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.

Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains.

"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.

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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.

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