Bill Richardson shares his observations during a photography tour to Rwanda with Gustafson Photo Safari:
After a trip to Tanzania, we ventured off to Rwanda. Our ultimate destination was the remote jungle area bordering the Congo and Uganda to photograph gorillas. I had been to Rwanda a few years ago and it was interesting to see the changes. The horrific genocide of 1994 had resulted in the deaths of almost 1,000,000 people (about 1 in 8 Rwandans) mostly hacked to death with machetes, speared or clubbed. The main political party had used a carefully orchestrated media campaign of hate mongering and intolerance to incite its supporters and dehumanize the opposition. The opposition was portrayed as the source of all of Rwanda's many economic problems. When the government finally called for mass murder, the response was immediate and horrifyingly effective. Thousands of people were murdered each day. Neighbors killed neighbors, friends killed friends, church members killed fellow church members, husbands killed wives. When it was ended, the minority group had been 75% exterminated. Needless to say, this culture of hate devastated the country. But the Rwandan people have proven to be remarkably resilient. As one guide told me, "We walked to the edge of hell, looked over and decided we did not want to go there."
Now Rwanda is the star of Africa with a booming economy, modern buildings going up all over the cities and free education for all children. The people seem optimistic and happy but do not forget the genocide. We visited 2 churches where several thousand people died. People in the minority group were told to seek sanctuary in churches. The government then sent in its death squads and murdered the people inside and outside the church. At one church, 5000 people were murdered inside and around it. The bodies were left to decompose where they fell. When we visited, the victims' clothing was still strewn about the church floor and seats. Blood stains blackened the walls. The bones had been piled up in memorial, open graves. I will never forget one skull that had an axe head still embedded in it. Another had a clean machete cut. Another had a gaping hole. Our guides told us they personally survived by hiding in the forest. Pretty sobering stuff. Reemphasized the risk we all face when hate and intolerance are allowed to be used as political tools.
The gorilla trekking was much lighter fare to say the least. We would meet at the assembly area in the morning and be assigned a particular family. We would then drive on horrendous "roads" to the potato fields and begin walking. When we finally reached the forest edge, we had to climb over or walk on a rickety bridge to get over a stone wall built to keep elephants and buffalo out of the farm fields. Then we trekked through the jungle until we found the gorillas. Below are photos taken by our tour leader. Photo one shows me leading our group through the dense jungle (The fools followed me and I was completely lost). Photo two shows me trying to get out of the way of a 450 pound silver back who decided he wanted to go down the path I was on. Yeah, we got close! I backed up as far as I could but the forest was so thick I felt like I was against brick wall. One time, a silverback actually stepped on my foot as he passed. Never felt at any risk though except when I slipped on a slope and slid right in front of an approaching silverback. Guides almost killed me trying to get me away.