KIGALI, Rwanda -- Cindy McCain's first visit to this country in 1994 was during the high season of roadblocks and machetes and shallow graves.
Following a call for help from Doctors Without Borders, McCain had assembled a medical team with the intention of setting up a mobile hospital in Rwanda. Arriving by private plane in mid-April, a couple of weeks into the massacres, she realized that the chaos made deploying her team impossible. At the airport, she paid for the use of a truck and set out for Goma in then-Zaire, where hundreds of thousands of refugees were also headed.
"I never saw anyone harmed," McCain recalls, "but I saw the bodies along the roadside." Checkpoints were manned by 12- and 13-year-olds with AK-47s. "The kids were drinking -- bottles of Guinness, I remember. They would point their guns at you. They wanted money. We paid." Along the way, she picked up several abandoned young people, later given to the care of an Irish charity.
"You could see the chaos, hear the shots, hear the screaming. You could smell it." What, I asked her, could you smell? "The smell of death," she replied.
Arriving across the border in Goma, which is now in Congo, McCain found cholera victims stacked beside the road "like highway barriers." "I remember having to step over the decomposing body of an infant, covered with white powder, lime I guess, to get into one building." The field hospital covered four acres. McCain's team provided primary care for the sick and frightened refugees, many of them suffering dehydration. For nearly a month, McCain organized food and water for the operation, collecting supplies at the Goma airport.
"I have never seen anything like it before," she says, "and never since. ... When I came home, I couldn't put it into words for my husband."
The rushing return of these memories came on Cindy McCain's first visit to Rwanda since the genocide. In the shadow of Barack Obama's world tour, McCain joined a bipartisan delegation -- including former Senate Majority Leaders Bill Frist and Tom Daschle -- organized by the ONE Campaign, a group that advocates for the fight against global poverty and disease. (I am also involved in the efforts of ONE.)
McCain came back to a very different Rwanda -- peaceful, well governed, and making, with American help, some of the most rapid progress in the history of public health. "What has struck me," says McCain, "is that most people are reconciling. A woman I met was gang-raped (during the genocide), her throat was slit, she lost her whole family, but was willing to forgive. The reason this will be a successful country is the women -- some of the strongest, most inspiring women I have ever met."