On a beautiful Spring Sunday morning about ten years ago, I opened the door of my San Diego suburban house and stepped out to retrieve the paper. My step-children were still asleep and my husband was gone for the week-end. A long and lazy Sunday stretched ahead of me. Right on my front step I was greeted by a turd of human feces. I stopped in my tracks and let the gaze wander farther, to the driveway covered with a giant toilet paper swastika and to more swastikas painted on the side wall.
The feeling of disbelief and fear that paralyzed me for a moment, I will never forget. Then I went into action mode: I took photographs, cleaned up what I could before the kids got up and called the police. About a week later, the same kind agent who had come to my house notified us they found the culprit, a neighborhood kid we chose not to prosecute, and who was sentenced to community service and a visit to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Tellingly, neither of his parents came to apologize.
As a white woman in a white world, who might have been discriminated or patronized over the years but always had the means to fight back, I cannot even begin to comprehend what religious or racial discrimination feels like. The small glimpse I was given terrorized me, if even for just a moment: the absurdity and the gratuitous viciousness behind it so foreign to me. I was reminded of this incident when I heard, yesterday, of a white supremacist in Kansas who took it upon himself to shoot three people at a Jewish Center, on the eve of Passover.
Incidentally, I had just finished reading about mourning week in Rwanda, a ceremony that is repeated every year since the end of the civil war in 1994 when, in the space of just over three months, about a million Tutsi were brutally killed by Hutus. The carnage is re-enacted on a stage in a large stadium, amongst the heartbreaking wails and cries of those who lived through twenty years ago. The ceremony always ends on a positive note, that stresses “we are all Rwandans now”. On the surface, it would appear that, in twenty years, more than an entente cordiale has been established between the perpetrators and the victims and, even economically, Rwanda is flourishing. Undoubtedly, some wounds will never heal but normalcy has in large part been regained because of the recognition of all involved that they had to find a way to live together.
More than two million trials have taken place in front of reconciliation tribunals and many of the killers have asked for forgiveness from their victims. That forgiveness is almost always granted, and that it runs deeper than just words of circumstance, is a testament to human resilience. I believe it’s also the work of strong and fierce women, who lost their husbands, fathers and children, who were raped and abused and, still, they forgive.
South African photographer Pieter Hugohas travelled to Rwanda and taken portraits of perpetrators and victims together, as part of a project sponsored by the non-profit organization Association Modeste et Innocent, that works to promote reconciliation.
The women in the photographs are all victims, who have opened their hearts, and sometimes their lives, to men who didn’t hesitate for a moment to slay their closest and dearest. And here they are, sorrows and closure and determination on their faces. But not hate. A necessary survival process perhaps, and one that most of us cannot come close to understanding or empathizing with. But what we can do is admire, support and draw from. And willingly forgive the next petty slight that comes our way.
All images courtesy of Pieter Hugo/NYT Magazine
PS A few months ago I wrote about one of my favourite photographers, Tyler Hicks, who is on staff at the New York Times. I was happy to learn that, yesterday, his outstanding and brave work was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize, for the photos taken during the Nairobi mall massacre. Mr. Hicks, who lives in Nairobi, happened to be walking by, on the way to pick up some wedding presents, and didn’t hesitate to enter the mall, where he started to take incredibly detailed and close-up pictures. Well deserved congratulations to someone who thinks nothing of putting his life in danger over and over for the sake of reporting.