In February I spent a week in Rwanda.  I've been interested in that country since I read a book about their genocide.  Gorilla tracking was an added, and remarkable, benefit.

Here's an excerpt from an email I sent to friends while I was there.  This will hopefully provide some context for the photography.

As a ten second history: almost 1 million people were killed here in the Spring of 1994.  It was the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority.  The distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was given by a Belgian scientist in the 1930s.  He declared those with a thin nose and high cheek bones, who were tall and mostly cattle herders in the north, the 'Tutsi'.  He then declared those more squat in stature with wider noses, and primarily farmers in the South of Rwanda, the 'Hutu'.  The pygmy people he called 'Twa'.  He was obsessed with their differences and so created a divide between the "two sets" of people which never before existed. Sporadic murders of the Tutsi people began in 1990 and when the Hutu (awful, racist, murderous) president of Rwanda's plane was shot down while landing at Kigali airport on April 6th, 1994, a major (and well planned) genocide began.  Within hours of the president's plane being shot down road blocks were set up by government troops and systematic genocide began.  Again, between April and July of 1994 almost 1 million Tutsi (and Hutus who refused to kill their Tutsi friends) were savagely murdered.  I was just finishing up my first year at University of Alabama.  Where were you in April, May, and June of 1994?

***********disclaimer:  there are details about the murders of women and children in the italicized paragraphs.  If you don't want to read what Rwandans have had to endure then skip to the regular font below.*******
Besides the genocide museum, I visited two churches that were both sites of major massacres.  As incredibly religious people, the Rwandans figured they'd be safe if they hid in their churches.  Tens of thousands of people took refuge in each of the two churches I visited.  Imagine: literally 10,000 people shoved in a single-room church for up to two weeks, terrorized.  Many people actually died from suffocation, others died in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable.  Most of the victim's clothes are still piled on pews and hanging from rafters of the churches as a memorial. There are countless bullet holes in the ceiling from soldiers shooting indiscriminately from the roof into the chaos inside. Bullet holes still create pock marks in the doors and entryways as soldiers forced their way inside. Splattered blood still stains the church ceiling from machete attacks once the soldiers got inside.  And most unbelievable are the huge, dark blood stains where the soldiers swung babies' heads. 
There is a crypt below one of the churches where all the sculls, leg and arm bones lie on shelves.  To be underground surrounded by skulls with bullet holes and machete gashes is a feeling I won't soon forget.

They have a single symbolic coffin in the crypt to represent all women killed in the genocide.  The woman buried in that particular coffin died in a *classic* female way during this horrific three months.   She was raped by approximately 200 men before they speared her through the vagina with a stick.  Then, after that, as she held her 9 month old baby on her chest, they speared through the baby's back and then through her chest.  Apparently that was what finally killed her. 
It's hard not to cry.  It's hard not to faint actually.  It's an intensely sad and moving experience, one that left me speechless and staring into space for hours wondering how humanity gets to this point.  

The genocide museum presented information and details on other, more infamous genocides, that our world has seen.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Holocaust were among the horrors mentioned.  They didn't mention the Darfur region in Sudan.  Maybe that's because it's still happening as I write this?


Today, Rwanda is hell-bent on recovery.  It's immaculate, ultra safe and quiet, there are nice wide sidewalks, no plastic bags in the whole country (they're actually not allowed.  Every other country I've visited in Africa is literally ruined with plastic bags hanging from every visible tree limb), lots of industry, a nice middle class, a HUGE tourism sector thanks to the gorillas.   And better yet, the words Hutu and Tutsi don't exist anymore.  Rwandans, like every other species on the planet, love their children.  There are LOTS of them riding their mama's backs.  People are happy, they're recovering.  It's surely a new day for the Rwandan people.

The gorillas.  Rwanda's gift.  The gorillas were spectacular.  I was lucky enough to actually spend two back-to-back days with them so I got to observe two very different families.  The first day I was with seven fabulous people from Australia, Canada, and England.  We trekked for four hours in the most dense jungle bush I've ever imagined.  There was a full hour of trekking just through a bamboo forest which felt like climbing through Avatar (sans blue people).  It was pouring rain and hailing, we were all falling all over the place because we were walking on top of three feet of flattened bushes and weeds (thanks to the gorilla's movement through the bush. They flatten it as they move). 
All of a sudden, after hours of soaking wet trekking,  there sat a huge teddy bear with his back to me.  (!!!!!!!)  He heard our approach and casually turned around to look at us with his mouth full of bamboo.  He toppled over backward, gave his armpits a good scratch, had a nice yawn, and stretched out.  He got up and started walking toward me.  HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!!! I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting. I think I got one clear shot because of my own trembling.  Visitors are only allowed to spend only one hour with the gorillas per day so the next 55 minutes were spent watching all 15 or so of this family eat, chill out, play a little, and hide from the rain.  One juvenile got on his hind legs and started beating his chest right in front of us and then ran at us.  Talk about FREAKING OUT!!!! Apparently he was just being funny.  Hilarious. (?)
The next day I requested to be with a gorilla family with lots of babies.  Obviously, right?  My new group and I were trekking along and absolutely out of nowhere two juvenile siblings came tumbling down the mountain after each other.   They were beating their chests at each other, wrestling, head locking and chasing each other!!  How cute is that!?!?  This family was super active and fearless of us. The big Silver Back STINKS like really bad human body odor, but basically just sits there, fat and old, and watches his kids act like...well...gorillas.  This family had a  pregnant female, many sweet young gorillas, and a mom and her 9-month old baby!!  We watched the baby as he learned how to walk, no bigger than my cat was (photo attached)  I was sobbing.  It was so amazing to see this baby gorilla, all wobbly and unsure, try to walk away from his mama.  The mom grabbed him, laid on her back, and fed her baby as he sat on her chest.  It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  There is (amazingly) a set of 6-day old twins that we BARELY saw....the mother is very, very protective of them since they can't walk or do anything on their own.  She holds them in her arms for months, apparently.  Amazing.  Again, we're only allowed an hour with the family so we had to head back down way too soon.
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Jessica Brown says:

What an unbelievably awesome experience you had!!!
From tears of sadness to tears of joy- your trip seems like it was an emotional roller coaster. Yet, it appears to have been well worth the ride. As usual , your photos are amazing and your writing is heartfelt and raw at the same time. I loved taking the time to learn what Morocco is like through your eyes. Colorful is the word that comes to mind. Thanks for sharing.

(03.23.11 @ 10:13 PM)
Jessica Brown says:

...and Rwanda ( I couldn't t even type the word for a few minutes after reading your truthful account of the horrible genocide). Knowledge is power.

(03.23.11 @ 10:26 PM)
Patrice says:

Love all of what you are about Tara, you are one amazing woman!

(03.24.11 @ 06:41 PM)