A victim of a brutal African civil war got help last year from a group of Americans in Georgia and North Carolina. All of us are richer for their acts of compassion.
For many years the African nation of Rwanda has been torn by internal discord. Behind much of the violence was hatred between two tribal groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis.
The latest trouble came to a head in 1994 when the Tutsis overthrew a government controlled by Hutus.
Millions fled Rwanda and poured into Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania. Fighting between the two factions resulted in over a half-million casualties.
In the capital city of Kigali, a 19-year-old young man (a Tutsi) was an innocent observer at a political rally. His name was Gabriel Mazimpaka. While standing at the outer edge of the crowd that day, he was attacked by a group of strangers--members of the Hutu tribe.
The Hutu gang poured hot diesel oil into Gabriel's ear canals, believing it would kill him. They struck him repeatedly around his ears, kicking him savagely until he lost consciousness. Thinking he was dead, they left him.
Gabriel survived and recovered sufficiently to qualify for the Rwandan Olympic Team. He came to the United States during the summer of 1996 and participated in the Atlanta Games. However, he did poorly.
Gabriel's reactions were slow, and he was consistently late in getting "off the blocks" (beginning the race). These delays cost him precious seconds, and he was unable to win any qualifying heats. His coach, Parfait Dieudonne Ntukanyagwe, made suggestions to him which apparently were ignored, leading him to think that Gabriel was just a stubborn young man.
An American clinical audiologist assigned to give hearing tests to athletes in Atlanta noticed Gabriel's untreated ear infections, perforated eardrums, and middle ear sections that looked like they had been "encased in cement." In her experience, Suzanne Lindsey-Henderson had never seen anything like it. Finally, Gabriel told his story to her and also to his coach and teammates.
Suzanne repeated the story to her employer, the president of Miracle-Ear Co., and he promised to help pay for Gabriel's medical treatment. She also made a point of seeing that the details appeared in a daily magazine published during the Olympics.
One person who read about Gabriel's ordeal in that magazine was Bonnie McElveen Hunter whose brother was director of the Carolina Ear Research Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Formerly head of ear surgery at Duke University Medical School, Dr. John McElveen agreed to perform the surgery himself; and he also made arrangements with the Columbia Raleigh Community Hospital to use their facilities.
Gabriel was forced to return to Rwanda immediately after the Olympics ended because of family responsibilities. It took days of hard work to cut through the diplomatic "red tape"; but in the autumn both Gabriel and his coach arrived in Raleigh.
Preliminary tests showed a 60-decibel hearing loss. This changed a normal conversation into indecipherable mumblings for Gabriel. This explained his undisciplined performances on the track: he simply couldn't hear the starter's pistol that began each race.
The first part of Dr. McElveen's operation was directed at the fragile bones of the middle ear (ossicles). Calcium residue and scar tissue had frozen them, so he tried to flake off as much as he could. Then he literally made new eardrums to replace the ones that had been battered in the Kigali attack, using some of Gabriel's own tissue. Upon completing the operation, Dr. McElveen estimated that more than 90 percent of Gabriel's hearing would be restored.
Just before Christmas, 1996, Gabriel and his coach left North Carolina headed for Rwanda. Gabriel's ears were packed with antiseptic materials that would remain in place for three months. No further follow-up was necessary.
In March, 1997, his coach reported that Gabriel was doing very well, that he hadn't suffered any pain since leaving Raleigh, and that he was hearing better than he had in years. Coach Ntukanyagwe also said he expected Gabriel to resume training soon for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. He expects to compete in the 1,500-meter race.
According to reports from Rwanda, life in Kigali has once again become peaceful. People are returning to their homes, hoping for time to rebuild and recover from their long ordeal of violence. One group of Americans did their part in assisting Gabriel Mazimpaka to resume a normal life.