Image: Laura Bush in Rwanda
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
First lady Laura Bush and daugher Jenna sit with HIV-positive Rwandan children as they attend a service at Kagarama Church in Kigali, Rwanda, on Thursday.
updated 7/15/2005 3:46:16 PM ET 2005-07-15T19:46:16

Laura Bush heard a Rwandan girl tearfully describe raising her three young brothers, their father killed in the 1994 genocide and their mother dead of AIDS. She saw miles of South African shanty towns, tin and tarpaper shacks crowded in the shadow of Cape Town's wealth.

She met women risking ostracism by flaunting their HIV-positive status as the only way to make inroads against the disease that is crippling the continent.

Moved by the orphans and many others she met on a weeklong trip, the first lady said Friday she would try to make sure the United States keeps its promises to the world's poorest continent.

"In a lot of cases in international aid, as you all well know, the pledges are made, but they're never really carried through," she told the reporters traveling back to Washington on her plane, which refueled here. "Every step is difficult."

It's for just that reason that she wanted Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to join her for the last day in Rwanda. The symbolism was clear — the wife of the leader of the United States, the globe's largest donor to Africa, and the wife of the British leader, who made Africa's problems Topic A at last week's summit of wealthy democracies, going from that meeting to Africa.

After trip, Laura Bush committed to aiding Africa
Bush made the trip to South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda to spread the word of American help. She returned home determined to be an advocate, saying she would tell her husband what she had seen and that she hoped Congress would agree to his proposal to double aid to Africa by 2010 to $8.6 billion, and perhaps even do more.

"I think we've done a lot, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a lot more to do," she said. "It's life-changing for me to see the real scope of what the problems are. But not only that, to be inspired by people who are dealing with these problems."

The last day was the most wrenching of the trip — and the longest, with 11 stops in three cities across two countries.

The first lady, accompanied by one of her twin daughters, Jenna, went to a poor, remote corner of the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar, where children at a U.S.-funded Muslim school played on a swing set made of rope and tires and seesaws carved from tree branches. She visited an evangelical church in Kigali where missionaries try to help Rwandans pick up the pieces of the genocide-shattered country by giving shelters to their orphans and treatment to their AIDS-inflicted.

A ‘very emotional’ trip
Bush, known as a stoic, was never seen shedding tears — unlike her staff. But there were times — holding an affection-starved HIV-positive orphan in her lap or gazing at giant photographs of children at Kigali's genocide museum — when her drawn expression revealed the difficulty of preventing her feelings from spilling into the open.

"Especially the last day, I think, was very emotional," she said. "I don't know if I kept my composure, but I tried."

Bush said it was a bit of a shock getting a closer look at the brutality that occurred when Hutu militias took just 100 days to slaughter 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"It's still very tender ... like a bruise that I think you can really feel while you're in the country," she said.

Her exposure to the slaughter's lingering effects and her brief talk with President Paul Kagame prompted Bush to say that the atrocities in nearby Sudan's Darfur region need the United States' sustained attention. While in Kigali, she never publicly mentioned the conflict, where tens of thousands have died in militia-perpetuated violence that many compare to Rwanda's genocide.

"I think we can do more to help with infrastructure" in Darfur, she said.

But with the United States providing humanitarian relief and airlifting African peacekeepers into the region, Bush said she wouldn't presume to bring the president specific suggestions on how to handle Darfur.

"That would be really great — if I could come up with that," she said.

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