Life after hell in Rwanda

Seeing victims and children of rape

“Josette With Her Son, Thomas’’ is one of 25 portraits seen in “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape.’’ “Josette With Her Son, Thomas’’ is one of 25 portraits seen in “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape.’’ (Jonathan Torgovnik)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 15, 2011

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Few people over the past three decades have experienced as many horrific scenes as the photojournalist James Nachtwey has: wars, natural disasters, crimes against humanity. Several years ago, I asked him in an interview if he could say what was the worst thing he’d seen. “Rwanda,’’ he said. He didn’t hesitate. Nor did he elaborate.

He didn’t have to. In 1994, the Hutu majority there turned on the Tutsi minority and murdered an estimated 800,000 people. That was more than 10 percent of the country’s population. To give some sense of magnitude, the equivalent figure for the United States today would be more than 31 million victims.

The extent of the genocide was so great, and the way it was carried out so brutal (machetes were a preferred weapon), that other atrocities drew less attention. Hutu militia repeatedly and violently raped thousands of Tutsi women. Many of the women became infected with HIV. It’s believed that 20,000 children were born as a result of those rapes. The women are largely ostracized for “having a child of the militia.’’

The photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik first went to Rwanda in 2006. He began interviewing rape victims and photographing them with their children. Twenty-five of the portraits make up “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape.’’ The show runs through Oct. 23 at Suffolk University Law School’s Adams Gallery.

Torgovnik presents the women and children simply, with what one might call a relaxed formality. The subjects know the camera is there. They look at Torgovnik - which is to say they look at us. They pose, but without stiffness or ostentation. Torgovnik keeps artifice, and polemic, to a minimum.

The size of the photographs, 19 inches by 19 inches, gives the subjects a greater personal presence. So does the photographs being in color. We associate black and white with a greater seriousness. It’s newsier, we assume, more real. That we do so is a quirk of technology. For decades, the means of color reproduction were either inadequate, expensive, or both. In fact, black and white abstracts and aestheticizes the reality it shows - black and white makes reality look less real.

The fact these images are in color makes them seem more a part of the world we know. The people in them don’t exist in some black-and-white realm in which terrible things happen and on which we can easily turn our backs. The vibrancy of the clothes worn by Josette and her son, the leafy vegetation behind Beatrice and her sons, the colorfulness of the artwork on the wall behind Sylvina and her daughter bespeak an everyday reality much different from ours, yes - even with global warming, New England’s climate isn’t Africa’s, nor is our standard of living - but different in degree, not kind.

Read the excerpts from Torgovnik’s interviews with these women - they’re adjacent to the photographs - and you will pray that that reality differed in almost every imaginable way, though “imaginable’’ may not be the right word.

“I love my son,’’ says Catherine, the mother of Eugene - “the only trouble is when he asks where his father is. When he grows big, I will tell him.’’

“I have a big challenge,’’ says Philomena, the mother of a daughter, Juliette: “I am a mother but feel unwilling to be a mother. I don’t love this child. Whenever I look at this child, the memories of rape return. . . . I understand that she is innocent, and I try to love her, but I fail.’’

“I must be honest with you,’’ Josette says of Thomas; “I never loved this child. Whenever I remember what his father did to me, I used to feel that the only revenge would be to kill him. But I never did that.’’

“Tell the world that if we die, we are leaving behind these children,’’ says Yvette, the mother of Isaac, “these children who were born when the world was looking away and never came to our rescue.’’

A man I know who was traveling to Poland arranged his itinerary to allow for a visit to Auschwitz. People would ask why he’d go to the trouble. “How could I not go?,’’ he said. “It was an obligation of being human.’’ That’s a rather grand way of putting things, but if you go to the Adams Gallery - which is open seven days a week, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., admission free, a 90-second walk from the Park Street T stop; no stairs or elevator to deal with, since it’s right there on the ground floor - you may get some sense of what he meant.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

INTENDED CONSEQUENCES: Rwandan Children Born of Rape

At: the Adams Gallery, Sargent Hall, Suffolk University Law School, 120 Tremont St., through Oct. 23. 617-573-8447,