But who helps the helpers in Rwanda?: My problems pale into insignificance

Annabel Ferriman
Thursday 04 August 1994 23:02

SARAH LEE, 27, is a press officer for the development charity ActionAid and shares a flat in London with friends. She recently spent a year working on Aids and HIV projects in Zimbabwe and last week returned from 10 days in Rwanda.

I saw things which you would never want anyone to see. The depth of suffering in Rwanda is beyond belief.

I watched a baby of about six months die in the medical tent. He was receiving all the care that was available. His breathing became very intense and then stopped. It was hard witnessing the end of a life, when it should have been the beginning.

I had one woman come up to me and beg me to take her child. She spoke a bit of French and so did I. She said: 'I want to give you my daughter.' The little girl was about two. She kept saying: 'Take her, take her.' I took them to the medical tent, because there was little else I could do.

The image that will stay with me the longest is that of a child of about 18 months, clinging to her mother, whom I had seen die of cholera moments earlier.

The scale of the death, dying and suffering overwhelmed all your senses - your sight, smell, feel and touch. Just thinking of the smell makes me retch. When the cholera first broke out, they were unable to collect the corpses quickly enough. It became difficult to tell the living from the dead.

When I came back to London, my organisation offered me counselling and I have found that useful; I have a lot of experiences and thoughts which I need to process.

I got ill out there, like almost everyone else: acute sinusitis from the dust stirred up when the planes landed. But any problems I have pale into total insignificance when compared to the problems the refugees have there. I feel I have a role in this crisis and I want to fulfil it to my maximum potential.

Afterwards, I was offered as much time off as I wanted, but I have opted to stay at work because I want to give briefings to the media and act as an eye-

witness. Talking about it is a way of coping. Writing, both for the press and for myself, has also helped.

I have a good network of friends who are supportive. But it is very difficult for them to understand what I have been through. I would not want to talk about what I have seen in the pub - it is not a topic for social conversation.'

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments