American photographer Lane Montgomery has compiled a book documenting six major genocides of the past 100 years, during which an estimated 70 million people were killed. She says she was inspired to create Never Again, Again, Again following an assignment in Rwanda, where in 1994 Hutu extremists murdered more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis. Montgomery’s book also focuses on the conflict in the Darfur region, where human rights activists say that since 2003 the government of Sudan has killed at least 300,000 people belonging to black ethnic groups. The photographer is using her book to press the relevant authorities to create what she calls an “International Genocide Force” to stop mass killings.
The skeletons sprawled across the slatted wooden bench in a college in a rural Rwandan district are alabaster white and shiny…as if they’ve been polished up to form the centerpieces of a macabre art exhibit, when in fact it’s the lime strewn on their corpses after their murders to prevent them from rotting that’s bleached them an ivory white.
In another of Montgomery’s photographs from Rwanda, a crimson rosary curls across the warped, tattered and burnt pages of a bible – an image testament to the truth that tens of thousands of people who hid from the death squads in churches found no safety. Instead, they became easy targets for marauders waving machetes and torches of fire.
“After the Nazi Holocaust, the expression went around, ‘never again.’ People said, ‘Never again will these terrible things happen,’ with all these Jews killed and the concentration camps and so on. But of course, genocide keeps happening…. That’s why I called my book ‘Never Again, Again, Again,’” Montgomery explains.
For decades the New York City-based photographer has traveled to war zones around the world, including African conflict zones in Liberia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Montgomery has taken pictures for a variety of human rights groups, including Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee. She’s also an activist for peace and serves on the advisory board of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in the United States.
In ‘Never Again, Again, Again’ Montgomery intersperses the narrative with interviews with war criminals and commentary from ambassadors, academics, human rights activists and journalists. But most disturbing are the first-hand accounts by survivors, such as a letter written by seven Tutsi pastors in Rwanda’s Mugonero district to the leader of their church shortly before they were murdered. The document reads, in part, “We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families…. We believe that with the help of God who entrusted you with the leadership of this flock, which is going to be destroyed, your intervention will be highly appreciated….”
Benjamin Ferencz, the former chief prosecutor of Nazi extermination squads at the Nuremburg war trials in 1947, describes Montgomery’s work as a “grim and important reminder that we owe it to our own humanity, and to the memory of those who perished, never to stop trying to make this a more humane and peaceful world under the rule of law.”
“Nothing could have prepared me for Rwanda….”
Montgomery states emphatically, “Rwanda was the reason I started the book.”
In 2004, a humanitarian organization asked her to visit the country to take photographs to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the genocide there. Montgomery says she expected to find a “clean country” with few reminders of the horror that had unfolded a decade before, with “everything hidden; forgotten.” Her first port of call was a Catholic church in the “middle of the woods” on the outskirts of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
“I did not expect to find what I found…. The bodies were still there. The skeletons were there with hair on their heads, the purses, high heel shoes, tattered clothing. This was in the raw, what I saw,” Montgomery recalls.
At another church, this time in the Ntarama district, Montgomery found a “burnt bible, and the rosaries, still left over from the massacre…. I found it absolutely amazing that these things were still there, after so many years.”
During the height of the mass murder, Hutu militia hacked and burned thousands of Tutsis to death at the place of worship at Ntarama.
“What happened was they went to their pastor and asked for protection and he turned them in, he told the Hutus that they were hiding there – for money,” says Montgomery. “And in my pictures you see all the skulls, and the crosses, and the aftermath of the slaughter. And you can imagine the terror that must have gone through the worshipper’s minds before they were massacred, trapped in the church.”
She says she found it very difficult to do her job in Rwanda.
“I was crying all the time and I didn’t think I could take the photographs. But I forced myself to.”
Later, Montgomery acknowledges, she became even more emotional – not with taking her own pictures, but by studying those others had taken of the aftermath of the genocide.
“I saw all these pictures of the little children, the orphans of the massacre…. The mothers had been raped by the Hutus and had been given AIDS, and they didn’t want to keep the children,” she whispers.
Upon her return to New York City, Montgomery says she was “plagued” by what she’d witnessed in Rwanda.
“I realized how many photographs I had of situations like Kosovo, and Rwanda, and so I decided to write a book…to highlight the fact that these mass killings are still taking place, even with world attention focused on them.”
“The ICC must prosecute al-Bashir”
A chapter in Never Again, Again, Again is dedicated to the conflict in Darfur and contains some of the most graphic images in the book. In one such photograph, a rebel soldier swathed in white robes, his arms bent in prayer, stands over a twisted body decomposing in the tawny desert sands, its dark skin long ago ripped apart by wind and sun and assorted parasites.
