Rwandan Man Learns to Live Without Hands

Nov. 13, 2003 -- When 20-year-old Frederick Ndabaramiye stepped off a plane in Columbus, Ohio, last fall, he was getting a second chance at a normal life — by way of a new pair of hands.

When Ndabaramiye was 15, rebels in his native Rwanda cut off his hands and left him for dead. He was on his way to visit his uncle in a neighboring town when the bus he was riding on was ambushed by rebels left over from the 1994 Rwandan civil war, in which 800,000 people died.

The rebels told the teenager to kill the other people on the bus, and when he refused they tied his upper arms together and beat him. Then they tied him to a tree where he stayed for seven hours, with the rebels beating and kicking him. They then forced him to watch as they murdered all the other passengers.

Then they came after him. "I thought I was going to die," Ndabaramiye remembers.

They cut the ropes attaching him to the tree and forced him to lie face down on the ground. Then, as one rebel stood on his back and another on his leg, they chopped off one hand with a machete.

"I asked them, begged them, to please leave me with at least one or two fingers," Ndabaramiye remembers. But they didn't: Then they cut off his other hand, dragged him into the bushes and left him to bleed to death.

Learning to Cope

Fortunately for Ndabaramiye, the rebels had left his upper arms tied. The tight ropes acted like a tourniquet and held in his precious blood.

Shortly afterwards, two young girls found him, and alerted government soldiers. He was taken to a hospital, where he would spend a year recovering.

Shattered but determined not to be a beggar, Ndabaramiye learned to live life without hands. He refused to give up. He learned to grasp objects by crossing his stumps around them. By doing this, he could eat, dress himself, and even shave. But he could never tie his shoes or button a shirt.

He even became an accomplished artist — holding pencils between his stumps — but wasn't able to live on his own.

Then, in 1999, Ndabaramiye met volunteers from the Columbus Zoo who were in Rwanda. They traveled to the orphanage where Frederick lived to help paint and repair the facility. Moved by his determination and his artistic talent, they wanted to help him. It took three years, but they managed to raise the money, get the necessary travel documents, and find doctors and companies willing to donate their efforts to help Ndabaramiye get a new pair of prosthetic hands.

Brand New Fingers

In Columbus, Ndabaramiye watched in awe as the prosthetics were made by Hanger Prosthetics. When they were ready, he tried them on and was thrilled.

"The first thing I did when I got my new fingers was grab a pencil. It was like a dream," he remembers. He went through intensive physical therapy at Healthsouth, learning how to do everyday tasks like tying his shoes and using a knife.

Thinking of the practical challenges that would face him back in Rwanda, he told the doctors he would need to build a house one day. They taught him to hammer a nail.

Now Ndabaramiye can realize his dreams. "I want to draw, be a photographer, and be able to be independent."

The Homecoming

After three months in the United States, Ndabaramiye was thrilled to go home. "I am now going back to the normal life that I used to have," he said during our interview. Ndabaramiye is learning to draw with his fingers. He hopes to be able to sell his drawings in Rwanda.

Ndabaramiye is forever grateful to the people who helped him. "I can give testimony that there are good people in the world, and because of that, I can forget what happened to me in 1998."

Some of Ndabaramiye's drawings can be seen on the Columbus Zoo's Web site: