Women in the World

03.08.12

A Congolese Teen’s Horrific Machete Tragedy Fuels Haunting Photography

A teenager in New York describes a night from hell in her past—an attack by machete-wielding men on her family in Africa—and how she turned tragedy into art.
Video screenshot

She describes it as like a movie—the night she saw her family members get gunned down by armed rebels in a bloody massacre in Africa.

Her name is Sandra Uwiringiyimana, and she is now a high-school student in Rochester, N.Y. She shops at the mall and sees movies with her friends, not unlike any other teen. But her past sets her apart. On opening night of the Women in the World Summit, she shared her life story, describing how she moved on from an unthinkable massacre on her tribe—and how she is now turning tragedy into poignant photography.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, 17-year-old Sandra told how she grew up in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she and her family faced discrimination because their tribe—the Banyamulenge—had ancient roots in neighboring Rwanda, rendering them not “authentically” Congolese.

“We had always experienced discrimination toward my people,” she said. “We saw it as the norm.” When ethnic tensions turned violent in 2004, her family headed to a refugee camp in Burundi. That’s when her tribe came under attack from a rival group called the Forces Nationales de Libération. Men with machetes, grenades, and guns slashed throats and burned bodies, killing 166 people and injuring 100 more.

Sandra, who was 10 years old at the time, watched as men took her mother, aunt, and 6-year-old sister, shooting them point-blank. Her uncle was set on fire. Friends and cousins were gunned down.

Sandra’s mother made it out alive. Her little sister didn’t.

The family spent the next three years trying to heal, and simply trying to survive as they moved from home to home.

In 2007, the family moved to the U.S., thanks to a United Nations refugee program. Now, each year on the anniversary of the attack—August 13—she and her fellow survivors in the States meet. There, Sandra takes their portraits, telling their stories through her photography. (See a slide show here.)

On stage, she described her photos and the stories behind them, smiling when she called one young girl “adorable.”

As she wrapped up her talk, she introduced the next speaker—Angelina Jolie—with a shy giggle, saying Jolie, who has long worked on behalf of refugees, a person who has “really helped people like me.”

Read Sandra’s full story on The Daily Beast.