Doctors And Nurses: The Unsung Heroes Of Rwanda’s Liberation Struggle

At 1:00PM, on a bright sunny Thursday; October 4, 1990, a 27 years old Agnes Uwayezu, working as a theater nurse at Uganda’s Nsambya Hospital in Kampala; was unexpectedly summoned to a secret meeting in the boardroom.

She had no idea something pragmatic was about to unfold. Indeed, a liberation struggle was in the offing.

In the boardroom, Uwayezu was engaged by unknown people to resign and join the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA); a rebel outfit that had attacked Rwanda four days earlier (October 1).

Before the end of the meeting, Uwayezu had already caught a burgeoning feeling.

She was convinced and immediately promised to join, but requested for more time to think about it first.

The meeting ended and everyone walked away as if nobody knew each other or had met each other before.

Later in that day, three more people followed up on her to find out when she would join. She bought more time.

On October 9, Uwayezu could not endure the disturbing insomnia.

She was too anxious, her heart paced fast and was too indecisive but enthusiastic at the same time.

Her adrenaline oscillated uncontrollably, but the courageous spirit ruled over all the obstructing thoughts that had reigned her mind.

“Deep in my heart, I knew I had to go fight for our homeland,” Uwayezu says as she nodes her head and wagging a her finger up in the air.

The ugly journey begins

That night of October 9, she boarded a truck full of teenage youths, enthusiastic, energetic, determined, but unaware of the destiny. They totally knew little about what they were about to face. A deadly war was awaiting.

A few hours before the beginning of the twilight of October 10, Uwayezu along with a large group of teenagers, bore Uganda ‘fare thee well’.

They crossed into Rwanda via Kagitumba border post and inhaled the fresh air of the Savannah land of Eastern Rwanda. They had just began a journey that would flip Rwanda for good.

Upon arrival, Uwayezu and her colleagues had no time to breath. They had to begin treating causalities and patients who had suffered injuries on the first day of attack as the fight to capture the border area intensified.

That was the beginning of Uwayezu’s longest and dangerous journey back home.

Not a honeymoon

Uwayezu’s story of liberating Rwanda is sobering. Indeed, it was not a honeymoon. Like many others, it was a sacrifice of life as the only guaranteed contribution to the struggle.

Ironically, RPA fighters had little training. In fact majority of the recruits were trained on the first day and sent to the battlefield to face the enemy.

Despite the setbacks the RPA faced throughout the struggle, with almost no logistical supplies, there is one thing they had in abundance; medical personnel.

But having a bunch of trained medics without supplies was logistically incapacitating.

Actually RPA was too short on supplies throughout until it captured power. Improvisation and creativity were the available options. “We used the personnel to replace the machines we did not have,” Uwayezu remembers.

The fierce doctors

Col. Dr. Ben Karenzi, now the Commandant of Rwanda Military Hospital, who was the head of medical personnel of the Umutara axis, says that there was no choice, but to “use the experience they had in a professional setting to adapt to the environment.”

But the adaption to environment did not address the lack of supplies in a hostile environment. “We did a lot of improvising,” Dr. Karenzi says. But there was only a few they could do anyway.

They had no neuron surgeon though. There was almost no alternative for casualties with brain injuries. “Many casualties who had skull fractures died,” Uwayezu painfully recalls. “Those who survived had other treatable fractures and injuries.”

The kind of setting for treating the influx of casualties was purely rudimentary it made life too exposed to death.

However, Dr Karenzi explains that it was actually safer and healthier to set up a rudimentary medical center in the bushes than in houses or structures.

“Houses were very dangerous, and infectious,” he says. “We were comfortable in bushes, under trees and banana leaves because there were no germs.”

Despite lack of supplies, the rudimentary setting remained clean and secure
Despite lack of supplies, the rudimentary setting remained clean and secure

In such a setting, other risks were also many nevertheless. They would be exposed to the enemy. “We had to hide, because we were a guerrilla army”.

The ‘Sick Bay’ would be covered with leaves and grasses for camouflage. The tent would be cleaned and hygienically kept, and evacuated whenever time to move ticked.

When time to move came, everyone became worried. Doctors and nurses simply carried what they needed to go with; a kit and a few supplies.

In some cases, some materials were left behind because they had no vehicles and there was no time to waste. It was a disaster with no response plans.

The donkeys

Throughout the struggle, logistical support was one of the biggest obstacles. Soldiers had to walk long distances.

Yet, the terrain was extremely unfavorable because of Rwanda’s mountainous nature. Supply was mainly done by human beings.

As the battle shifted to the North, in the higher mountains, some soldiers failed to climb up Muhabura and Mugahinga mountains.

The RPA had to look for donkeys to help people carry supplies up in the mountains.

