In 2001 Kimberlee Acquaro, a photojournalist in her 30s, won a fellowship that allowed her to spend six weeks in Rwanda. Her subject: the role of women in rebuilding a country bereft of men after the 1994 genocide in which some 1 million people, most of them from the Tutsi tribe, were killed by Hutu extremists.
She has focused ever since on the tragedies and triumphs of this devastated African country—an obsession that has led to a career as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a widely-exhibited photographer.
Acquaro first became interested in Rwanda when she was working at Time magazine and saw the horrifying pictures of massacred Tutsis. A few years later, she read an account of how women survivors, who made up 70 percent of the adult population immediately after the genocide, were leading the country’s return to normalcy.
“I felt that had to be a story,” she says, but she couldn’t persuade any publication to send her there. That’s when she applied to the Trusts-supported Pew International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. “When I saw that the fellowship was for underreported stories, I just said, ‘Rwanda’,” she recalls.
Arriving in Kigali, the capital, Acquaro linked up immediately with Norah Bagirinka, who was directing a program with the International Rescue Committee for female survivors. Bagirinka took her to a conference of women in local government—women who, previously second-class citizens, had become a formidable power after the genocide.
She met Joseline, a young mother with only a primary school education who had recently been elected head of development in her impoverished village, overseeing public health, finance, infrastructure and education. She also met Adelphine, a young woman who was raising four younger brothers and sisters orphaned by the genocide and who, thanks to a new inheritance law, was allowed to inherit her parents’ home.
Acquaro origionally photographed her subjects in black-and-white against a white background. “I wanted you to see them removed from their environment, so you look at the women,” she explains. “You didn’t see a dirt hut, chickens running around, you just saw the woman. If you can connect with something, you’ll be more interested in taking action, but you first have to care.”
The photographs—“beautiful, haunting photographs,” notes John Schidlovsky, the reporting project’s director—appeared in Mother Jones magazine and on the Web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In 2002 Acquaro returned to Rwanda with her husband, Peter Landesman, and provided the photographs for their New York Times Magazine piece about Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the former Rwandan minister for women and family affairs who was on the other side; she is the first woman ever to face genocide charges before an international tribunal—she is currently on trial in Tanzania—and is also the first woman ever charged with encouraging rape as an instrument of genocide.
The following year, Acquaro was in Rwanda again, this time to shoot what became a 28-minute documentary, God Sleeps in Rwanda, which focuses on five female survivors of the genocide. (It takes its name from a native saying: “When God wanders the world, at the end of the day he comes to Rwanda to sleep because He considers this to be the most beautiful place on earth.”) Joseline and Adelphine were among the women profiled. “I wanted the world to hear these women’s voices, and the best way to do that was through film,” she observes.
Unlike her stark still photographs, Acquaro’s film is in the lush colors one expects of the tropics. “Especially with something as horrible as this, you need an entry point, and the beauty allows people to engage visually,” she says. “It’s important to be aware of the light because we’re deluged with the grimness of everything happening around the world.” The film was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in March and purchased by HBO for its Cinemax channel, and benefit screenings have helped raise some $35,000 for women survivors in Rwanda.
Rwanda continues to fill Acquaro’s days. She is working with AVEGA, a nonprofit organization formed by 50 genocide widows, to sell in this country teddy bears made by Rwandan women. And she is helping Bagirinka, who won political asylum in the U.S. because she was receiving death threats in Rwanda, bring her three sons to this country.