In late 1996, I landed in Kigali for the first time in my life. It had been approximately 18 months since another plane, carrying then president Juvenal Habyarimana, had been shot from the sky during its descent towards the same runway - the signal to begin genocide. It is also the airport in which President Clinton made his famous apology for genocide, while Air Force One's engines remained running on the tarmac. There were few lights in the city when I first approached it, and the airport, now renovated with duty-free shopping and espresso places, was dotted with bullet holes and craters in the floor. In the main hall there was a smudged glass box that contained a Mountain Gorilla, its taxidermy slowly decaying. I documented Rwanda as it looked then on 35mm black and white film. It was my first photo essay. In January I returned to Rwanda for the first time in 13 years and tried, again, to photograph it.
I have tried in this photo essay, as I did in 1996, to represent the parts of Rwanda that are so often overshadowed by foreign correspondents' obsession with genocide fallout. I have not focused on survivors of genocide. Instead here you will find documentation of the landscape itself - the physicality and delicacy of the land, and its non-human inhabitants.
A praying mantis, four inches long, climbs the balcony of a guesthouse in western Rwanda. Mantises, predators who rely on their sight and spiked front legs, can swivel their heads nearly 360 degrees and will eat 'any species small enough to be successfully captured' - including small rodents. But it's sexual cannibalism that makes mantises famous. Some female mantises will devour their male partner during copulation, starting by biting off their head. Scientists disagree on why this happens, but headless male mantises noticeably increase the ferocity of their body movements once decapitated, leading to speculation that it increases the chances of fertilization.
Lake Kivu, one of the 'great lakes' that gives this region of Africa its name, is a massive body of water that stretches the entirity of Rwanda's western border, from the volcanic Virunga mountains in the North, up against Uganda, to the deep, monkey-infested forests and fishing villages of the south, near the Burundi crossing at Cyangugu. Across the lake is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, home to some of the most obscene and inexcusable human abuses currently happening on this planet. Notorious for mass rape and ethnic killing, Congolese militias - bolstered in their number and vitriol by former Rwandan extremists pushed across the border during the genocide - have driven thousands of Kinyarwanda speakers across the lake and into Rwanda.
Weaverbirds build hanging nests from tightly woven grass. The nests are so expertly made that they contain a nesting chamber protected by a grass floor from the short entryway. The birds are colonial, and will nest in a condominium style in a single tree, each branch dangling nests. The males do the weaving to impress the females, and if a female does not approve of a newly constructed nest, the male will abandon it and start again from scratch.
Lake Kivu is one of only three known exploding lakes in the world. Regular patterns of massive biological extinction have led scientists to discover huge quantities of dissolved methane and carbon dioxide gases deep beneath the surface, held down only by the weight of the water itself. These gases, when triggered by volcanic activity in the Rwandan Virungas, can decompress, literally turning the lake over and sending the top waters to the bottom. Clouds of deadly, scentless, poison gas then filter out across the shorelines, killing everything that breathes. Some scientists have speculated that the lake may in fact produce tsunamis as the gas explodes from within. In the meantime, Rwanda's brewery, Bralirwa, has harnessed the gas to run the boilers at its Kivu plant. Kivu has another poisonous secret, however: Iwawa Island. Iwawa, the hideaway prison island at the furthest reaches of Rwanda's claim to the lake, up against the Congolese territorial border, houses dissenters and the poor under the watch of President Kagame's military forces. Officially dubbed a 'rehabilitation' island, the prisoners are worked and paraded before visiting officials as an example of Kagame's efforts to 'reform' dissent. The president's tight grip on power, and a number of dissenter assassinations, have been increasingly noted by international monitors, concerned about the darkness underlying Rwanda's bright luster. Click the photo above for more on Iwawa Island.
The ICTR, although based in Arusha, Tanzania, has offices at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali. The ICTR is charged with adjudicating genocide cases brought against those who designed and instigated the genocide. The ICTR has been widely criticized for its slow rate of progress.
The Hotel des Mille Collines became internationally famous when Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte starred in a hollywood recreation of the role the hotel - and its manager Paul Rusesabagina - played in sheltering Tutsis as the killing swept through the capital in April and May of 1994. Rusesabagina, with the help of many others, was able to shelter over 1,000 people in the hotel.
The Rwandan Parliament building was once easily recognizable rising from a ridgetop along the airport road. Now, like the Holiday Inn in Beirut, it still wears the signs of war. It has been camoflaged by large-scale development and construction projects as Kigali has boomed over the past decade.
The former US embassy, a squat white building just on the outskirts of the center of town, is now a pharmacy. After the 1997 embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, the United States implemented a strict set of guidelines regarding embassy location, structure, and even seating, abroad. The US embassy in Kigali is now across town, under much greater fortification.
Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. Until about a decade ago, Kigali only took up a few of those. Development and construction has expanded so rapidly post-genocide, however, that fancy new homes can be found in sub-divisions and neighborhoods that were open hillsides less than a decade ago.