“We have preserved the massacre site. We have preserved the death,” the young Rwandan man said to me with a bewildering smile. He was leading me briskly through a school where a decade earlier, hundreds of men, women, and children had been hacked to death. Pools of dried blood made the floor sticky. In one corridor, old bits of skull and bone made it crunchy. And then we came to the bodies.
The dead were covered in some kind of greenish preservative and laid out in long rows on the floor. A child—frozen forever at 4 or 5—had her skull split open in one clear blow. A woman’s stomach had been hacked, and the contents must have spilled out somewhere: She was empty now. I would like to be able to say the faces of the hundreds of bodies I marched past had an accusatory stare that asked: How could you let this happen to us? But, in reality, they were glassy-eyed and gone.
What happens when you travel in a single 12-hour flight from the splattered heart of this genocide to the streets of New York City? That’s what happened to Deogratias Niyizonkiza, a 24-year-old man who had narrowly survived a genocide in two countries and suddenly in 1994 found himself on a flight to a place he had only heard of—America.
How do you flit from a holocaust to Harlem? How does a traumatized African become an American? Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder’s tender work of narrative journalism Strength in What Remains tries to answer these questions by tracing Deogratias’ story—from his hungry, barefoot childhood in the hills of Burundi to being a medical doctor in America.
Such incredible migrations used to take years. Now they take less than a day. The darkest massacre is only 24 hours from JFK—and there seems to be a literary vogue for retracing this cultural shock therapy. Dave Eggers’ What Is the Whattracks a Sudanese child soldier to the United States, while Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Fatherfollows his distant, dead father from being a boozy Kenyan goatherd to—unwittingly—fathering an American president.
Kidder picks up the trail of the old New Journalists, like Tom Wolfe, who pioneered in using the techniques of novelists to tell nonfiction stories. He relates Deogratias’ tale, for the first half, from inside Deogratias’ mind, drawing us into his stream-of-blood-and-consciousness. Kidder doesn’t kid us about the problems this presents: How do you know this is really what happened? How can you check and verify? But what you lose in watertight accuracy, you gain in immediacy and emotional truth. This is a genocide seen from the inside. This is how it feels to be nearly hunted to death because of a “racial” difference that seems meaningless to you.
So how did Deogratias—an idealistic, rather dreamy young man—nearly become one of those anonymous limescale-soaked corpses? He was born in 1970 in Burundi, a small landlocked country that squats between the Congo and the Nile. His village was high in the hills, without electricity or safe drinking water. The main form of currency was cows. But at school, he performed freakishly well in the national tests and was offered a place at university. It was a huge step forward for a family like his. But there was a division in his country that he found incomprehensible—and it nearly destroyed him.
Nobody quite knows where the terms Hutu and Tutsi originated, or how. When European colonialists—first the Germans, then the Belgians—arrived in this part of Africa in the late 19th century, they found there was a division in the society between two tribes, but it didn’t seem to mean much. Hutus and Tutsis had a shared language, religion, and culture and frequently intermarried. But the colonizers didn’t have many troops, so they needed to divide the population in order to rule over it. They appointed the Tutsis as their aristocratic class to manage the rest and concocted a racist myth to justify it. They claimed the Tutsis were a “lost” Caucasian tribe that had come from somewhere else—probably Ethiopia—and “civilized” the native Hutus.
When the colonialists finally withdrew in 1962, both Rwanda and Burundi had become frenetically divided along these once-imagined lines and had begun to believe in them with violent passion. They each took the parts that appealed to them. As Kidder puts it: “To the Tutsi supremacists, God and nature had chosen them to rule the inferior race of Hutus. To the ideologues of Hutu power, Tutsis were an alien race that had conquered the Hutus, stolen their lands, and held them in bondage.”
But to the young Deogratias, it made no sense. He’s an ideal character for a narrative like Kidder’s, because he is—in effect—One of Us, seeing the story through uncomprehending eyes, constantly trying to make sense of a collective psychosis. He was a Tutsi, part of the minority that had ruled Burundi since independence—but how was he different from his Hutu neighbors? They said Tutsis kept cattle and Hutus farmed the land, but his neighbors did both. They said Tutsis were tall and slim and had thin noses, while Hutus were shorter and fatter and had broad noses—but his family was closer to the Hutu stereotype. It seemed to him to be archaic nonsense that would surely fade away in time.
But the two sides kept chafing against each other. Hutus were systematically discriminated against in Burundi, and in Deogratias’ final year at high school in 1988, they launched an armed uprising. They were crushed by a vicious army crackdown. By the time he got to medical school in the capital, Bujumbura, genocidal whispers—kill the other side, kill them all—had begun. But he still convinced himself this was perplexing talk, nothing more.
