Children survive Rwandan hell but lose legs to mines

KIGALI - Seven-year-old Grace Berwa returned in peace to her home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a month ago after fleeing massacres that killed her mother and father.

On Monday, playing near her home which she shares with her 14-year-old sister and three brothers in the Kaciyru district of the quiet capital, Grace stepped on an anti-personnel mine.

It exploded, sending a sliver of shrapnel through her left eye and slashing her Achilles tendons to shreds at her ankles. 'There appears to be no brain damage. We've kept her awake for two nights to gauge her reactions but she seems normal for now,' said Dr Riccardo Ribas at Kigali's King Faisal hospital.

'It looks like the piece of the mine is lodged either in her eye or nearby. She lost her sight and we have stitched up her feet and done reconstructive surgery on the tendons,' he added.

Grace, lying in bed in the same pink and blue frock she was wearing when the mine exploded, has not spoken since then. Her sister, Bontemps Marie-France, sits at her bedside and speaks for her. Asked what she would do now that Grace was hurt and they had lost their parents, she said: 'We must go home.'

Grace is from Rwanda's Tutsi minority but civilians from each side of the country's ethnic conflict find that coming home after three months of war and massacre only brings more danger. Dr Ribas, a Brazilian with Medecins Sans Frontieres- Holland, said the King Faisal had received three or four mine casualties each day since fighting stopped in Kigali on 4 July. Many are children.

Four were brought in together on Tuesday including one girl who later died of wounds to her abdomen.

'If you are within the killing zone of a mine, we won't see you here. There won't be anything left. It's the ones standing behind other people or just outside the zone that we receive,' Dr Ribas said.

The mines are left from three months of war between the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front and the former government army. Doctors say despite rumours of booby-traps all they see are typical mine injury cases. 'People returning home must pass through areas where there were battles and run into mines,' Dr Ribas said. 'The basic treatment for mine injuries is amputation. We try to be conservative and keep as much as we can but sometimes you have to take both legs off a little girl.'

The King Faisal's surgical ward is packed with 150 casualties, including 40 mine victims. Two girls have had both legs amputated. Other children have lost arms or legs or suffered head wounds.

Beata Ouzimana, 14, sits on her bed, smiling when spoken to, with her hands under the stumps of her two legs amputated just below the knees. Dr Ribas says the sight of her always upsets him.

'When they come in they are in shock so most don't talk. When they gain confidence about this place they smile. But if you suddenly raise your arm most of them will run and hide. It seems it is a violent movement and they have seen things before that set them off,' said Dr Ribas. Many patients urgently needed psychological counselling, he said.

Fernando Olinto, a surgeon, said a more urgent problem was lack of a blood bank for transfusions and the high possibility blood was infected with the HIV virus, malaria or hepatitis. 'We try to check it but if someone is about to die we leave it until the last moment and give them anything,' he said. 'Culturally, the Rwandans don't like to donate blood so it is a hell of a problem.'

(Photograph omitted)

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