Montgomery suggests that the ongoing violence in Darfur offers incontrovertible evidence that most world leaders “care very little” about the ethnic cleansing happening there.
“I have no faith in the authorities, because what they say and do are very, very different,” she tells VOA. “In 1992, (then US President) Bill Clinton said, ‘if the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide.’ (But) this is precisely what his administration did in Rwanda, and what the world did (there) in 1994, when 800,000 Tutsis were killed in eight weeks. And we’re still doing it” in Darfur.
One of her book’s key points is that genocide will continue as long as the perpetrators escape justice. Montgomery is in “total favor” of the International Criminal Court pursuing war crimes charges against Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, who has allegedly sanctioned the attacks on black ethnic Darfuris.
“An example must be made of al-Bashir,” she snaps, despite the Sudanese leader’s pledge to disarm the janjaweed and other violent groups there.
“If al-Bashir gets off scot-free, and the world keeps on turning its eyes away from leaders like him just because they are in positions of authority, then genocide will keep on happening,” she reasons.
Montgomery describes what’s happening in western Sudan, where janjaweed militia allegedly allied to the Sudanese government and state troops have attacked villages and refugee camps, as “impunity beyond belief. These are brutal men who are destructive, and they’ve been getting away with it for years. The UN and human rights officials have made Darfur the longest ongoing episode of genocide in the past century, because (they) don’t do anything about it.”
She’s convinced that the “atrocities in Darfur could have been shortened to months rather than years” had the perpetrators been prosecuted shortly after the attacks began almost six years ago.
“Punishment of perpetrators opens the doors for diplomacy and dignity. Silence and looking the other way emboldens the janjaweed. The lack of punishment of perpetrators fosters more evil. Our silence is their machete...their rifles, their poisoning of wells with the bodies of dead children,” the photographer writes in her book.
“International Genocide Force”
Montgomery says the UN Responsibility to Protect (R2P) resolution is “sensible” and “well-intentioned”… but also “totally ineffectual” in preventing and stopping mass murder. Instead, she advocates the creation of an “independent International Genocide Force” that has the “necessary amount of arms, weapons and personnel to achieve its mission; it must be staffed with leading negotiators and mediators to bring about an immediate end to bloodshed and foster peace….”
She maintains, though, that she realizes the “enormity” of the task facing the UN and its secretary general, Ban ki Moon.
“He (Ban) faces a different world. The 1990s were blissful compared to today because genocide today is often used as a tool by the people that are in charge to stay in power – like al-Bashir.”
She points out that the United Nations says states are responsible for protecting their own citizens from mass murder, mass rape and starvation, “but when they are unwilling or unable to do so, the responsibility must be borne by a larger outside force. That’s what I agree with, that the larger force has to be an international force and it has to be (well) armed…. and powerful.”
Montgomery adds, “If nothing else, the years between 1915 and 2008 have borne out to us that human rights have to be legalized in some form, where we get an international force to punish genocide, where they can make arrests…. They can use helicopters, they can use rifles; they can put people in prison cells. But we do none of that…. We just talk.”
Montgomery does, however, laud the recent lengthy prison sentences given by the International Criminal Court to some of the masterminds of the Rwandan genocide, including Theoneste Bagosora and two senior military officers who the tribunal found had organized, trained and armed the militia members responsible for most of the killing.
While she also commends the international activists she says are “doing their best” to enlighten the world about what’s happening in Darfur and to pressure the Sudanese authorities to halt the violence, she’s convinced that the advocacy movements have ultimately been ineffective in stopping the killings.
“I think ‘save Darfur’ has become a mantra in America that has been going on for so long that it’s now like ‘stop at a red light.’ It just means that much,” Montgomery quips, before adding, “I don’t know what else we can do other than what I keep saying, that we need an international armed force to go in and stop (mass murder).”
Contained in Never Again, Again, Again is a stark warning from Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who led the UN mission in Rwanda during the genocide there. He writes, “The global village is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and in the children of the world, the result is rage. It is the rage I saw in the eyes of the teenage Interhamwe militiamen in Rwanda…. Human beings who have no rights, no security, no future, no hope and no means to survive are a desperate group who will do desperate things to take what they believe they need and deserve.”
Montgomery acknowledges this desperation among Africans in certain countries on the continent, but says it’s time also for the international community to “get desperate” and embark on harsh measures to stop the mass killings in places like Darfur and the DRC. Otherwise, she warns, there’ll be plenty of books like hers lining library shelves in the near future.