter Susan, in her quiet but firm manner. “What do you want with him?” asked an older woman with a basket resting on her head.
“We need to see him about some business.” Suddenly we see a very tall man with a funny broad black felt hat, come up to us with a smile on his face. His eyes twinkle behind his wire-rimed glasses, as he puts out his hand to me and says, “Hi, my nickname is Regan, and they call me that because I saved so many people.” I couldn’t figure out why the name Regan means hero, but I put my hand out and asked him where we could interview him in a quiet space.
Sitting in a dark bar with no one around except his small son, Leonard started to tell his story, “To help the refugees I used to move them from one place to another, hiding them in abandoned houses and banana trees. It was a big problem to find enough food to feed them because there were so many. They ate once in the night. A group of seven ate at home, another three at my mom’s house and so on. Some people had shops so they sometimes gave us rice.”
“One day the Interahamwe (the local militia) came to my home looking for me. Fortunately, I was absent. But when they couldn’t find me they took my wife and put a gun to her ear to force her to tell them where I was. She was going to die if my brother hadn’t suddenly appeared. When they saw him they thought it was me and they severely beat him up until one of them recognized him.”
Leonard is one of 30 people photographer Riccardo Gangale and I have interviewed for The Rwandan Rescuers Project. This peace-building project is aimed at educating and supporting reconciliation in a populace driven by the 1994 genocide. It aims to record, photograph, and highlight the narratives of those who resisted overwhelming prejudice and violence by reaching out to targeted groups.
As another rescuer, Augustine, an old man who lives in the mountains high about Lake Kivu, told us, “It is true cowardice to not do anything for someone dying right in your sight. If there is someone you had shared life with you can’t just watch him or her die without doing anything to help him or her.” Augustine saved over 50 people by bringing them by boat to the Congo from Rwanda in the dead of night.
The idea of this project originated in Vermont, where 60 people from 30 different countries gathered for a month long seminar on peacebuilding. The seminar, called Contact, included workshops, role-playing, videos and talking with other professionals. I hadn’t done anything like this before; I had been a photo editor for 25 years but wanted to apply my skills to work in post-conflict countries.
I found myself surrounded by people (mainly from NGOs) who came from countries currently or recently in conflict—Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Liberia, and finally Rwanda. From the accounts they shared came inspiring stories of rescue. And the idea was born. I asked my friend from Rwanda about the possibility of interviewing and photographing Hutus who saved Tutsis during the genocide for use as a peace-building tool. He loved the idea, and thought it might work.
The following January I traveled to Rwanda and met Riccardo. I was desperately looking for a photographer to work in this project on reconciliation between the Hutus and Tutsis. It didn’t take me long to convince this free-spirited Roman photographer to collaborate with me on this the adventure. So, Riccardo and I traveled by motorcycle, dugout canoe and the backs of dirty old trucks on muddy roads, getting stuck and having to walk thigh deep in the mud to interview and photograph these remarkable people who told us stories of how they risked their lives to do what they thought was the right thing. As one of the rescuers told us one hot, dusty day, in a remote village high above Lake Kivu, “We all come from the same bean plant. When it started to grow it had many colors but it becomes one color when it is done. That is what I feel about people—there are no Hutu or Tutsi, we are just one bean plant.”
Riccardo Gangale works for Associated Press in the Great Lakes region in Africa. An exhibition of his work about these rescuers, accompanied by audio-phone access to their testimonies, is currently traveling through rural villages in Rwandan community centers and schools.
Leora Kahn is a fellow at Yale University in the Genocide Studies Program, and curates human rights exhibitions. She is the founder of Proof: Media for Social Justice, whose mission is to use photography for a means for social change, combining it with education and outreach. She has published 2 books: Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan and Child Soldiers.