During the 100 days of killings in Rwanda in 1994, more than a million of its people fled to what was then eastern Zaire (now Congo) and sought refuge. The Rwandans here were a mixed group — Tutsis who fled extremist Hutus and Hutus who feared retaliation from the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. The group of Hutus in the refugee camp included génocidaires (those considered to have taken part in the mass killings), many of whom belonged to the Rwandan army and the paramilitary group known as the Interahamwe, who used the refugee camps as safe houses to continue to attack the newly arriving Tutsis.
In 1996, as Hutu extremists — with help from Zairian Mai-Mai rebels — continued to violently attack the Tutsis, nearly a million refugees began to leave the camps and head back to Rwanda. With limited transportation, many would have to carry out the journey on foot. The Washington Post's Carol Guzy, who has won more Pulitzer prizes than any other journalist, covered this exodus, joining these refugees from Zaire to Rwanda.
We asked Guzy about her two trips — she went in 1996 and again in 1999 — and put together a gallery of some of her most stunning photography from Rwanda.
Q: You covered the exodus of Rwandans from what was then Zaire. Looking back at that assignment, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
Guzy: I vividly remember the massive numbers of ragged and exhausted refugees moving like a flood of humanity, which felt quite biblical. They seemed like a flock of birds — one minute thousands would gather to set up camp and next morning they vanished, trekking endless kilometers to their homeland. The most sorrowful scenes were the children lying next to their dying parents on the side of the road, their whispers giving way to eternal silence. As always, the innocents suffering for ethnic strife and violent conflict of which they do not yet even comprehend. They bear witness to the horrors of selective compassion, when one group decides who deserves mercy or not, for the simple "crime" of being different.
It's an odd feeling knowing the country called Zaire is not on a map anymore.
Q: What made you want to go back to Rwanda for the second time?
Guzy: Ideally, it is essential for journalists to follow up on stories. These people are stuck in reality long after the headlines are over. They can't change the channel or turn the page when they become disinterested in the story. The world community many times becomes involved in other issues and their attention is focused elsewhere. For the people in our stories, the problems continue, and I believe it is vital to keep readers informed and continue to shine the light. And also to let folks know how the story evolves and ends. Many viewers have made comments to me that they often wonder about certain stories that have touched them. It seems our responsibility to offer that closure and enlightenment.
Q: In an interview following your trip in 1999, you said: "With pictures we can weep for Rwanda and rage at the injustice everywhere, but we can also celebrate the daily life around us — it's mystery and magic — it's poetry and wonder.” Is there an image that makes you most proud from your assignment in Rwanda that you think achieved that?
Guzy: There tends to be a shoot-the-messenger mentality at times about the media publishing disturbing images. Seeing man's inhumanity over breakfast cereal can be difficult and overwhelming, which can create rage directed at the press. But for many in our world there is no breakfast cereal or freedom from fear, and perhaps that is what society should find most distressing. It's not the photographs that are the problem; it's the reality they portray. We do however need to offer balance in news coverage, not only focusing on the profound sorrow of many events, but also the tiny glimmers of hope or genuine courage intrinsic in every story I've been privileged to cover. The joyous reunions of family members and spirit maintained throughout an arduous journey, especially by the children, was quite moving. Indeed, for most in this world "There's no place like home."
Here are 40 powerful images, all taken by Guzy in 1996, that document the lives of Rwandans as they return home from Zaire.