When Gadi Habumugisha was 2 years old, he was forced to flee his home in Rwanda with his older sister. It was April 1994, and violence was escalating after the death of the president, as ethnic tensions erupted. Crossing the border to seek safety in refugee camps in the neighboring Congo, the pair were eventually orphaned by the killings.
April 7 marks 25 years since the Rwandan genocide. Over the course of 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people were killed — most of them members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group killed by the majority Hutu population.
Gadi and his sister’s new lives in Rwanda began at the end of 1994 after the genocide ended, when they returned with the Red Cross to their homeland and came to the Imbabazi Orphanage in the country’s north. Run by Rosamond Carr, an American humanitarian who had lived in Rwanda since 1949, the orphanage was a sanctuary for children who had lost their families as a result of that traumatic summer.
For Gadi, and two other boys, Mussa Uwitonze and Bizimana Jean, the orphanage also became the place where, years later, they first picked up cameras at a photography workshop run by Through the Eyes of Children, an organization founded in 2000 by photographer American David Jiranek. All three boys seized the chance to tell their own stories by taking pictures. It marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for photography.
Now all in their late twenties, the three men are spreading that passion to other vulnerable children, taking on the leadership of Through the Eyes of Children by teaching photography workshops in Rwanda and around the world. Working initially with 19 “camera kids,” the photography workshops for vulnerable children in Rwanda started in 2000, teaching them the basics of lighting, composition and stop-motion among other photography techniques. The photographs made by workshop participants have been exhibited at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, the United Nations headquarters in New York and at Holocaust museums around the world. “When you give a child a chance to tell their story from their perspective, it tells them they matter, and that their story matters,” says Joanne McKinney, project director at Through the Eyes of Children.
Documenting scenes of everyday life in the country, the extraordinarily large collection of photographs track the healing and rebuilding of Rwanda in the years after the genocide. “For us orphans, we were able to express ourselves and the world could see our photos, our country and the children of it,” says Mussa Uwitonze, now 28 years old and the father of two girls. The photographs from the workshops did more than show life in Rwanda to international audiences. Proceeds from sales of the images to buyers around the world fed back into Imbabazi, paying for the children’s clothing, food and education. Many of the original Camera Kids have gone on to pursue careers in photography for media, events and non-profit organizations in Rwanda.
Almost 20 years on from their first workshop, and 25 years on from the genocide, Gadi, Mussa and Bizimana are embarking on their own journey, telling their story through different means. They are both the subjects and storytellers of a forthcoming documentary, entitled Camera Kids, in partnership with American filmmaker Beth Murphy, Director of Films for the Groundtruth Project, an international non-profit media organization supporting storytelling and freedom of expression in the United States and developing countries around the world.
The three men have all worked as professional photographers and now lead the Through the Eyes of Children photography workshops. But a few years ago, they realized they were still troubled by lingering questions about their past. “We all had so many questions since our time at the orphanage,” says Mussa. “Who are these people who participated in the genocide? What were they thinking when they were killing people? We decided that it was our time, as photographers and storytellers, to find out the answers from the real people who participated in the genocide.”
These are the questions that Gadi, Mussa and Bizimana seek to answer in the documentary, which follows their reunions with the other original camera kids from Imbabazi Orphanage, which closed in 2014, as well as a three month-long journey through villages across northern Rwanda, interviewing and photographing those responsible for the violence and their families. So far, they have interviewed participants in the genocide and their families, and have the goal of interviewing 100 perpetrators in total. “We want to hear what their stories are and why they were involved,” Gadi says, “but I don’t expect to get a full or satisfactory answer. There is no valid reason that would lead one to kill another. However, talking to these perpetrators and survivors, I can see that eventually there has been some kind of reconciliation.”
Murphy, the filmmaker, has been filming Gadi, Mussa and Bizimana for the past three years, with plans to release a feature-length documentary in late 2020. “Making peace with your enemy is one of the most difficult things a person can do, and the story in Rwanda can really be something to emulate,” she tells TIME.
Murphy also says she was struck by some of the parallels in Rwanda with the rise of hate speech back home in the United States. “Some of the language the perpetrators use to explain why they did what they did sounds a lot like some of the language that we’re hearing today, especially from white nationalists in the United States.” Leading up to the 1994 genocide, government-sanctioned propaganda and radio broadcast messages were used to dehumanize the Tutsis and stoke hatred against them. Murphy sees parallels today around the world with the use of the word “invasion,” a phrase used by President Donald Trump to describe the movement of Central American migrants towards the U.S. border. The term “invaders” was also used in the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto before he killed 50 people at a mosque in Christchurch last month. “It’s chilling. And it is leading to violence and death,” Murphy says. “I want this film to be an antidote to hateful ideology and xenophobia.”
Beyond the perpetrator project, Gadi, Mussa and Bizimana are concentrating their efforts on expanding the mission of Through the Eyes of Children worldwide. In the U.S., they have led photography workshops with immigrant Haitian teenagers in New Jersey and foster children in Boston. In May, they plan to visit Haiti for workshops with orphanages, and will be traveling to Lebanon later in the year to share their photography craft with Syrian refugees. “It’s a great feeling to be able to transfer knowledge to kids in difficult conditions like we used to be in,” Gadi tells TIME. “It’s like giving them a medicine to heal them. It’s treating them because we know from experience that because of photography, they will be better people.” The men want to foster a global community of camera kids, united by telling their own stories through photography and fostering empathy with others. “A lot of kids around the world need photography to be able to express themselves, to know lives outside their boxes,” says Mussa.
And in Rwanda, where it all started, photography remains integral to the three men’s lives. Gadi is pursuing a part-time career as a photographer and has worked with several non-profit organizations. Mussa recently left his job as a tour operator to become a full-time photographer, and Bizimana is in his second year as a staff photographer with Reuters Africa. Their determination to share their knowledge of photography with future generations has led to workshops with street children, disabled children, and now —after the ‘Camera Kids’ film project — workshops with the children of both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide. “When we were kids, [Rosamond Carr] used to tell us that we have to share with others what we have,” Bizimana says, reflecting on the legacy of his late foster mother. “This is the heritage she gave us. Giving other kids photography is doing what we promised her.”
Correction, April 6
The original version of this story misstated the start date of the Rwandan genocide. It was April 7, not April 6.