Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 24 2009 7:57 AM

Genocide From the Inside

Tracy Kidder asks how a traumatized African becomes an American.

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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.

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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?

Johann Hari is a Slate contributing writer and a columnist for the Independent in London. He was recently named newspaper journalist of the year by Amnesty International. You can e-mail Johann at j.hari@independent.co.uk or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101.