Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now at the Skirball

Untitled, Bahai Refugee Camp

Los Angeles - The Skirball Cultural Center presents Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now: Photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdie. This powerful collection features nearly forty color and black-and-white photographs from the Central African countries of Rwanda and Chad. This collections is part of the series 'The World Now: Global Understanding through Arts and Culture' at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Villagers await the beginning of the Gacaca hearing, Rwanda

In 2002, Ronnen Safdie traveled to post-genocide Rwanda with Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, to witness and document the traditional, citizen-based tribunal process known as the Gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha). In the Gacacas, persons accused of war crimes confess to their crimes and ask for forgiveness, while onlookers and victims offer evidence contributing to the prisoner's defense or pursecution. Through her photographs, Ronnen Safdie exposes the emotionally-charged quality of this process. These trials are essential to the healing process for the Rwandan people. The onlookers sit in the desert sun for up to 8 hours watching these trials. They are so enthralled, in fact, that "we did not even hear a baby cry" says Ronnen Safdie.

The prayer hall in Ntarama Church (south of Kingali), Rwanda

Photographs of neatly arranged skulls and sacks overflowing with human bones in a Ntarama church accentuate the repulsive, repugnant reality of human cruelty. Sadly, these victims had taken refuge in this church because they believed that inside of their house of worship, God would protect and spare their lives. Although their genocide has concluded, Ronnen Safdie's photography conveys the much longer and more arduous journey of survival and life in the shadow of such a dismal legacy.

Untitled, Bahai Refugee Camp

The second half of the collection are photographs focused on the refugees of Darfur in the Bahai refugee camp. This camp is framed by a cast, treeless abyss of desert devoid of even the most basic resources necessary for survival. This stark, barren environment was home to 18,000 Darfurian refugees in 2004, mostly women and children. Their temporary homes were constructed out of makeshift, tattered tents. This sun-beaten, worn cloth offered the only protection the refugees had from the sun and their murderers. They were driven to the middle of the desert where they would be completely exposed to the elements and their attackers. Women, while walking miles to fetch water, were often raped along the way. These Darfurians were the sole survivors of the genocide, the so-called "lucky ones," were now facing starvation, disease, the threat of attack, and the possibility of never again returning to their homes.

(L to R): A genocide survivor, Rwanda; Orphaned child with grandmother, Bahai Refugee Camp

Amidst this fixed fearful state were smiles, laughter, hope. Images of women smiling warmly at a small child, a grandmother's unconditional love for her infant orphaned grandson, and a small child happily drinking the fortified formula at a nutrition center. Safdie's photographs capture the agony of destitution and despair, yet also portrayed moments of survival when the resiliency of the human spirit soared above the suffocating clutches of hopelessness and death. 

Prisoners in truck, Rwanda

Safdie's photographs reveal the unavoidable truth that violence occurs under a clear blue sky, with the sun shining brightly, and birds chattering about. Murder occurs in color, in real life, at the hands of people with families. The murderers and victims are one in the same; they are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, cousins, neighbors, friends; they have likes and dislikes, passions, dreams, desires, goals. Each victim and criminal is a person. Each is a life.

Prisoners await the start of the hearing in Nyakizu, Rwanda

We, a few members from the press, had the great honor of touring this remarkably somber and inspiring exhibit with Michal Ronnen Safdie as our guide. We were privy to revisit Rawanda and Darfur with Ronnen Safdie as she recounted the multi-layered stories behind each photograph. Although the pictures speak volumes on their own, Safdie's gracious, respectful, and loving narration allowed us to imagine a land destroyed by war, but inhabited by a people whose spirit and will to live are impenetrable. Ronnen Safdie gazed tenderly at each individual face she photographed. Man or woman, old or young, sick or healthy, criminal or victim, Ronnen Safdie captured their strength and resiliency in her pictures.

Unloading flour, Bahai Refugee Camp

After The Holocaust, the phrase 'never again' reverberated through the world. Never again will the world turn its cheek blindly to the atrocities of genocide. Yet, again and again genocide has haunted the 20th and 21st centuries. Genocide affects all of us. By passive observation of the murder of millions of men, women, and children, we become accomplices. Ronnen Safdie's photographs will never allow us to forget the terror of genocide. While we may try to avert our eyes from the horror of this mutiny while it occurs, she has insisted that we fix our gaze on its aftermath. She has reminded us not only of the human lives at steak, but the tragic lack of attention the world gave and gives to the victims and survivors of genocide.

Outside the camp, Bahai Refugee Camp

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