The Road to Kigutu

Deogratias Niyizonkiza barely escaped the genocidal war in Burundi in the 1990s. Years later, he returned to the small African nation with a big idea. Can he heal what remains?

by Stacey Kors Published Summer 2014
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Despair was everywhere when Niyizonkiza first returned to Burundi in December 2001. With the war, which he sometimes calls “the horror,” raging, he took a brief and dangerous trip to Bujumbura to see his father, who was in the hospital. “I saw the horrible conditions,” he recalls, sitting down on a large boulder overlooking other mountain villages, small brick houses snaking their way up the hillside. “Patients were detained, with no hope. It was killing me after I came back.” Niyizonkiza continued his studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, and worked with the physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer and his aid organization Partners in Health, traveling to Haiti and Rwanda. “I remember asking myself, ‘Why am I doing all of this work for Rwanda and Haiti, when I know a place where no one is coming and people are suffering?’”

Niyizonkiza was in his second year at Dartmouth medical school when he decided that he needed to return to Burundi. He traveled to Kigutu in December 2005, stopping on the way at Rumonge Hospital to observe the conditions. “There were Hutus and Tutsis,” he says, “locked in together each night. And they were friends. I said, ‘You spent all those years hunting each other, killing each other’s family members, and now you have no one left but yourselves. Is that normal? Can you remain friends if you get out of here, and do something for yourself and your community?’ They all looked at each other and said, ‘Well, now we know.’

“It took me so much time to understand,” adds Niyizonkiza, who studied not only biochemistry but also ethics and moral philosophy at Columbia, hoping it would help explain what his country went through. “But when I was at Rumonge, I realized that these people don’t hate each other. It’s the conditions that they grew up in that helped to dehumanize them. What we really need to do to help this country is to confront these conditions.”

“People ask me to speak, and want me to talk about the genocide, but then not to show any photos of dead bodies. It’s ‘too traumatizing’ for the audience.”

Despite what he’d witnessed years earlier in Bujumbura, Niyizonkiza was unprepared for the devastation that awaited him in Kigutu. “Most of the houses were destroyed. People were living in the bush. There was almost nothing left. I knew that the country had suffered, but I had no idea how much.” On Christmas Day, he was talking with the owner of one of the remaining compounds when other people started coming, including the chief of the district. “Soon there were nine chairs outside,” Niyizonkiza remembers. “We talked about lots of painful things, about death, from both genocide and disease. The committee was formed right there.”

While Niyizonkiza wasn’t met with hostility, there was a fair amount of suspicion. “People were asking, ‘Is this guy really going to do something for us? Is he normal, talking to all those people who killed us?’ They were afraid to trust, afraid of authority after what happened. So I kept preaching, using loudspeakers to mobilize people, telling them that they’re not who someone else had been telling them that they are. They’re all neighbors, and they’re suffering together.”

Inspired, a group of community members got together to choose a site, and offered to donate their land. The land was transferred in 2006; the villagers, however, were at work well before then, digging up rocks and grading the site. Niyizonkiza took a leave of absence from Dartmouth and spent fifteen months living in a tent in Kigutu, overseeing the project. “I went from being a medical student to a construction manager,” he says with a laugh.

Niyizonkiza’s father was excited about the prospect of a clinic, and proved instrumental in rallying the men, many of whom had turned to alcohol during the war. “By seven a.m., many of them were already drinking banana beer, and by ten a.m. they were drunk. My father was drinking, too. But he woke men up in the middle of the night to cut down trees and get things done.”

One of the biggest obstacles Niyizonkiza faced was the area’s relative inaccessibility. While steep mountain paths existed, there were no roads for ambulances or other vehicles. He spoke with an engineering firm and was given a quote of $50,000 to build a road. When he broke the news to the committee, one woman, Cécille, spoke up. “She had a crying baby on her back,” Niyizonkiza recalls, “and she said, ‘If you have only one franc, don’t spend it on the road. We are not poor because we’re lazy.’” The next day, hundreds of people started at the bottom of the hillside, cutting down brush with machetes to clear the way for the seven-mile road to the clinic.

“It was during the time working on the road that people who spent years running away from each other, killing each other, really came together,” Niyizonkiza says. “It was the beginning of reconciliation.”

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Splendid article. Not surprising that Tracy Kidder wrote a book about Deogratias...

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