CNN Photos

‘Like being in the valley of death’

Twenty years ago this month, mass killings began in the tiny African country of Rwanda.

An estimated 800,000 civilians, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were murdered over a period of about 100 days. The slaughter was planned and executed by members of the majority Hutu ethnic group.

Shortly after the genocide began, photographer Gilles Peress traveled to Rwanda, a country he had visited only weeks before.

Peress said he didn't witness any killings, but he “saw very fresh evidence." His photos show the grim aftermath, including rotting corpses and bloodstained machetes. These images are included with photos of refugees in Peress’ book “The Silence.”

Peress named his book “The Silence” partially because that is what he encountered as he entered the country in 1994.

“It was like traveling through silence, a completely silent landscape,” Peress remembered. “It's as if the birds had also been killed.”

But the book’s title also refers, Peress said, to the moral silence of the international community and its unwillingness to intervene.

“It was also a kind of death landscape in some way,” he said. “Death of morality, death of values, death of international law and so on.”

This wasn’t Peress’ first experience shooting photos of war and conflict. He has also been to the Balkans, Northern Ireland and Lebanon. But this was something different, he said.

“What was overwhelming in Rwanda was the magnitude and the speed at which those Tutsi populations were killed, essentially with knives,” he said. “This created a landscape of death. It was like being in the valley of death.

“We slept in abandoned houses with dead bodies; we drank water where bodies had decayed. It took me something like three weeks to get the smell of death out from inside me. It's like, a shower doesn't do it. The smell of death stays within you.”

Peress returned to Rwanda a few years ago for the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

He said many things have improved. The country is cleaner; one day a month, road traffic stops so everyone can clean their houses, their gardens and the streets. There are flowers on the side of the roads. Huts are well-kept, and on market days, everybody goes about their business.

There has also been some healing over the years as victims and perpetrators have come face to face to find some form of justice, if not reconciliation, from a process called Gacaca.

“But there's another kind of silence that is floating on Rwanda now, that of not speaking about the genocide,” Peress said. "Of course, there is the memorial language every year in April and so on. But by and large, there is another kind of silence that has to do with the peculiar curse attached to that kind of trauma: You are cursed if you remember and you are cursed if you don’t.

"The government had to deal with the tension between the past and the need to forget so that an economic future can be built. The same goes for the individuals and especially the survivors."

- Kyle Almond, CNN