During the worst of the dying in Rwanda an ABC crew interviewed on Nightline tried to convey the experience of being there. They spoke with a depth of introspective anguish journalists almost never permit themselves in public.
“What happens here,” correspondent Jim Wooten told Ted Koppel, “is that this story is so overwhelming that it breaks through almost immediately whatever defense mechanisms you have learned to apply. . . . There is the scope of it, there is the helplessness that one feels, the helplessness that one sees in the eyes of these good people who’ve come here to try to help. And everything we’ve ever learned, and everything we’ve ever practiced about–about stepping away from a story a good distance–all of that is very difficult to maintain.”
Producer Leroy Sievers said, “I think the worst part of it, when we feel that we’re intruding, is literally you can take pictures of people and you realize that they’re dying–I mean that the last thing they’re going to see is us and our cameras. And that’s the ultimate intrusion.”
Sievers said he never wanted to see Rwanda again. Koppel reminded them all they’d been on other tough assignments but never before sounded so clear about wanting out.
“There’s no escaping the decay, there’s no escaping the death,” explained producer Rick Wilkinson, who said he’d seen things that made him “personally insane.” Possibly because he felt Koppel had questioned his professionalism, his reply rambled. But it concluded, “I guess we’re just not as tough as we think we are.”
Finally Koppel asked Wooten about the aid workers “who stay there week after week and in some cases month after month.” How do they put up with it?
Here Wooten uttered heresy. “Well, I think there’s a difference between what they’re doing and what we’re doing. We spend our long days here doing what we came here to do, but it doesn’t help much. It doesn’t help these kids that we–that we see and that we find, and it doesn’t help the old people who are dying by the side of the road. It just doesn’t help. It just doesn’t help. We don’t do anything to help. These aid workers are all day long doing what they can, one person at a time, trying to save a life at that moment, the person they’re touching.”
A few days later a friend of ours left Chicago for Rwanda. She was sent to Burunga, a refugee camp along the road that leads from Goma, site of the massive camps in Zaire, back through the mountains to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Dr. Deborah Edidin is a pediatric endocrinologist at Evanston Hospital; she and her family live in style on the North Shore. At no time during her two-week trip did she witness horror on the scale reported by Jim Wooten. She saw the tragedy at its next stage. As a volunteer for the relief agency AmeriCares, Edidin found herself opening the dispensary in Burunga and running it as the only doctor present. Some of her patients came in on litters, but most were refugees trudging home.
“Partly because people selected themselves out, our mortality rate was low,” she told us. “If they were healthy enough to go on foot between Goma and Burunga they had something going for them. If you had cholera before you left Goma you never made it to Burunga. If you developed it en route, unless you were really close to Burunga you would be dead.
“I think the most touching and devastating deliveries from Goma were the orphans. They had lost their parents en route, they’d gotten separated from them in Goma, and they were simply following the hordes that were returning. They didn’t even know what they were doing or why they were following them. They were just in a line.”
The children came in on foot, or on the backs of other children, Edidin said, and in Burunga they formed a “Greek chorus” that sat outside the dispensary tent. “If you tripped or something like that, everybody would laugh and clap, and if somebody came in who needed to be resuscitated, there would be a whooo. It was a sort of commentary on every action.”
There was no way for the medical team to leave Burunga and look for children who might still be lying along the road. “From 5:30 in the morning until it was dark we were giving medical care,” Edidin said. “Plus we didn’t have access to any sort of vehicles.” A truck brought in her team and left, and they would not see another truck until a convoy from Kigali delivered supplies. Edidin asked the Ugandan drivers of these now empty trucks to take back to Kigali refugees “who were on their last legs, who would otherwise have to walk with their children”–a walk of about 40 miles. If you pay us, said the drivers.
“We eventually negotiated with them to drive two trucks. And the chaos getting people on board! It was like things you see in Holocaust films when people are being divided–some people going this way, kids getting separated from their parents. And they’re saying, no, you can’t get on the truck. Or you decide whether you go on the truck or you get off, but your kid can’t. It was absolutely horrific. Sneaking babies up to mothers when the truck driver would turn his back. It was horrible.”
Did journalists ever visit you? we asked her.
“Yeah, they came and went. You had to be reasonably nice because it was good for AmeriCares, but there just wasn’t the time.” The journalists came by jeep, and we asked if they ever took anyone with them to Kigali.
