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When Deogratias landed in New York City, the Burundian carried $200 and the sleepless shock that accompanies a genocide survivor. The 24-year-old did not speak English. He did not know a soul in the United States. He had no prospects of employment or of living quarters. Yet, in a matter of months, Deo had enrolled at Columbia University.
As author Tracy Kidder recounts, one classmate asked Deo if "he was the son of an African king. Deo said he wasn't. Well, the classmate asked, how did he come to be at Columbia? Deo didn't tell him that only a year ago he'd been delivering groceries and sleeping in Central Park, or that a combination of student loans, scholarships and [kind benefactors] Nancy and Charlie's money was paying his way."
This seemingly impossible journey from nightmare to American Dream, from the killing fields of central Africa in the mid-1990s to the privileged halls of academia, is at the heart of an inspiring story told by Kidder, one of the masters of narrative journalism.
The remarkable "Strength in What Remains" expertly weaves Deo's life at the bottom of the pecking order in the United States with his former life as the barefoot son of a Tutsi peasant farmer and herdsman, and then as a third-year medical student whose studies are dramatically cut short as Burundi and neighboring Rwanda erupt into ethnic butchery.
Kidder's account of Deo's escape on foot from the machete-wielding Hutus is as exciting and disturbing a piece of writing as one will ever encounter -- in any genre. There is no reason Deo should have survived. The human hunters went at their bloody business like a 9-to-5 job, egged on by propaganda aired on transistor radios and by songs of genocide. Deo would hear them chant as he hid in the killing fields surrounded by corpses.
"The one he heard most often went like this: 'God is just. God is never unjust. And we will finish them soon. Keep working, keep working. We will finish them, we will finish them soon. They are about to vanish! They are about to vanish! Don't get tired! You are about to be done!'"
Kidder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and many other literary honors, met Deo 10 years after his escape from Burundi. In the last part of the book, using a light first-person touch, Kidder accompanies Deo back to the New York City tenement he squatted in and travels with him back to Burundi. In a nice convergence of tales, Deo ends up working for Paul Farmer, the principal founder of Partners in Health and the doctor who Kidder profiled in his last book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains."
Similar to Farmer's work setting up clinics in developing countries such as Haiti, Deo himself establishes Village Health Works in Kigutu, Burundi. Unlike in the United States, everyone who visits the clinic sees a doctor or nurse for free. Ninety-nine percent of the village population is Hutu. One day a woman approaches Deo and apologizes for what he suspects is a past act of violence against his family, many of whom were killed. Deo tells her, "What happened happened. ... Let's work on the clinic. Let's put this tragedy behind us, because remembering is not going to benefit anyone."
The arduous journey it took for Deo to arrive at those few simple words of reconciliation makes "Strength in What Remains" not only an instant classic, but also offers the rest of us a path away from hatred and revenge toward the brighter landscape of compassion and hope.
Stephen J. Lyons lives in Illinois. His book on last year's floods along the Mississippi River will be published in the fall of 2010.