Then, one day in 1993, Deogratias was working in a hospital when he noticed that the patients’ families were arriving in a frenetic hurry to take them all home. They told him in a whisper that the president of Burundi, a Hutu, had been murdered, and revenge attacks against the Tutsis had begun. A few moments later, he began to smell burning flesh. The massacres—frenzied, freelance, personal—had begun. He clambered under a bed and heard a colleague charge into the room, looking for him. “The cockroach is gone! He ran away,” he cursed, and left.
Deogratias fled across a river already beginning to choke with Tutsi corpses into the forests. After days hiding out in the woods—to echoed screams—he realized he had to get out of Burundi. He thought he had an option for safety—to make his way across the border to Rwanda. He nearly didn’t make it. He was stumbling from one catastrophe to another—straight into the heart of the Rwandan genocide. The president there was murdered, too, and the extermination of nearly 1 million people—mostly by machete, wielded at high speed–erupted. It took 100 days. “Before the end of the night, the cockroaches are not going to wake up again,” the mobs would sing on their killing frenzies.
And suddenly Deogratias was standing in an American airport, with $200 in his pocket and trauma cluttering his head, claiming he had work to do in New York City. A friend had pointed him toward Burundi’s airport and urged him to get as far away as he could. He slept in boarded-up buildings and in Central Park and marvelled: “Almost everyone looked happy. Or at least no one looked alarmed. And no one looked terrified. These were people just going about their business, greeting their friends and their families, as if they didn’t know there were places where dogs were trotting about with human heads in their mouths. But how could they not know?”
Kidder’s descriptions of Deogratias seeing New York for the first time are some of the best in the book. He was so shocked by people wearing their pants low and strolling oddly that he became convinced America was afflicted by an epidemic of broken hips. When he stumbled into Central Park one day, he exclaimed: “My God, I just discovered a forest!”
He began to work as a delivery boy and to sink into despair. He was sure all his family was dead—100,000 people were killed in Burundi—and he felt humiliated to be at the bottom of America’s ladder. Some New Yorkers were cruel, but more were kind. He met a liberal couple who took him into their home and told him he could apply to be an undergraduate at Columbia University’s General Studies program. He found out by phone that his brothers were dead, but his parents were alive. They had been found in a refugee camp in Tanzania. His mother refused at first to believe it was him on the line. “This is a voice in my head,” she said, and hung up.
Deogratias wouldn’t speak about the genocide: He couldn’t. But then—as he progressed through Columbia—he found he needed to talk about it compulsively. He recounted his experiences incessantly, trying each time to understand how this could have happened. This is where Kidder enters his story and begins to write it down. Deogratias had discovered a way, he told Kidder, to redeem his story: He was determined to build a clinic in his home village of Sangaza.
It opened in November 2007, not long after he became an American citizen. One elderly patient told Deo he’d been fighting and killing Tutsis since 1965, and he had scars all over his body to prove it. “I wish I had spent my life trying to do something like this. … If I could prolong my life, I would do nothing but work with you.”
Yet the tale has less-neat edges that Kidder can’t smooth. Deogratias seems to have come to terms with his memories of the genocide by convincing himself that the populations of both countries were innocent, and even the perpetrators—who remain faceless and nameless and off-stage for virtually the entire narrative—were simply “misled.” They didn’t know what they were doing; they were deceived. But this was a grassroots genocide, stoked by governments but carried out—with horrific efficiency—by ordinary people. Those rows of bodies I looked at were carved up by their neighbors, who were staring them in the face. It’s hard for the reader to escape the conclusion that Deogratias can live with what happened and build his hospital and do good only by lying to himself about the nature of the recent past.
This raises the chewy problem of why Kidder is telling this story. Is it primarily an inspirational tale of an immigrant-made-good, a repudiation of Lou Dobbs-style bigotry? If so, his book succeeds 10 times over in an uncomplicated way. Or does Kidder believe primarily in the need to record accurately what happened during the darkest moments in human history?
If this is his goal, then he is—subtly, sympathetically—chiding his subject. Deogratias has placed a protective distortion at the heart of his story of the genocide: He has scrubbed it free of perpetrators. Kidder doesn’t ask overtly if this delusion has a cost. By placing the cause of the genocide somewhere unreachably distant—somewhere beyond the decisions of the human beings who actually carried it out—is Deogratias powerless to prevent it happening again?
Or is this how memory has to work in the immediate aftermath of an atrocity? It is only now that the Spaniards are honestly disinterring the horrors of the civil war there in the 1930s. If Deogratias remembered what had happened with cutting clarity—if anyone did—how could rebuilding such riven societies ever begin? Perhaps memory sometimes—this is a blasphemous thought for a journalist—has to be sacrificed for survival. Perhaps it is good that the eyes of those green-tinted corpses are glassy and gone rather than staring at their countrymen forever. Otherwise, how could Rwanda and Burundi live?