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Rwanda: “They took care of Brigitte when no one else did…”

01-12-2005 Feature

ICRC employee Jakob Larsen meets Charlotte, an HIV/AIDS educator trained by the ICRC to raise awareness of the virus among co-detainees in Rwanda.


  © ICRC/Marco Longari/RW-N-00189-02H    
  Kigali central prison. Visiting a sick detainee. 

The Ingando, a camp for released prisoners,   is located in the buildings of a former secondary school in Kicukiro in one of the more rural parts of Kigali.

I arrive in the afternoon and the camp is filled with newly released prisoners taking a break from their duties. They are eating, washing their clothes, lingering outside, staring at the horizon. I’m here to meet one of the former detainees who was involved with health issues in prison, and in particular with raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. I want to find out what she learned and achieved in prison and to hear of her expectations and hopes for the future.

Charlotte is 39 years old. Her eyes are intense and she has a firm gaze. Her interest in medicine goes back to 1986 when she studied first aid. During the genocide and civil war, Charlotte fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania with her family. The massive suffering she witnessed there led her to start studying to become a peer educator with the ICRC.

In 1997, Charlotte returned to Rwanda and was imprisoned, charged with involvement in the genocide. While in Kigali Central prison, she played a key role in the facility's health programme.

She explains that in the years immediately after the genocide and civil war came to an end, the prisons were overcrowded and there was a massive lack of resources, space, clean water, food, sanitation, medicine and medical staff. In short, everthing was in short supply. The situation was disastrous.


The ICRC launched a massive assistance programme and trained a great number of detainees to work as peer educators on health issues. Their primary responsibilities were to teach their fellow prisoners about health, first aid, and the prevention of diseases – especially sexually transmitted diseases.

Charlotte's work included the setting up of an anti-AIDS club that carried out voluntary counselling and testing and organized lessons on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. 

  © ICRC/Marco Longari/RW-N-00205-11AH    
  Gitarama, Tambwe. A visit to detainees. 

" You will not spend the whole of your life in prison. The time will come when you will get out of jail and rejoin your family. When you get out you will be able to give your children lessons about AIDS, its prevention and transmission. And if you’re a woman, you will know that you have to ask your husband to get tested for AIDS.”

But not everybody lives long enough to get that far. Charlotte remembers Brigitte, who was already HIV positive when she was put in jail.

”She was imprisoned for a common crime, she was not guilty of genocide. "

While in prison, Brigitte reached the final phase of AIDS and became critically ill. She had suffered for so long, explains Charlotte, that she had bedsores and her bones pr otruded from her body.

" The medical staff wouldn't take her to hospital because they said she would soon be dead. They put her in a dark room to die. The peer educators tried to look after her when no one else would, taking care to visit her every day. This made a great impression on me. "

Now Charlotte is in the Ingando and soon she will be released and rejoin her family. She has lost her property, and will have to start from the beginning again after eight years in jail. All the same, she will exploit her skills as a teacher and nurse and feels committed to serve the community as a peer educator.

As for her return, she is convinced that she will be received well by her neighbours in the village. She’s already there in her mind: a woman smaller than most but with a firm gaze and a low, soft voice.

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