Rwanda: How Three Genocide Survivors Are Using Photography to Help Vulnerable Children

Jean Bizimana, Gadi Habumugisha and Mussa Uwitonze, are Rwandan orphans who lost their parents during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

As survivors living in an orphanage, Imbabazi Orphanage in Gisenyi, Rwanda, they were introduced to photography at the age of eight and nine, when Through the Eyes of Children, a nonprofit photo project started in 2000 in partnership with the orphanage.

Today, the trio has grown to become professional photographers, with Bizimana working as a photojournalist with Reuters Africa, while Habumugisha and Uwitonze are documentary photographers.

They have spent the last several months traveling through Rwanda and interviewing genocide perpetrators and their families, to understand the roots of the genocide, and to document the forgiveness that has happened in Rwanda.

How their journey began

Their journey into the profession began in 2000 when a photographer came to Rwanda as he was travelling around the country and every time he took pictures, kids in the neighborhood would be curious to see the pictures. He wondered what pictures the children would take if they were handed a camera.

"He came to our orphanage," explains Habumugisha, "and chose a group of 19 out the 100 kids, taught us some basics of photography and gave us disposable cameras.We went out to the community to take pictures and what surprised him is that the images we took were images of life and development of Rwanda."

Soon enough, their photos made it to exhibitions around the world, as the project leaders at that time began showcasing their pictures at universities, museums around and even in Kigali.

"Seeing people interested in our images gave us motivation to do better. We took so many pictures that attracted the attention of international photographers because we were young and innocent that we took pictures other journalists had no access to because people accepted us as part of their community, unlike foreign journalists and that led to taking great images that some won international prizes such as the Camera Art Magazine, where a team member won the first prize, and the UNICEF Cover in 2003," adds Habumugisha.

The trio teach Haiti Immigrant teenage girls in New Jersey last year.

Fast forward, as the three of them grew up and the orphanage closed and became professional photographers, documenting activities for non-profit organisations and conferences, they felt the need to share their photography skills so they could benefit other kids.

They are now taking on a larger role with Through the Eyes of Children and taking the photo project global by teaching other vulnerable children photography. They have shared their skills in several photo workshops last year in the United States in New Jersey and Boston with young refugees and those in the foster homes, as well as with disabled students and children of genocide perpetrators and survivors.

"Photography changed our lives because people got to learn about Rwanda through photography and they gave donations to the orphanage. Also, people appreciating our photos gave us hope that even though we were orphans, we had value in society and so we decided to pass it forward to children in formidable states, so we came up with some workshops to teach children in school and later thought of going beyond to help vulnerable children so photography could help them too," Habumugisha says.

They have also worked with orphans in Haiti where they shared Rwanda's transformational journey through their pictures and inspired them. Recently, they began documenting films about children born by the perpetrators.

"The children have shown love, passion and talent.With time they will be able to share these not only with their communities but with the world the same way we shared ours," Habumugisha says.

They have partnered with InyeyeriItazima, an organisation that reconciles genocide survivors with perpetrators to train some of the children, and are filming a documentary about how the Rwandan society is living in peace after 25 years.

"Growing up in an orphanage," shares Uwitonze, "kept us disconnected to the community in a way that shouldn't have happened, since we were enclosed in our premises. We were not really interacting with our community until we began taking pictures that our relationship grew.

"As kids, we couldn't understand how someone could kill another. We did not get the answer for that since we had notencountered perpetrators, save for seeing prisoners doing vocational training but I had never spoken to them."

"We all had these questions," Habumugisha adds" for a long time and when Bizimana told us that he was in contact with an organisation we thought it as an opportunity for us to speak to them and see the reason that would lead them to kill people."

"Our journey however, did not give us an answer because there is no answer to kill someone. What they say is that the government encouraged them to hate Tutsi but that is not enough reason. What we found interesting is reconciliation and we were happy that the survivors had forgiven the perpetrators and this experience was not an answer to the question we had but the overall situation."

For Uwitonze, photography has been part of the healing of this country because "back then, a child of the perpetrator was not open enough to talk to us during interviews but in the workshop, they are open and express themselves through their photographs."

"We also derive inspiration seeing the perpetrator and survivor seated together happy to see their kids learning photography and seeing kids naturally being friends," Bizimana adds.

Future projects

Bizimana, Habumugisha and Uwitonze's travels, photographs and interviews have also been captured by a documentary film team from The GroundTruth Project to be included in a larger feature film about their lives and the role that photography has played in a feature-length film titled "Camera Kids."

They also hope to open up a photography training center to give a chance to young people to learn photography freely so they can make a living out of it.

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