After escaping death, Rwandan doctor works to save lives in refugee camp

June 16, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BYUMBA, Rwanda -- Augustine Kabano's training was supposed to help him confront life and death, but nothing in his medical schooling prepared him for this.

"What happened here in Rwanda is beyond belief," the 40-year-old doctor said, his voice trailing away in awe, as he stood in his make-shift hospital.

"You just can't imagine human beings doing what some here have done," he said as he checked a young Tutsi girl whose face had been nearly blown away.

Nearby, a nurse was stuffing long strips of gauze into a huge hole blown into the leg of an old man who cringed. A nauseating stench filled the room.

Next was a boy whose legs were shattered by a single high-caliber bullet, probably fired from an AK-47 rifle. He had been brought to the hospital after lying badly injured for two days. The boy believes his parents and brother have been killed.

Dr. Kabano, who lived in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, was luckier. When mobs of Hutus bent on killing Tutsis swarmed into his neighborhood, Dr. Kabano, his wife, two children and three friends, hid.

For five weeks, day and night, the group did not leave its hiding place in a storage room within his house. All the while, he said, they could hear others being shot or hacked in the streets. At times, the screams were almost unbearable.

Soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel army of mostly Tutsis, eventually rescued Dr. Kabano and the others and took them to a refugee camp in Byumba, a small town north of Kigali.

More than 17,000 refugees are at the camp, including 350 children whose parents were killed or missing. Workers at the orphanage say the children are traumatized. While most play, some sit hollow-eyed, staring into space. Others wonder aimlessly, crying. All are in need of food, clothing and blankets.

When Dr. Kabano arrived, he was put in charge of the makeshift hospital, housed in a ramshackle school building. It has 200 old cots that substitute for beds. Each holds an injured refugee, most with machete or gunshot wounds.

The patients range from small children to senior citizens. Some of the smaller patients, their arms and legs wrapped in white, look like tiny mummies. Some cry out from pain.

"In the beginning, it was very difficult," Dr. Kabano said. "We didn't have enough drugs, medical equipment or surgical supplies, but things are better now."

The hospital is being supplied by international relief groups, he said. Aid organizations also brought in several doctors, and 35 of the most seriously injured children recently were evacuated to France and Italy.

For the young Tutsi girl whose face was shot, there was no plastic surgeon to repair her looks. Doctors at the camp did the best they could. Her bottom jaw is gone, and big blue stitches run from ear to ear.

By the way, he said excitedly, amid all the death at the refugee camp, about 60 babies were born, and most were healthy.

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