“You know, it never occurred to me,” Edidin said. “It probably is derogatory, but my observation is that reporters report. They try not to get involved in the fray. So it never occurred to me, if they didn’t offer, to ask.”
A refugee woman came into Burunga, gave birth prematurely, and immediately disappeared. The baby she abandoned lived only a few minutes. “Its eyelids were still fused,” Edidin said. “It was breathing and its heart was beating, but I couldn’t intubate it. I had no oxygen, I had no surfactant–I didn’t have what I needed to sustain it.” She and a paramedic put the body aside, and when they could find a moment they carried it off for burial.
She says the photographers were like hyenas. “It was like animals getting a scent. They were off on a hill doing something, and they saw Terry and me go with some workers and some shovels–and everybody just gathered.”
But like hyenas?
“Only in the sense that they’re not involved in the real killing or the real action. They’re there after the fact, picking up the spoils. And that’s how I felt on the scene. Now I know having a free press is a real important thing. I don’t want to say–”
We broke in. We read to her from the Nightline transcript. We told her how moving we’d found Jim Wooten’s statement.
“I remember seeing him before I left,” Edidin replied, “and he was saying, ‘I’ve been in a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, but this is the worst that I have ever seen.’ He was talking about a family that he’d met–I think it was in Goma. And he was going with them, and they were going to take some water that everybody knew was contaminated water–and they were going to drink it.
“And he was talking about the family, and he said, tomorrow or the day after they’ll all probably be dead. And this lack of–I understand at one level, but I couldn’t imagine–I think that’s what sent me there! I couldn’t imagine not trying to throw myself in front of them.”
(Wooten had reported on an earlier Nightline that he was standing by Zaire’s Lake Kivu, near Goma, where refugee families hiked to “fill their cans and take them back to their families in the camps. They do not know what they’ve done to the water. They drink it as though it were pure. It is pure poison in a yellow can balanced nicely on the head of Mokusa. She is 15, and so far the healthiest member of her large family.”
(Wooten continued, “‘I can’t go back [to Rwanda],’ she says, and turns back up the road toward her family, bearing the water that will eventually kill them all.”)
“I found it very touching,” said Edidin, remembering this broadcast. “He was a sympathetic figure to me. And yet I could not–it just underlined the differences between our businesses. I couldn’t imagine simply chronicling and watching them go and eat the poisoned apple. My instincts have always been–you needed to throw yourself between them and the apple.”
She had never done anything like this before. As a by-the-book doctor–a self-described I-dotter and T-crosser–Edidin felt “almost paralyzed” when she began. “You get into a situation you absolutely think you can’t handle,” she said. “I don’t know how many times I went into the dispensary and knocked my head against the shelves and said, ‘I don’t know what to do for this patient! I don’t know what he has! I don’t know what drugs I have! I don’t know what I’m going to put it in if I find it! [In a region teeming with communicable diseases there was an absurd shortage of containers for medicines.] I don’t know what to do.’ And somehow you always pulled something out of the hat.”
She came to realize she was in a situation where nothing she did could make matters any worse. “It sort of freed me to begin to practice, and then it really was, at times, joyful. Many things were so clear-cut. That you’d made a difference. That somebody came in and they were dying because they were so dry. And you either put something to their lips or started an IV, and they just came back to you. They just came back to you. There was no other way to look at it but that you had the skills to do that for them. And when we didn’t lose very many people, that made me feel we had offered something. Every doctor should get to feel that, because I think most of them went in for that reason.”
Jim Wooten left Rwanda traumatized. Edidin, who but for his reporting might never have followed him there, feels “professionally renewed.” She intends to knock on the door of “whatever relief agency will take me,” and when her children are both in college do this type of fieldwork six months a year. Nevertheless she did not leave Rwanda unscathed.
Ted Koppel asked Jim Wooten about his dreams, and Wooten replied, “I see my children and grandchildren here.” Edidin also began to dream. “I really thought that somehow I’d escaped with it being an all-positive experience,” she told us, “and that the stuff I saw I coped with on the spot. But the last few nights I have not been able to sleep. There are babies that–actually, in the dreams they’re dolls in boxes. But it doesn’t take Freud to figure out that they could be babies in coffins.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.