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David Geffen School of Medicine

History Lesson

By Jean-Claude M. Rwigema, MD

I was 13 years old when the genocide in Rwanda overtook my family. My father was a successful businessman in Kigali, the capital city, and we were relatively well-off. But when Hutu extremists began killing Tutsis in 1994, our lives were in danger. Both my parents are of mixed Hutu and Tutsi background, and my father was active in a moderate political party that supported sharing power between Hutus and Tutsis. That made us a target.

We went into hiding. Leaving the country would have been too difficult. Instead, friends of my parents tried to get us to a safe area that was guarded by U.N. soldiers. But our family was too large to move together, so it was decided my parents and youngest brother would try to make it to the safe haven, but first my two other brothers and I would drive with some relatives to my grandparents in the countryside.

By God's grace, we made it there safely. But that refuge didn't last long. Within a couple of weeks, the danger was closing in on my grandparents' home. We had to be on the move again. My grandparents didn't have a car, so we gathered what food and other necessities we could carry and started to walk. Each day we tried to reach another village or small city, but sometimes we couldn't, and we had to hide and sleep in the forest along the side of the road.

Some days we had nothing to eat. We would go to sleep hungry and wake up hungry and then have to walk another 20 miles with our bellies rumbling. One time we managed to get some food together. We prepared it and were about to eat when we heard gunfire and explosions. We ran and left everything behind.

Dr. Jean-Claude M. Rwigema is a resident in radiation oncology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.Photo: Robert Hernandez

This is how it went for about five weeks. Always on the move, wondering if we wouldsurvive to the next day. What of my parents and little brother? We thought they were dead. It felt like the world was ending, and I prayed we would make it through and have a normal life again.

Finally, we reached a safe area in the southwest part of the country that was under French control. We were not being chased anymore. We had food. And while we were there, Tutsi rebels liberated the country and stopped the genocide. When it was safe enough, we decided to go back to my grandparents' home to try to start over.

Life did return to normal. My parents and brother, we learned, were not dead. They had found refuge in the
Hôtel des Mille Collines, which was made famous in the movie Hotel Rwanda. In fact, my father now was minister of education in the new unity government, and later he would become the prime minister. When we were reunited, it was like everything that had been lost was coming back. I returned to school and studied hard. I learned English while attending high school in South Africa and earned my undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. Now here I am, at UCLA.

More than anything else in my life, this experience shaped me as an individual and as the kind of physician I want to be. I can never forget what we went through and the suffering we saw. I would ask myself, "How can this happen to people?" I prayed a lot, and I made a promise to God that if I got out of this alive, I would dedicate my life to helping other people who have suffered.

I wanted so much when I was a child to be able to make the suffering around me stop. Now, as a physician, I can identify with a patient's pain, and I have the skills to try to alleviate it. Even if she is beyond cure, I feel that I must connect with her, to give her encouragement. I was blessed by being allowed to survive, and by helping others, I am working toward satisfying a debt that I know can never fully be repaid.


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