A sacred ficus tree shades the new Butaro Hospital.

During construction of Butaro Hospital in northern Rwanda, unexploded hand grenades had to be cleared from the site, near a towering ficus tree. And a building nearby--once used as a courthouse for genocide crimes--had to serve as a temporary hospital ward.

“Now, you walk around the mountaintop and it’s a serene set of gorgeous buildings with very pleasant gardens and water features,” said Dr. Peter Drobac, Country Director for PIH’s project in Rwanda. “And at the center stands an ancient ficus tree which is considered sacred in Rwandan culture--it marked the place of the king's court in the ancient times.”

The sacred tree, which had witnessed much of Burera's tragic modern history, was preserved as the physical and symbolic centerpiece of this area's new and iconic source of hope.

For Drobac, the 150-bed hospital is doubly symbolic in this war and poverty-ravaged region.“This is an important point: (Butaro) is an allegory for the rebirth of Rwanda itself. After we arrived, we actually had to--with the army's help, of course--scour the hillside and remove unexploded shells and hand grenades that were on the site of the hospital,” he continued.

Butaro Hospital replaces a temporary, 65-bed facility that PIH had established at a nearby health center to serve patients during the two-year construction period.  Now, the center will be used mainly for the treatment of ambulatory patients.

However, Drobac added that one ward at the temporary hospital may be transformed into a psychiatric facility, largely to deal with the area’s tragic historical legacy. “We have an enormous burden of mental health problems in this district--up to 25 percent of our adult hospital admissions are psychiatric in nature, for complex reasons regarding Rwanda's history,” said Drobac. “One of our aspirations is to use a ward from the temporary hospital and convert that to a dedicated mental health treatment center.”