“As Albert Camus wrote, the doctor’s role is as a witness - to witness authentically the reality of humanity, and to speak out against the horrors of political inaction… The only crime equaling inhumanity is the crime of indifference, silence, and forgetting.” - James Orbinski
In 1988, James Orbinski, then a medical student in his 20s, embarked on a year-long research trip to Rwanda, a trip that would change who he would be as a doctor and as a man. Investigating the conditions of pediatric AIDS in Rwanda, James confronted widespread pain and suffering, much of it preventable, much of it occasioned by political and economic corruption. Fuelled by the injustice of what he had seen in Rwanda, Orbinski helped establish the Canadian chapter of Mdecins Sans Frontires (Doctors Without Borders/MSF). As a member of MSF he travelled to Peru during a cholera epidemic, to Somalia during the famine and civil war, and to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
In April 1994, James answered a call from the MSF Amsterdam office. Rwandan government soldiers and armed militias of extremist Hutus had begun systematically to murder Tutsis. While other foreigners were evacuated from Rwanda, Orbinski agreed to serve as Chef de Mission for MSF in Kigali. As Rwanda descended into a hell of civil war and genocide, he and his team worked tirelessly, tending to thousands upon thousands of casualties. In 14 weeks 800,000 men, women and children were exterminated. Half a million people were injured, and millions were displaced. The Rwandan genocide was Orbinski’s undoing. Confronted by indescribable cruelty, he struggled to regain his footing as a doctor, a humanitarian and a man. In the end he chose not to retreat from the world, but resumed his work with MSF, and was the organization’s president when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.