Tracy Kidder is a superb writer with a gift for digging into interesting stories and making them even more interesting. His 2009 Strength in What Remains embodies just such an effort. Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza was a medical student in Burundi when he desperately fled the genocide that had erupted. Kidder tells the story of that harrowing escape, followed by some very difficult days after Deo managed to get to New York City, where he had virtually no money, no friends and a big language barrier. The story of how Deo made his way in the United States is sobering. His decidedly mixed and sometimes resentful reactions to the people who went many extra miles to help him provide an instructive slant on the immigrant experience.
Apart from Deo’s own story, Strength in What Remains tells the story of Burundi’s genocide, which actually lasted many years longer than the better known Rwanda genocide. Spoiler alert, it started when the Belgians left their colonies in a such mess as to virtually ensure disaster.
The graphic details and the staggering numbers of the murders in Burundi are difficult to grasp, but Deo’s experience brings us so much closer because Kidder reports what happened through Deo’s personal experience. He saw horrific murders and mutilations; his life and education were completely disrupted; he had no idea what had happened to his family and had every reason to fear the worst; and then he was miraculously transported to New York City. He was alive but homeless in New York, and there is little to no mention of any social service organizations set up to help him. The good news is that he got out of Burundi before he was killed, and he was able to get into the United States in a less xenophobic period. The bad news is that this shattered homeless man endured his own hell here until enough people reached out to help. This story wouldn’t have ended as well as it did if Deo had been less intelligent or less resilient and resourceful.
Even more remarkable is what Deo determined to do with his life. He got an education and he went back to Burundi to help his parents and help his community. No one can ever recover from the trauma he endured, but his determination to take back his own life and help others is absolutely heroic.
This is an important story, well told, and I highly recommend it.