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From massacres and malnutrition to hope and healing - Burundi and Rwanda 20 years on

Deo Niyizonkiza survived a massacre in Burundi – escaped to New York – but returned to his native country with a plan to help thousands.

A soldier points a knife at a group of refugees on the Burundi / Rwanda border 20 April 1994.
A soldier points a knife at a group of refugees on the Burundi / Rwanda border 20 April 1994.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

WHEN DEOGRATIAS NIYIZONKIZA last landed in Ireland – at Shannon Airport in 1993 – he believed he was in JFK. That’s the JFK in New York City.

An escape route from a war-ravaged Burundi that took in Rwanda, Uganda, Cairo and Moscow, he was dazed, confused and confronted.

Two gardaí laughed as they heard a shaken-but-grown man – who had taken note of the cows in the field nearby as he landed – tell them he was in New York City.

“You have a long way to go,” they told him, with grinning faces.

Deo eventually made it to Manhattan – and after difficult, penniless days of homelessness and loneliness only assuaged by countless charitable acts from strangers – lived out his American Dream, including an Ivy League education. But the nightmares of his first 24 years of existence never left him. Burundi, where he had narrowly escaped death in a massacre at a hospital where he was working as a medical student by hiding under a bed, was always in his future plans.

He spoke no English – and was surprised that nobody spoke French. He had $200 in his pocket and thought it was a fortune. Until immigration officers laughed at his intentions to stay in a Manhattan hotel for two weeks on that sum. He worked in a grocery store for $15 a day. He slept some nights in Central Park.

He relied on offers of kindness from people who had a vague idea what was happening on his home continent – those Westerners who felt a palpable guilt at horrors that had been carried out as their leaders stood by.

An airport worker who offered him a lift from JFK to Manhattan – and took him into his home. An Irish former nun, Siobhan McKenny who introduced him to Charlie and Nancy Wolf, a couple willing to help long-term. A husband and wife who took him in. Who helped him enrol at Columbia University, where he received a degree in biochemistry and philosophy. Who became his family.

Tracey Kidder, who wrote his Pulitzer Prize book about Deo’s life, says the Wolf’s actions were ‘extraordinary’, born from

“This is a perfectly sane, reasonable couple, and they took in a needy stranger from Africa who didn’t speak their language, who had no means of support, and who might become their dependent for the rest of their lives.”

Deo finished medical school. He was ready to return to his Burundi. He had a plan.

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In 2006, Deo set up Village Health Works in Kigutu, in the south of the country. The land was donated by the community, whose members also pitched in with their time, skills and equipment.

“When I approached the community, they were suspicious and sceptic. I had to talk them around,” Deo told TheJournal.ie in an interview. “I said, ‘When you are sick, you have to go to the hospital but you can’t pay. The members of the community had to become friends – regardless of the sides they were on in the war.

“It was a way of healing. An alternative to hospital detention and dying. It was that idea that got them to light the spark of optimism that had been extinguished by the horror of war.

They came together. They had been caught up in their difference, the otherness. One told me that he did no know a Tutsi could be a good person. And the enemies became one.

“They built the foundation of the clinic together from the start. We worked hard, hard, hard. And people started to get to know each other as human beings.”

The Burundian Civil War lasted from 1993 to 2005 as a result of ethnic divisions between Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Hundreds of thousands of people died, many in acts of genocide against the Tutsi minority. Hutus were also killed in acts of retribution by the Tutsi army. It was a complicated conflict, further exacerbated by the crisis in neighbouring Rwanda.

Burundi Ethnic dispute Dead A young Rwandan boy removes the body of an adult Burundian male from the Kanyaru River in Kanyaru Haut, Rwanda on Saturday, 23 October 1993. The Burundian's hands were bound and is suspected to be a civilian victim of Burundian soldier. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Deo returned to Ireland – via Shannon Airport – on Saturday, twenty years after his escape. Twenty years since the world stood by and watched as Rwanda and his native Burundi tore themselves apart.

He is due to speak at a conference on Thursday, organised by Ireland’s NGOs, to explore what the world has learned from the African atrocities of the early to mid ’90s.

The international community, though, is “still at a loss in understanding genocide and war”, according to Deo.

“I don’t know of any place where health and education systems are abysmal but are peaceful and self-sufficient. The global leaders miss the point. Don’t try just to stop the war. Make the country stable.

“People – politicians – take advantage of dehumanising conditions.”

Deo, with his clinic, sought to better those conditions.

Since opening its doors in December 2007, the clinic has not closed – “not even for one hour” – and sees 175 patients a day. That is 24,000 patients per year.

“It is really incredible,” acknowledges Deo. “We started focussing on health but one thing led to another.”

One of their biggest issues on starting out was malnutrition in children.

“They were dying. And we started to ask questions…why was there no nutrition programmes? Why are there no education programmes? We started to teach them what they could grow. Education has been denied to these women – these mothers. We started our nutrition programme and we have not seen one malnourished child in the last three years.

“We eradicated that.”

Deo also speaks passionately about offering the women who suffered so much through the war a new chance at life.

They were widowed, raped, gangraped, their land confiscated. They had children dying because of starvation.

“They ended up hanging around, working hard in exchange for not enough food. Then they started getting food in exchange for sex.

“It is tragedy after tragedy. Horror after horror.”

There are solutions though, efforts to be made to find healing, to allow for hope.

“We created co-ops. Baking, sewing, basket-making, weaving. They make money, save children but they also are a kind of mental health programme. They are a healing place where the women can share their personal stories – things they wouldn’t tell anybody else, only each other.”

These co-ops, health programmes, education initiatives and a planned women’s hospital are all part of what Deo describes as a more holistic approach that his Village Health Works takes.

“It is also a beacon of hope for others – a model to aspire to.

“This is the key to peace building and prosperity. We are bringing dignity to a place that had lost it.”

Deo Niyizonkiza will attend a seminar this Thursday in Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy which will explore Humanitarian Crises. He is the subject of Tracey Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Strength in What Remains and a winner of numerous humanitarian awards. 

See: 22 of the most unforgettable war photos

More: 9 striking photos from some of the worst crises of the past 40 years

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