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Many Rwandan Genocide Survivors Left to Deal with HIV/AIDS - 2004-04-06

A new effort is being launched to get AIDS drugs to women in Rwanda who got the disease through rapes committed during the country's genocide 10 years ago. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's foundation has established partnerships with the U.N.'s Global Fund, the World Bank and the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, to help provide low-cost antiretroviral medicines to patients in Rwanda, and other developing countries. Anna Marie Mukamana was living quietly in a Kigali suburb with her husband and two children in April, 1994, when her life turned into a nightmare.

On April 7 that year, when ethnic-Hutu extremists began killing their ethnic-Tutsi rivals and moderate Hutus in a frenzy of hate, Hutu militiamen came to Ms. Mukamana's house and killed her infant son and husband. The militiamen then took the 27-year-old woman hostage and repeatedly gang-raped her until the genocide ended 100 days later.

But Ms. Mukamana says her suffering did not end there.

She says two years after the genocide ended, she tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Ms. Mukamana says when she learned that the men who had killed her family had also infected her with AIDS, she regretted not dying with the estimated 800,000 others who perished during the genocide.

An estimated half a million of Rwanda's population of eight million people are living with HIV/AIDS. Tens of thousands of those are thought to be women who were raped and infected with HIV during the ethnic bloodshed in 1994.

A program director at a foreign-funded women's clinic in Kigali, Jane Mukamusoni says Rwanda has so far received little outside help to deal with these rape victims, who, like so many others in the country, are dying of AIDS because they cannot afford life-prolonging antiretroviral medicine.

Ms. Mukamusoni says the need for high-quality, low-cost antiretroviral medicine is urgent for these victims because they play an important role in holding together post-genocide communities.

Women suffering from AIDS are often the sole caretakers of not only their surviving sons and daughters, but children of relatives who had no one to take care of them after the genocide. All of them would be orphaned if the caretaker died.

The executive director of the U.S.-based Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation, Eric Goosby, told VOA in Kigali Tuesday that more foreign funding and low cost drugs should be on the way to help Rwandans deal with genocide and non-genocide related AIDS issues. That foreign funding, he says, should include money from the Bush administration's five-year, $15 billon Africa AIDS initiative announced last year.

In addition, Mr. Goosby says organizations like his and other foreign funds are targeting Rwanda for long-term AIDS policy coordination and support.

"I think there are a couple of reasons why Rwanda is especially attractive," he said. "One is because the geography of the country is tiny. It has a medical system that is decentralized. You also have a medical school that was putting out after the genocide 20 or 30 people a year. That has now revved up to about 90 a year."

Mr. Goosby says that means Rwanda has the potential to control, if not defeat, its AIDS epidemic in the coming years, and foreign donors and aid organizations are taking note of the progress.

One foreign organization trying to make a difference now in Rwanda is a British-based genocide prevention organization called Aegis Trust.

It started providing rape victim Anna Marie Mukamana and several other rape victims with antiretroviral drugs about a month ago. Ms. Mukamana says the drugs have already helped her regain some of her strength and have given her hope that she can take better care of her surviving 12 year-old son.

Ms. Mukamana says, I must live long enough to make sure my son has a future.