Sometimes donkeys also failed and were left to rest first as well. Eventually, but painfully, soldiers endured and managed to overcome the mountains.

But that was not all. They were susceptible to extreme weather conditions in the mountains.

Many strategic plans were jeopardized, as more terrifying situation unfolded. Several soldiers miserably died in the mountains.

It was freezing fatally up there. Soldiers could not even take a shower.

One morning, doctors woke up to a Shigellosis outbreak, a type of deadly diarrhea. The disease spread like wildfire, but lasted for a while, but impact was devastating.  “We lost many people,” laments Dr. Karenzi.

Doctors had to use all kind of experiences to counter the outbreak. RPA had to dig deep in the coffers to purchase negram; an expensive drug, according to Dr. Karenzi, but “worked like a miracle cure.”

The level of response by doctors and nurses was more rapid than soldiers on the battle front. And the diarrhea was eventually contained indefinitely.

Technically, RPA was fighting two wars at the same time. As bullets flew over the heads and bombs shelled on them, running was not part of the doctors’ options.

They can’t remember how many soldiers died in their hands. They can’t count how many died before they were treated. They can’t also count those they treated.

They had to face death in the face throughout. Unfortunately many died on the front line as they fought hard to save lives.

Col. Karenzi: Survivor doctor of countless deaths to a prolific military medical doctor running a professional hospital

The story of the RPA can never be told without mentioning the brevity and sacrifices made by its doctors and nurses.

Five years ago, this writer interviewed retired soldiers Denis Karera, who was with Dr. Richard Sezibera in the same battalion, the famous Bravo Division.

Karera said that Dr. Sezibera was one of the prolific doctors in the RPA; a very active combat doctor; one of a kind, who is not easy to find. The Doctor eventually became Major General Paul Kagame’s doctor. Kagame  was the leader of the struggle, and now the President of the Republic.

(Interestingly Dr. Sezibera became the chairman of EAC, while Karera now heads the EAC Business Council).

Karera emotionally told this writer then that,“The way Dr Sezibera handled patients during the war is something I can never forget,”

In difficult times, “like those during a war,” he said, “conditions are usually hostile and life becomes unpromising, but we felt comfortable with Dr. Sezibera around because he treated us and made us believe there was life the next day.”

The high command attacked

In a similar situation, Dr Krenzi mentions a day which the RPA will never forget.

The high command, led by Maj. Gen Kagame, had co-located itself next to the ‘Sick Bay’.

Suddenly an enemy started shelling the two camps, the high command and the sick bay.

Life broke loose. “It was hell,” says Dr, Karenzi. “It was like a rain of bombs.”

The stakes were high. Through the enemy’s Observatory Post (OP), the RPA was located at the enemy’s advantage. “They were just shelling.” “It was not good.”

When Maj. Gen. Kagame (center) took over as RPA commander, he swiftly moved the his army to the mountains, and changed the entire liberation plan.
When Maj. Gen. Kagame (center) took over as RPA commander, he swiftly moved the his army to the mountains, and changed the entire liberation plan.

Meanwhile, Uwayezu was also there and she remembers the moments. “We were frightened,” she says. “It created a lot of anxiety”.

This, many veterans told the writer later after the liberation, that it was a terrible mistake the RPA had committed and the lessons learnt has lived on until today.

At such a critical moment where everyone was trying to take cover, doctors and nurses were caught in the cross fire.

They had to attend to casualties and save their lives. “While others were trying to hide and take cover, I could not afford to do that because the number of casualties was increasing so rapidly.”

“I don’t know how I survived, but we had one last chance; the high command started moving,” says Dr. Karenzi.

Unfortunately that day many injured soldiers died both in the sick bay and others on the battlefield. “We had to move,” he says.

But that is something doctors had gotten used to. Plainly put, they were used to watching people get shelled on and die miserably. There was no immediate medical help for causalities, but Dr. Karenzi remembers some doctors who risked and saved a few lives.

In fact Uwayezu watched her brother lose life after the enemy shot him in the stomach.

However, such heroes like Uwayezu have lived to celebrate the victory of the struggle.

When Uwayezu left Kampala, she said to herself, “we will fight until we die or win and live.”

Uwayezu has no regrets
Uwayezu has no regrets

Truly, the triumph from the win she got.  Now a nurse at King Faisal, and the Chairperson of the National Council of Nurses and Midwives (NCNM), today she looks back, gauges the outcomes and the cost of the struggle, and says, “It was the only option, and no regrets”.

The RPA has grown into one of the most professional armies on the continent. It now treats all forms of diseases not only to servicemen, but also civilians
The RPA has grown into one of the most professional armies on the continent. It now treats all forms of diseases not only to servicemen, but also civilians



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