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The long road home

A young Tutsi fleeing genocide ends up on the streets of N.Y., goes to med school, and returns to start a clinic

(Emiliano Ponzi)
By Daniel Akst
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2009

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On Oct. 22, 1993, a sensitive young Burundian medical student working at a rural hospital was surprised to discover at the start of his shift that most of the staff had vanished. He soon learned the reason: The nation’s president, a Hutu, had been assassinated, and all over the country Hutus were killing Tutsis.

The young Tutsi intern, who until middle school didn’t know the difference between Hutus and Tutsis, got trapped at the hospital and is alive today because he hid under his bed but forgot to close the door to his room. From this the murderers concluded that he’d fled - which he did accomplish after they left. Unfortunately, his troubles were only beginning. In a nightmarish flight to safety through a landscape of horrors, he followed a river whose “shallow waters seemed all but dammed with bodies, and the valley was littered with them, the corpses and feasting dogs thickening as he approached Kibimba.’’

Many Americans don’t know it, but Rwanda wasn’t the only place where Hutus launched a kind of people’s genocide, one carried out not as part of a military campaign but by ordinary citizens wielding machetes. There was mass murder aplenty in neighboring Burundi as well, its historical roots extending even beyond the curse of colonialism.

Yet the man known only as Deogratias in Tracy Kidder’s heart-rending new book - the author withheld his surname because Burundi remains dangerous - didn’t only survive. He found his way to New York, lived for awhile in Central Park, delivered groceries 12 hours a day for far-below minimum wage, learned English, and somehow overcame his searing memories to graduate from Columbia University and make his way to Dartmouth Medical School. Then he went home and started a clinic.

Kidder’s account of Deo’s life, “Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness,’’ appears to grow out of his earlier book “Mountains Beyond Mountains,’’ about Paul Farmer, a Harvard physician and Third World health crusader. Deo worked for awhile at Partners in Health, an international medical organization that Farmer helped start, and Kidder tells Deo’s story with characteristic skill and sensitivity in a complex narrative that moves back and forth through time to build a richly layered portrait.

Deo emerges as a wounded but irrepressible figure determined despite the risks to go back and help his people. Like so many survivors, Deo seems to walk a tightrope between remembering and forgetting. He comes from a culture whose poverty, sickness and other chronic troubles breed stoicism, and gusimbura - reminding someone of something bad - is a serious social error. Burundian elders would say, “When too much is too much or too bad is too bad, we laugh as if it was too good.’’

For a time after his escape Deo embraces silence out of fear; his experiences in Burundi suggest that no one is to be trusted. “We are talking about teachers killing their students, priests killing their parishioners. Who is left to trust, really?’’ Yet Deo tempts fate by returning to Burundi repeatedly; at one point during a trip within his country, he is urged by a fellow traveler to take a bus rather than a plane to avoid roaming Hutu militias. He tries hard to cash in his ticket and switch but has no success. Later he learns the bus was attacked, and the traveler was murdered.

Later still, the author, who in a sense exemplifies gusimbura for his subject, takes a risky journey with Deo back to Burundi to revisit the killing grounds and meet surviving loved ones. It’s 2006, yet the place remains wretched and sinister. Deo’s hopeful story may be intended as some kind of uplifting continental metaphor, but it’s inevitably something else as well: a depressing tale of Africa’s chaotic destitution, which grinds on despite heroes and even saints.

But despair is far from the point here. Kidder’s abiding preoccupation is the everyday heroism of ordinary people, and his latest is rife with such unsung heroes, such as the anonymous Hutu woman who saved Deo’s life by pretending to be his mother in order to smuggle him out of the country. When a Hutu militiaman at the border ties a black ribbon around his wrist to mark him as a potential Tutsi (it’s almost impossible for Hutus and Tutsi to reliably tell one another apart), she surreptitiously removes it and propels him into the safety of the crowd. The decency of some in the face of others’ almost unimaginable cruelty adds richness and wonder to what otherwise might have been the amply remarkable story of one person’s miraculous survival.

Deo gets lucky in New York as well, where a former nun named Sharon McKenna works doggedly to rescue him from the streets. She finally succeeds in placing him in the spare room of a couple of older bohemians, Nancy and Charlie Wolf, whose generosity of spirit matches hers. McKenna and the Wolfs have the satisfaction of knowing just how much good they did, not just for Deo but for all the people he subsequently helped with his clinic in Burundi. It’s nice now that the rest of us know about their deeds as well. A few might even want to emulate them.

One of the pleasures of reading Kidder is that sooner or later, in most of his books, someone puts us in mind of the closing lines from “Middlemarch’’: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’’

Daniel Akst is a writer in New York’s Hudson Valley.

STRENGTH IN WHAT REMAINS:
A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

By Tracy Kidder
Random House, 277 pp., $26

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