The Rwandan genocide began 20 years ago this month. More than 1 million people were killed in the course of 100 days. We asked four of our Rwandan colleagues to reflect on the genocide and discuss how their country has evolved in the past two decades. Below, Community Health Department Director Peter Niyigena shares his experience. We ask you to stand in solidarity with Rwandans everywhere this month as they commemorate the past and continue to heal.Learn more about PIH/IMB’s work in Rwanda.
I was 16 years old when the 1994 genocide started. It was a very painful time. I saw many of my neighbors killed, and friends that I used to play with were no more. They too were killed. Those were some of the hardest moments in my life. Schools shut down, so I was out of class for a while.
During and after the genocide, it was almost impossible to access proper health care in Rwanda. Hospitals and health centers had been destroyed, health care providers had lost their lives, and there was no medicine or medical equipment available. Some doctors had escaped to other countries that were peaceful. There wasn’t any health care system due to the destruction. Many people resorted to traditional healing for medical treatment, which was of course not sufficient. Countless additional lives were lost because people didn’t have access to appropriate care or medication.
Seeing the pain and loss of lives ignited a passion to help sick people and to save lives. This is how I ended up as a professional nurse.
In the months after the genocide, I saw many people suffer from unbearable pain and sickness. Seeing lives being lost because individuals couldn’t find medical assistance or medication hit me hard. I wished I could have helped, but I had no means. The level of poverty was so high because almost everything had been destroyed. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have money for basic necessities because they were nowhere to be found. There was no access to simple commodities—food, soap, and clothing. We had no one to turn to for help, apart from the government of Rwanda and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations. These groups helped provide us with some of the basics that we needed, but there were many challenges.
So many died due to the lack of available care. Bearing witness to this tragedy compelled me to study hard and become a health care provider. Seeing the pain and loss of lives ignited a passion to help sick people and to save lives. This is how I ended up as a professional nurse.
I learned about Partners In Health/Inshuti Mu Buzima through a local Rwandan newspaper, The New Times. I read about PIH/IMB, and it seemed like a great place with a good mission and vision, so I applied for a job. I began working with the team in 2005, the year that PIH first came to Rwanda. I am now the director of the PIH/IMB community health department.
Despite the destruction of the genocide, tremendous progress has been made across the entire country. Today, Rwanda’s health sector is a force to be reckoned with. Many hospitals have been built, many care providers have been trained, and the health system is growing stronger every day. I am thankful to the government of Rwanda for the opportunities it has provided me and for inviting and teaming up with PIH.
We are a healthy nation with many success stories to tell. Rwandans now have access to affordable, high-quality health care and are enrolled in our community-based health insurance scheme known as “mutuelle.”
I am proud to say that I have seen so many lives treated and changed through our work.
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