Bill Williams

Genocide has claimed hundreds of thousands of African lives in recent decades. In his ambitious new book, Tracy Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, takes readers into the heart of that awful chapter in human history through the eyes of a Burundian medical student named Deogratias—known as Deo—who narrowly escaped the slaughter and fled to New York.

“A young man arrives in the big city with two hundred dollars in his pocket, no English at all, and memories of horror so fresh that he sometimes confuses past and present,” Kidder writes. “And then, two years later, he enrolls in an Ivy League university. How did this happen? Where did he find the strength?”

The arc of Deo’s life, painstakingly reconstructed by Kidder during long interviews and a trip to Africa, is breathtaking. Deo was a medical intern in 1993 when a wave of ethnic killing began in Burundi. After hiding in tall grass and living in refugee camps for months, Deo secured a visa allowing him to fly to New York, where he delivered groceries to survive, slept in Central Park, learned English and eventually studied at Columbia University and later at the Harvard School of Public Health and Dartmouth Medical School, all the while wracked by nightmares of the carnage he had left behind.

Deo phoned home, fearful of what might have happened to his family. He learned that several family members had died in the violence, including a cousin who was beheaded.

Though Kidder attempts to understand the hatred between Tutsi and Hutu, it remains a mystery. Historians cannot agree on what makes one person a Tutsi and another a Hutu, because there are no clear ethnic, religious or historical differences. And yet both sides have engaged in periodic genocide.

Although Tutsi make up only 14 percent of Burundi’s population, they usually have constituted the ruling class. Because Deo was a Tutsi, he enjoyed advantages, like being admitted to the best schools.

While an intern in a rural hospital in 1993, Deo sensed that trouble was brewing. One day, as he prepared to visit patients, he noticed the absence of any nurses or doctors. It happened that Burundi’s Hutu president had been assassinated, and Hutus were coming to exact revenge. He hid under a bed as militiamen stormed through the hospital, shouting “warm them up,” code for pouring gasoline on Tutsis and setting them on fire. He smelled gasoline, then smoke. He hid until nightfall, and then fled past scenes of slaughter, including rivers filled with bodies. At one point, he spotted a fly on a leaf and thought, “How lucky you are not to be a human being.”

While Deo was hiding, a Hutu woman approached and offered to protect him. He was suspicious, but she reassured him by saying, “I’m a woman and I’m a mother.” When militiamen tried to take Deo, she saved his life by telling them that he was her son.

The story unfolds in layers as Kidder moves back and forth between America and Burundi, a tiny nation the size of Maryland and among the poorest, with an average life expectancy of 39 years.

At Columbia, Deo studied philosophy because he wanted answers to questions about good and evil, humanity and God. He spent hours sitting alone in St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan, trying to reconcile his experience of genocide with his belief in God.

Kidder felt uncomfortable probing into Deo’s past, and several times offered to stop “my search for his story and let his memories die, if they would.” Gradually, Kidder managed to pierce the shell of this shy, intelligent, introspective, wounded young man.

In one of the most moving episodes, Deo and Kidder meet a priest who had been principal of a Catholic high school in 1997 and had tried to create an “example of unity” by having Hutu and Tutsi students live and pray together. One day Hutu soldiers burst into the school dormitory and ordered “Hutu brothers” to step to one side and “Tutsi cockroaches” to the other. When the students refused to separate, the soldiers decided to kill them all. Some escaped, but 40 were murdered.

“It was said that some of the dying boys quoted Jesus on the cross, crying out to God to forgive their killers because they didn’t know what they were doing,” Kidder writes. Portraits of the slain boys were later painted on a wall above an altar.

In America, Deo had heard about the work of Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who has founded medical clinics around the world and was the subject of another acclaimed Kidder book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. After Deo and Farmer met in Boston, Deo went to work for Farmer, who mentored him.

Deo’s dream since high school had been to build his own medical clinic in Burundi. In 2006 he withdrew from Dartmouth Medical School to devote his full energy to the project. With support from Farmer and other benefactors, the clinic opened in 2007. Deo sees the area around the clinic becoming a neutral ground where Tutsis and Hutus can mingle without fear, “a place of reconciliation for everyone, including him.”

Kidder has written a stunning and poignant story, weaving together several threads and leaving the reader with indelible images of senseless killing, admirable heroism and unmatched resilience of the human spirit.

Bill Williams, a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., is a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.